When family members or close friends die, those experiencing the greatest sense of loss are often the ones who must make funeral and burial arrangements. If decedents not only planned ahead, but also communicated their final wishes to those who care, resulting tasks may be accomplished more efficiently, and the emotional burden lessened.

Respecting decedents’ legal rights to decide
California law recognizes decedents’ rights to have their funeral and burial wishes respected. To be legally enforceable, written directions must be clear and complete and must include payment arrangements for anticipated costs and fees. Without such written instructions, agents chosen by decedents under powers of attorney for health care will usually have the legal authority to take charge.

California law specifically provides that, in the absence of written funeral instructions or a power of attorney for health care, the right to make funeral and burial arrangements shall revert to the decedent’s closest surviving relatives (e.g., spouses, children, parents, brothers and sisters, or other next-of-kin).

Funeral services are usually quite expensive

Basic services include planning funerals; securing necessary permits and copies of death certificates; preparing proper notices; and sheltering the decedents’ remains. Extra services include purchasing caskets, outer burial containers or alternate containers; transporting the decedents’ remains; embalming and other body preparations; renting rooms for memorial services; renting hearses and/or limousines; and proceeding with burials, cremations or both.

Consumer rights and protections
Funeral homes may not require consumers to purchase all products or services directly from them. However, “package pricing” arrangements from a specific funeral home are marketing tools that may decrease the particular consumer’s total costs.

Under California law, a funeral establishment must provide consumers with itemized fee statements, including cost estimates that are likely to change over time.

The Department of Consumer Affairs warns that although pre-payment funeral agreements cannot require immediate payment in full, they can still be deemed to be contractually sound.  Before signing pre-payment contracts, consumers should inquire:

  • Does the contract provide for all necessary services?
  • If prices increase, will the contract cover additional costs?
  • Will contracted arrangements be transferable to other funeral homes or locations?
  • What will happen if the business closes or changes ownership?

Cremation vs. Traditional Burial
Direct cremation is usually much less expensive than a traditional burial. With cremation, the remains are burned to ashes, and a legally authorized combustible container replaces a casket. Although a memorial service may be held, neither viewing nor visitation is involved.

The options for sheltering cremated remains include :

  • Placement in a columbarium or mausoleum.
  • Burial in a cemetery plot.
  • Retention at a residence, as long as the remains are not removed from their container. In obtaining legal authorization to maintain the container, the beneficiary must confirm that, coinciding with his or her future passing away, arrangements have been made for disposition of the remains container.
  • Storage in a house of worship or religious shrine if local zoning laws allow.
  • Scattering in legally authorized areas or, if at sea, at least 500 yards from shore. Before scattering occurs, the local county health department must issue a Permit for Disposition. Boat and aircraft operators who participate in scattering remains must obtain approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

To download and complete H.E.L.P.’s “Funeral and Burial Instructions,” click here. For more detailed information on ways to make funeral arrangements that will best reflect your wishes and concerns, visit the California Department of Consumer Affairs Cemetery and Funeral Bureau website at cfb.ca.gov, and click the search box titled, “Consumer Guide.”