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Cremation (en español)

Cremation is the choice of approximately 50% of California residents with the national average being approximately 38%.  The Cremation Association of North America estimates the national cremation rate will rise to 45% by 2025.  Surveys show that Americans primarily choose cremation because it costs less and is more simple to arrange and carry out.   The second most popular reason Americans choose cremation is because it preserves land.  

Cremation is relatively green when compared with conventional burial involving a metal or hardwood casket, concrete vault and formaldehyde-based embalming. Modern crematories are designed to burn more efficiently and to scour combustion gases before releasing them into the atmosphere.  The more sophisticated crematories funnel cremation-after gases into wet scrubbers or very large filters to further reduce the emission of pollutants into the atmosphere. However, even these methods of filtration cannot eliminate all of the pollutants generated by the incineration of a human body.  Primary emissions are made up of carbon monoxide and fine soot, but sulfur dioxide and trace metals may also be produced.  

Because of the toxicity to living organisms, the cremation byproduct of most concern is mercury. During the cremation process the mercury from old dental fillings is vaporized and released into the environment.  Despite the release of mercury, the Environmental Protection Agency studied the mercury levels surrounding crematories in the US and found that mercury levels were still within acceptable levels.  

If you are considering cremation but are concerned about the environmental impact, consider choosing a more fuel-efficient cremation container (shroud, cardboard container, or cremation casket), and participating in a disposition program that has some positive environmental purpose, such as creating marine habitat (see Eternal Reefs).  A few funeral homes offset the carbon produced by their cremations to minimize the impact on global warming by investing in wind or solar energy.  Others may plant a tree to offset carbon emissions.   

Green burial  is another option for those concerned with the environmental impact of cremation.   Green burial can actually result in the preservation and stewarding of land, allowing a person to use their death to increase the amount of protected land in the country.  See the Green Burial Council website for a list of certified burial grounds.

Direct Cremation

In direct cremation, the body is cremated shortly after death, without embalming.  There is no viewing, visitation or wake before the cremation.  A memorial service may be held, with or without the cremated remains present at the convenience of the family and does not require the involvement of a funeral director.  Because a memorial service may be held at a later date, the need for an expensive casket and funeral arrangements are eliminated.  The cremated remains are placed in an urn or other container and can be kept in the home, buried or placed in a crypt or niche in a cemetery, or buried or scattered in a favorite spot (see disposition of cremated remains below).  

Direct cremation costs significantly less than the conventional funeral because it only incurs charges for basic service fees, transportation, care of the body, and crematory fee.  There is also generally a charge for an urn or other container, although many providers may provide a basic container in the charge for a direct cremation.  

Some crematories work directly with the public and are equipped to handle all of the tasks a funeral home would (for example transportation of the body to the crematory, death certificate, etc.) Working directly with a crematory is usually less expensive than working with a funeral home.  See our price survey results for direct cremation costs in your area.  

If you are interested in either witnessing or participating in the initiation of the cremation (sometimes referred to as "witness insertion") check with the crematory or funeral home prior to signing any contracts.  Not all crematories allow witness insertion and most will charge an additional fee for this.  

Also, please note that funeral providers who offer direct cremations must offer to provide an alternative container that can be used in place of a casket.  These are generally constructed of cardboard and burn efficiently, which reduces the amount of fuel needed for cremation.  The direct cremation prices in our price survey results include the cost of an alternative container, although in some cases, some funeral homes offer alternative containers made of wood rather than cardboard.  Prices for alternative containers generally range from $45 to $245.

Disposition of Cremated Remains

In California, you may choose any of the following methods of disposition of cremated remains:


  • Placement in a columbarium or mausoleum - There may be additional charges for endowment care, opening or closing, recording, flower vase, and nameplate.

  • Burial in a plot in a cemetery - There may be additional charges for endowment care, opening or closing, recording, outer burial container, flower vase, and marker.

  • Retention at a residence - The funeral establishment or crematory will have you sign a Permit for Disposition showing that the remains were released to you; the permit will be filed with the local registrar of births and deaths. You may not remove the cremated remains from the container and you must arrange for their disposition upon your death.

  • Storing in a house of worship or religious shrine if local zoning laws allow.

  • Scattering in areas of the state where no local prohibition exists and with written permission of the property owner or governing agency. The cremated remains must be removed from the container and scattered in a manner so they are not distinguishable to the public.

  • Scattering in a cemetery scattering garden.

  • Scattering at sea, at least 500 yards from shore. (This also includes inland navigable waters, except for lakes and streams.) Cremated remains may not be transported without a permit from the county health department and they may not be disposed of in the garbage.


Direct Cremation
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