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Specifying Your Wishes for Your Remains

May 4, 2021 | Estate Planning

Estate planning documents allow you to express your wishes regarding the handling of your estate. You can name your beneficiaries and specify what you want to leave each of them when you are gone. Those documents can also provide a way to formally express what you want to happen to your remains which may be the most personal wish you make.

If you are starting to think about estate planning, make sure you include what happens to your body after you die. You can express your wishes in deep detail or in general terms but taking the time to include them in your estate plan will make life easier for those you leave behind.

For more than 28 years, our team at Equal Justice Law Group, Inc. has been helping clients in Sacramento, California, and surrounding communities craft thoughtful estate plans that include their wishes for their remains when they are gone.

What Does “Disposition
of Remains” Mean?

The disposition of remains refers to how an individual’s body is handled following their death. Personal preference, religious beliefs, values, family traditions, and even financial considerations may factor into your decision regarding your remains.

What are the Options?

There are five general options you can choose from to dispose of your remains when you are gone.


There is evidence that humans have buried their dead for approximately 130,000 years. In-ground burials (when a body is placed in a casket and buried underground in a cemetery) continue to be a prevalent preference. Placing the casket in an above-ground tomb or mausoleum is also an option.


A 2020 survey revealed that people who wished to be cremated (44% of Americans) had surpassed those who wished to be buried (35% of Americans). Cremation involves reducing a body to bone fragments, then to finer ash. There are different methods used for cremation.

In direct cremation, the body is taken to the crematorium directly, without embalming or purchasing a casket. Intense heat is generated to reduce the body to bone fragments. The use of natural gas is more energy-efficient, although it still returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere during the process.

A greener alternative is liquid cremation or alkaline hydrolysis. This process uses water, alkali, heat, and pressure to accelerate decomposition and leave behind bone fragments and sterile liquid. The sterile liquid can be returned to the wastewater system to be recycled and carbon dioxide is not returned to the atmosphere.

Whole-Body Donation

You can donate your entire body for medical training, scientific research, or law enforcement training, after which, the recipient party respectfully disposes of your remains.

Organ Donation

Under the proper conditions — when organs remain viable — an individual’s organs may be harvested for transplant into a living person. Following organ harvest, the rest of the body is returned to the family for cremation or burial.

What Can Be Done with
My Ashes After Cremation?

Most cremated remains contain certain levels of sulfur dioxide, mercury, and heavy metals which can pose a health and environmental risk. To mitigate concerns, California law specifies how ashes may be housed or scattered following cremation.

Stored in an Urn

The urn containing a loved one’s ashes can be kept at home following an application for a permit. You must keep them in the urn and provide instructions for disposal following the death of the person hosting the urn. The urn also may be housed in a mausoleum or a sanctified setting offered by some churches, or appropriately buried in a cemetery with a grave marker or tombstone.

Private Property

You are allowed to scatter the ashes on your property or private property with written permission from the property owner. Some cemeteries and churches provide “scattering grounds” where ashes may be scattered with permission. Although Disneyland is a popular location for scattering ashes, the practice is prohibited and anyone caught attempting to do so will be removed from the park.

Public Property

Parks, beaches, and other public properties might seem like a fit place to scatter a loved one’s ashes, but permits are required to do so.

Federal Land

Ashes may be scattered on some federal lands but again, only with a permit that will specify where, when, and how they are to be scattered.

Burial at Sea

The Pacific Ocean is a popular place for Californians to scatter ashes. This is allowed under California law so long as they are scattered at least three nautical miles from shore and the urn is not disposed of in the water. Many marinas and boat operators can be hired to take families the required distance to scatter the ashes.

In the Air

Scattering ashes from a plane is also allowed. Dropping the urn or other objects from the plane is a violation of federal law. As with burial at sea, there are air scattering services for hire.

Veteran Honors

Veterans are entitled to benefits such as military honors. They are also entitled to burial at sea by the United States Navy at no charge to the family.

Our Team at Equal Justice
Law Group, Inc. is Here to Help

How your remains are disposed of must comply with California law. The worst thing that can happen is that your family is prohibited from disposing of your remains as you wished because those wishes do not comply with the law.

Experienced California estate planning attorneys can discuss your wishes and ensure they are expressed in full compliance with the law so that your loved ones can avoid unnecessary distress when you are gone.

For more than 28 years, our team at Equal Justice Law Group, Inc. has helped clients in Sacramento, Jackson, El Dorado Hills, and Placerville, California, plan for the inevitable as part of their comprehensive estate plan. Call our office today to schedule a consultation about your estate plan and wishes for the disposition of your remains.

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