What to do when someone dies

Hand lining coffin | What to do when someone dies | death advice | funeral advice

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It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and not know what to do when someone dies. There’s so much happening that it can be hard to think about where to begin. Be prepared for some bureaucratic responsibilities and try to consider who can help with different tasks.

Here are ten suggestions about what to do next, from organising paperwork to taking the time to care for yourself.

1. Confirming a death

If someone dies at home and it’s been expected, the first step is to contact someone who can verify the death.

The GP will usually verify the death, but it can also be done by an on-call doctor, specially trained nurse or paramedic.

If someone dies during the night, weekend or on a bank holiday, you can reach the GP office on the after-hours line whenever you feel ready. The doctor who comes to your house will be on call and may not be somebody you’ve met before.

This doctor delivers the death confirmation form to the surgery, who will prepare a medical certificate of cause of death. This medical certificate is usually emailed directly to the local register office. It different from the death certificate issued by the register office.

Once the register office has received the medical certificate of the cause of death, you can apply for a death certificate. As long as the death is registered within five days there isn’t any rush, so take all the time you need.

This can be a lot to look after on your own, so don’t be afraid to ask for support.

2. Spend time with them

Spending time with someone after they’ve died can be a powerful part of saying goodbye. For some, it’s most comforting to spend time with them soon after their death, so do take your time if that feels right.

The person will still be in a familiar environment like their bedroom and will seem most themselves. At the funeral director’s, days or even weeks later, how they look may have changed and their skin will feel cool to touch.

While lots of people go to a funeral director for help, it’s absolutely fine to care for someone at home yourselves until the cremation or burial. This can be a precious time to gather together with friends and family to share memories.

There’s nothing strange about wanting to take mementos like photographs or locks of hair. Whatever feels most meaningful to you is a good choice.

Find out more about caring for someone at home after they've died

3. Act quickly if you plan on donating tissue

While organ donations usually have to happen right after someone dies, tissues like skin and heart valves can often be gathered hours or even days later. This can feel hard to organise during an upsetting time but, for many people, tissue donation is a powerful way to leave a legacy. Hospitals won’t take donations if they don’t take place within the right timeframe so having a plan can make things easier.

Read our FAQs about organ and tissue donation.

4. Let other people step in and help

There’s a lot to do after someone dies and it can be tempting to try and do everything on your own. But it’s so important to remember to take time out and care for yourself. This could involve staying at home or working, being alone or being with people.

There’s no single way to grieve, so don’t be concerned about getting it right. Letting other people help will give you the time to think about what suits you — no matter what that looks like.

5. Organise paperwork

There’s a lot of paperwork following a death and that's one of the main reasons why people choose to use a funeral director. For others, doing the paperwork can be an important part of taking control, in which case making a plan may be helpful.

A death should be registered within five days. It used to be possible to drop in, but now you must make an appointment at the register office first. If your family isn’t able to go, someone who was present at the death or is helping organise the funeral can make the trip instead.

After the death is registered, your funeral director will receive a ‘green form’ by email. They need to receive this form before they can make arrangements for the cremation or burial to take place. The funeral director does not need a copy of the death certificate.

Read more about how to do death admin.

6. Be clear about financial support

Meaningful funerals can take place on a small budget and a high cost doesn’t always equal top-notch care. But it’s still helpful to understand what financial assistance might be available.

Read more about how to find help in paying for a funeral

7. Prepare for some things being out of your control

When someone dies suddenly or unexpectedly, you’ll need to call emergency services rather than the GP and the coroner may then get involved. This means you won’t have much control over some parts of what happens next, which can feel difficult. For example, the coroner might decide a post-mortem needs to take place to help determine the cause of death.

A report to the coroner doesn’t always lead to a post-mortem but situations like this will affect how quickly you can arrange the funeral. The coroner will let you know what’s happening and you should always feel free to ask questions.

The Coroners' Courts Support Service can also help. It may be comforting to keep in mind that a funeral which takes longer to plan can still be just as meaningful.

8. Don’t ever feel rushed

With everything that happens after someone dies, it’s easy to feel pressured to make decisions. While some things like tissue donation might need to happen sooner rather than later, you should always feel able to take a step back. For some people, it’s important that everything happens quickly, but it’s completely normal to need more time.

9. Take your time choosing a funeral director

This will be one of the most important decisions you make so don’t be afraid to ask questions. Whoever you go to should be completely transparent about their services.

There’s no ‘right’ way to plan a funeral so try to find a funeral director who’s committed to delivering a service that works for you. Taking the time to choose someone who reflects your values could make all the difference on the day.

10. If you have children, think about how to involve them

Adults often want to protect children from the sadness of death but they are also affected by dying and grief. You know your own children best, but letting them take part can be very powerful. We can find ways to involve even very young children on the day, from helping decorate the coffin to simply being there to say goodbye.

Read more about talking to children about death and dying and involving young children in a funeral.

We’re always ready to talk more about these questions and how we can help, so please get in touch.

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