How to care for someone who has died at home

A coffin in someone's home.

Many people don’t realise that you can keep someone at home after they have died. You may choose to do this to care for a person before their funeral or simply to help say goodbye. We believe that this can be an important and empowering choice for some families, and have put together this practical guide.

How to care for someone who has died

It’s become common practice for a funeral director to collect someone from home shortly after they die. But, in most cases, if it’s an expected death, you’re completely free to care for someone at home. You could do this for hours, days or even a week or more if that feels right.

As long as the death is registered within five days, there isn’t any rush to decide what to do next. For more details about what you might want to consider, read our guide: what to do when someone dies.

Once you’ve decided to care for someone at home, the most important thing is to keep them as cool as possible. There are a number of ways to do this:

  • Turn off the heating of the room they’re in.
  • Put freezer packs wrapped in a tea towel on their stomach.
  • Turn an air conditioner on if you have one.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but we also recommend closing all the windows to keep nature out, even in winter. For the same reason, it’s best to keep someone’s face covered with a sheet or piece of cloth when you're not in the room for a long period of time. Overnight, you could lay a large bed sheet over their body, tucking it in under the edges of the mattress to keep them completely secure.

There aren’t any other special steps you need to take, just try to keep the person’s skin cool and dry.

What can I expect when I keep someone at home?

Lots of people worry about what physical changes might occur after someone dies. While this is a normal concern to have, as long as someone is kept cool, changes will usually happen much more slowly than people expect.

Once someone has died, their body will gradually cool to room temperature and their complexion will most likely change. Blood will go in the direction of gravity, which means their skin may be darker towards their back. There also may not be any changes at all.

We do recommend laying someone flat on their back, especially if they have been sitting up in bed. Rigor mortis means that a person’s muscles can go quite stiff and then relax again. But rigor mortis doesn’t affect everyone in the exact same way. The stiffness may not completely go away, and this can make it harder to move someone or lay them in a coffin.

It may be reassuring to remember that the person is perfectly safe in bed. But if you feel it’s right to move them, they don’t need to stay exactly where they are.

Advice for dressing and washing someone who has died

Washing and dressing someone can be a very rewarding and meaningful experience. Be aware that the person’s joints may well be stiff, which can make them difficult to move on your own. You can work with someone to roll a person gently in a way that a carer might if they were changing clothes.

One thing to keep in mind is that fluid can sometimes collect in the back of a person’s mouth. If this does happen, moving someone may cause it to come out, in which case you can clean it up with a dry cloth.

You can bathe someone very simply by having a bowl of warm flannels and washing their skin and then drying them. You may like to include scented oil in the water. If someone had a favorite moisturizer, it can also be a nice thing to use on their hands.

You can brush and blow dry someone’s hair or do their makeup in the same way you would if they were alive.

Why would someone choose to do this?

There are so many different reasons why friends and families might choose to keep someone at home. It may be that you’re not quite ready for someone to leave the house or would like to say goodbye in familiar surroundings. There are also religious or cultural reasons for keeping someone at home for a period of time.

While Covid-19 and social distancing may mean other considerations are necessary, some families also want time to gather together and visit the person who has died. It’s quite common for people to prefer to do this in the comfort of their own home.

You may really want to give your dad a final shave or do your sister’s nails the way that she liked. In some cases, it’s simply because it feels right, without there being a single reason why.

Caring for someone who has died at home can be a powerful part of saying goodbye for some friends and families. It’s up to you what feels most meaningful, whether that’s having a pet present to provide comfort or playing music so someone is surrounded by beautiful sounds.

We’re always happy to talk more about this or answer any questions, so please do get in touch.

Looking for more food for thought? Here's why we need to talk about death and what can help with grief and loss during Covid-19.

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