What to do First
What are the first things that must be done when someone dies? This articule aims to provide a high level view of some of the things that may need to be done depending upon the circumstances surrounding the death.
If the death occurs at home
Expected death – If the cause of death is quite clear and the doctor had attended the deceased during their last illness he or she will give you the following:
– a medical certificate that shows the cause of death (this is free of charge and will be in a sealed envelope addressed to the registrar)
– a formal notice which states that the doctor has signed the medical certificate and tells you how to get the death registered.
– If the body is to be cremated, the doctor will arrange for the signature of a second doctor required to complete the cremation certificate. Doctors charge fees for providing cremation certificates.
In a few cases, the doctor may report the death to the coroner.
If it was the wish of the dead person or their nearest relative that the body or organs should be donated for transplant or medical research purposes, the doctor will have to be contacted quickly. Organs cannot normally be used when death occurs at home, but the body can still be donated to medical science.
You may wish to contact the deceased’s minister of religion if you have not already done so. Arrangements for laying out the body and organising the funeral can be made by a funeral director.
Unexpected death If you discover a body or the death is sudden or unexpected, you should contact the following people (if known):
- the family doctor
- the deceased’s nearest relative
- the deceased’s minister of religion
- the police, who will help find the people listed above if necessary
- If the death was violent or accidental, or if there are unusual circumstances or the cause of death is not known for certain, or there is any reason to suspect that the death was not due to natural causes, contact the police immediately. Do not touch the body or anything nearby, or remove anything from the area. The death may be referred to the coroner.
If the death occurs in hospital
If the death occurs in hospital, the hospital staff or the police (if death was accidental) will contact the person named by the deceased as next of kin. This may be, but need not be, a relative. If you have been named as next of kin they will arrange a convenient time for you to attend the hospital. You will then be asked to:
- identify the body;
- give permission for a post mortem in cases where there is no legal requirement but doctors think that it is advisable in order to establish a cause of death.
Hospital staff will arrange for the nearest relative to collect the deceased’s possessions. If you know that the person wished to donate their organs after death, you should let the hospital staff know, but it is more likely that they will approach you if the circumstances are likely to favour organ donation. You should also let the staff know if the body is to be donated to medical science.
You may, if you wish, request to see the hospital chaplain. The hospital will keep the body in the hospital mortuary until the executor arranges for it to be taken away.
The hospital will either issue a medical certificate of cause of death needed by the registrar, provided the cause of death is quite clear. There may be a post-mortem provided the nearest relative agrees; or, in a few cases, report the death to the coroner and make arrangements for a post mortem if required.
If the actual time of death is not known, the doctor may estimate the time of death.
By law all deaths occurring in England and Wales must be registered. A death should be registered as soon as possible to allow funeral arrangements to go ahead.
Since 1 April 1997 a death can be registered at any registrar in England and Wales (the procedures differ slightly in Northern Ireland – see below). You do not have to go to the registrar in the district where the death occurred, or where the deceased person lived, although it is usually more convenient to register a death in the sub-district in which it happened. You can find the address in the phone book under Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages, or from the doctor, local council, post office or police station. Check when the registrar will be available and whether only you need to go along. It may be that someone other than you will be needed to give information for the death to be registered.
If the death has not been referred to the coroner, go to the registrar as soon as possible. The death must be registered within five days (unless the registrar says this period may be exceeded). The declaration will then, if appropriate, be forwarded to the registrar for the sub-district where the death took place, where it will be registered. There may be some delay in certificates being issued, as this cannot be done until the death has been registered.
Reporting a death to the coroner – The doctor may report the death to the coroner if it resulted from or occurred in any of these circumstances:
- the deceased was not attended by a doctor during the last illness or the doctor treating the deceased had not seen him or her either after death or in the 14 days before the death
- the death was violent or unnatural or occurred under suspicious circumstances
- the cause of death is not known or is uncertain
- the death occurred while a patient was undergoing an operation or did not recover from the anaesthetic
- the death was caused by an industrial disease
- the death occurred in prison or in police custody.
The coroner may be the only person who can certify the cause of death. The doctor will write on the formal notice that the death has been referred to the coroner.
The coroner is a doctor or lawyer responsible for investigating deaths.
If you want advice or information about a death which has been reported to the coroner, contact the coroner’s officer. You can get the address from the police station or, if death was in hospital, the hospital official dealing with deaths.
Coroner’s post mortem
The coroner may arrange for a post-mortem examination of the body. The consent of the relatives is not needed, but they are entitled to be represented at the examination by a doctor.
If the post mortem shows that death was due to natural causes, the coroner will issue a notification by the coroner (the pink form 100), which gives the cause of death so that the death can be registered. The coroner usually sends the form direct to the registrar, but may give it to you to deliver.
If the body is to be cremated the coroner will give you the certificate for cremation (form E) which allows cremation to take place.
Coroner’s inquest – This is an inquiry into the medical cause and circumstances of a death. It is held in public, sometimes with a jury. It is up to the coroner to organise the enquiry in a way to best serve the public interest and the interests of the relatives.
The coroner will hold an inquest if the death:
- was violent or unnatural
- was caused by an industrial disease
- occurred in prison
- or if the cause of death remains uncertain after post-mortem examination.
Coroners hold inquests in these circumstances even if the death occurred abroad (and the body is returned to Britain). If a body has been destroyed or is unrecoverable a coroner can hold an inquest by order of the Secretary of State if death is likely to have occurred in or near a coroner’s jurisdiction.
If an inquest is held, the coroner must inform, amongst others, the following people:
- the married partner of the deceased
- the nearest relative (if different)
- the personal representative (if different from above).
Relatives can attend an inquest and ask questions of witnesses, but they may only ask questions about the medical cause and circumstances of the death.
It may be important to have a lawyer to represent you if the death was caused by a road accident, or an accident at work, or other circumstances which could lead to a claim for compensation. Legal aid for representation at inquests is only available in exceptional circumstances.
If the enquiries may take some time, ask the coroner to give you a letter confirming the death. You can use this letter for Social Security and National Insurance (NI) purposes.
The coroner may give you an order for burial (form 101) or a certificate for cremation (form E) so that the funeral can take place. This can usually be done before the inquest is completed, provided the body is not required for further examination.
The coroner will also send a certificate after inquest (form 99 (rev)), stating the cause of death, to the registrar. This allows the death to be registered.
The preliminary arrangements
You will need to decide:
- where the body is to rest while awaiting the funeral
- the time and place of the funeral
- how much you intend to spend on the funeral
- whether to have a funeral service
- whether to have flowers, or to make any donations to a named charity
- whether to put a notice in the newspapers
- whether the body should be buried or cremated.
Check the will to see if there are any instructions for the funeral left by the deceased. It is generally up to the executor or nearest relative to decide whether the body is to be cremated or buried. The executor does not have to follow the instructions about the funeral left in the will.
As the funeral director, we will help you to decide where the body should stay until the funeral, and the starting point, time and place of the funeral.
If there is to be a service or ceremony, we contact the appropriate person for the religion or belief concerned. If you are not sure what to do or who to contact, we should be able to help you. You can choose the place for the funeral service and you may be able to choose the person to conduct the service. You do not have to hold a religious service. If you wish you can design your own non-religious service.
You also need to decide whether you want flowers for the funeral, or perhaps donations to a named charity. If you want flowers and a cremation is planned, you can decide what should be done with the flowers. The local hospital or old people’s home may be pleased to accept cut flowers.