When a relative dies there are a number of things to deal with immediately. Some people find this difficult as they are struggling to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, while others appreciate having practical tasks to do.
On this page we give you information about what to do:
1. If your relative dies in hospital
2. If your relative dies in a care home
3. If your relative dies at home
4. If your relative dies unexpectedly
5. If your relative dies abroad
6. If you're asked about organ and tissue donation for transplantation
If your relative dies in hospital
Nearly half of all deaths occur in hospital. If medical staff think that a patient is likely to die soon, the hospital will get in touch with the family to give them the chance to say goodbye. However, if someone has collapsed unexpectedly or been admitted to the accident and emergency department, there may not be time to contact relatives or friends.
After someone has died, the hospital staff will prepare the body for the mortuary.
- Nursing staff will clean the body and dress it in the patient’s own nightwear, if requested, or a shroud.
- It helps them if you let them know any particular requirements to do with your relative’s faith, for example if the hands need to be positioned in a special way or if a rosary is to be kept with the body.
- The body will then be taken to the hospital mortuary where it stays until you to have it moved, usually to the funeral directors, where you'll have another chance to view it your loved one if you want to.
If you arrive at hospital after the death
Go to the general office of the hospital, where you may be directed to a specialist bereavement or patient affairs unit. These departments often have an appointment system so you may find that everything has already been prepared for you. The department will:
- deal with paperwork, including ensuring that the medical certificate of the cause of death is signed
- tell you what to do next, including registering the death and choosing a funeral director
- return belongings, which you'll need to sign for, possibly collecting valuables from the cashier’s office
- have information about local support services for bereaved people.
At this point, you may also be able to view your relative if you wish.
The hospital must report a death to a coroner if it followed an accident or occurred during or after surgery, and in other cases where the cause of death is unknown. If that happens, it might take a little while longer for your relative’s body to be released for funeral.
In Scotland, hospitals don’t have centralised bereavement services and formalities are dealt with on the ward where the patient died.
If your relative dies in a care home
Just over one in four deaths happen in a care home. If your relative or friend dies in a care home, it can be comforting to know that care home managers and staff are used to dealing with death and will explain what you will need to do next, including how to register the death.
The care home manager usually arranges for the medical certificate of the cause of death to be signed.
You may well be asked to contact a funeral director quite quickly to arrange for the removal of the body as care homes don’t have mortuaries.
If your relative dies at home
When asked, the vast majority of people who state a preference say they would prefer to die at home, and in the UK, almost one in four people do pass away in their home.
What happens after a death at home is less straight-forward than at a hospital and depends on whether the death was expected or not. For more advice on unexpected deaths, read If your relative dies unexpectedly below.
In cases where the death was expected, for example if your relative or friend suffered from a terminal illness, the next step comes down to when the person who died last saw a doctor. If the deceased:
- had been seen and treated by a doctor regularly, it isn’t essential to call the doctor immediately. The time limit for when you don't have to call a doctor varies. In England, Scotland and Wales the deceased has to have seen a doctor within the last 14 days, whereas in Northern Ireland it’s 28 days.
- had not been seen by their own doctor recently, a doctor must see the body to certify the death This may be at the place of death or at the funeral director’s premises.
- did not have a GP or you do not know their name, call an ambulance.
Laying out the body
If your loved one has died at home, you may find it comforting to make the dead person look smart by:
- cleaning the body
- dressing them in fresh clothes
- arranging their hair or putting on their wig
- positioning the hands.
But there's no requirement for you to this and you can leave it to others if you find it distressing.
Bodies deteriorate fast so it’s also important to contact a funeral director straight away and plan to register the death.
If your relative dies unexpectedly
If your relative collapses unexpectedly:
- Call the emergency services immediately on 999 or 112.
- Describe the circumstances to the operator, who will give clear instructions on what to do next. If it's possible to approach the person without risk, the operator will explain how to check if the person is still alive or how to try and resuscitate him or her. Read more about Dealing with a medical emergency.
The ambulance paramedics may declare the person dead immediately when they arrive, but if there is a chance that your loved one will survive, they will attempt resuscitation and move the person to an accident and emergency department.
When someone dies unexpectedly, it’s also important to bear in mind that the police might want to examine the place where the death took place. It's often not immediately obvious whether someone has died due to natural causes or as a result of an accident or a criminal act. If this is the case:
- don't disturb the surrounding area, other than what is essential in trying to help the person, and
- if it is clear that the person is dead, don’t touch anything.
Once the police arrive, they can give further information on how the area should be treated.
Police will be sympathetic to the distress of someone who discovered the body or who is a relative, but they also need information quickly to be able to establish what has happened.
If your relative dies abroad
Whether the deceased lived abroad or was just on a holiday, the death must be registered in the country where it occurred. Since the process can vary a lot between different countries, it might be a good idea to get help with this either from a tour guide or local police, or from British authorities like the British embassy, high commission or consulate.
You can find contact details for UK embassies and consulates in Useful websites when someone dies.
If your relative has died abroad, there are different rules for bringing the remains home depending on whether the body will be cremated abroad first or not.
- To bring the body home, you’ll need a certified English translation of the death certificate and permission from the coroner (or equivalent in the country where the death occurred).
- To leave a country with human ashes, you will normally need to show the death certificate and the certificate of cremation. Each country has its own rules about removing human ashes and there may be other requirements. Contact your airline to find out whether you can carry the ashes as hand luggage or as checked-in luggage.
If you're asked about organ and tissue donation for transplantation
Medical staff may approach you and ask for your consent to transplant organs from your dead or dying relative. The majority of transplants are from patients who are ventilated in intensive care after an accident or brain haemorrhage.
Before talking to you, medical or nursing staff will check the NHS organ donor register to see if your relative or friend had made their wishes known in advance. If they had, the hospital staff will check with you that your loved one didn't change their mind before dying and that you don't object to the donation. If your relative or friend hadn't signed up to the register, medical staff will ask you to decide whether their organs should be transplanted.
In Wales, everyone is deemed to have given their consent to organ donation unless they opt out in the NHS register. However, medical staff will still talk to you to make sure that your relative or friend didn't expressed any objections to organ donation before dying. If the hospital staff can't contact family members, the donation will not go ahead.
On our Useful websites when someone dies page, we have contact details for the NHS organ donation website.
- Obtaining a medical certificate of the cause of death: before you can register the death, a doctor has to issue a medical certificate of the cause of death.
- Post-mortem examinations: if it's not clear why your relative or friend died, a coroner might decide to perform an autopsy.
- Coping with bereavement: read about how to come to terms with losing someone close to you and what support is available.
Page first published: December 2015
Next review due: November 2017