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Before you can register the death of a loved one, a doctor has to issue a medical certificate of cause of death. Here we explain what it is and how it’s different from a death certificate.

On this page we give you information about:

1. What is a medical certificate of death?
2. Who hands over the medical certificate of death?
3. How is a medical certificate of death different from a death certificate?
4. What is a verification of death?
5. Burial or cremation?

What is a medical certificate of death?

After someone has died, the cause of death has to be determined before you can register the death. If it’s clear why the deceased died and it was from natural causes, for example if the person suffered from heart disease, a doctor can determine the cause of death straight away and issue the medical certificate of death (MCOD).

The certificate spells out:  

  • the name of the deceased
  • their age
  • the place of death
  • the cause of death.

The cause of death is usually written in formal medical terminology, stating the main cause and other conditions that have contributed to the death. The doctor also has to write when they last saw the patient and whether the deceased has been seen after death.

A doctor can’t issue a medical certificate of death if they are unsure about the cause of death, for example if they haven’t seen the patient for 14 days (in England, Scotland and Wales) or 28 days (in Northern Ireland). In these cases, the death must be reported to a coroner and the body will be taken to a hospital mortuary. If the coroner decides that a post-mortem is needed to determine the cause of death, this will be carried out before the medical certificate of death is issued.

Who hands over the medical certificate of death?

Once the medical certificate of death has been issued, you'll be able to use it to register the death. If your relative died in a hospital, the administrative staff will usually give you the certificate, and it will be placed in an envelope that gives further information about how to register the death.

For deaths out of hospital, the GP may give you the certificate personally, or you may be asked to collect it from the GP’s receptionist.

How is a medical certificate of death different from a death certificate?

  • The medical certificate of death is a piece of paper issued after someone has died. It details the cause of death and you need it to register the death.
  • The death certificate will be given to you after you've registered the death. You may need to show it to companies and organisations in order to prove that the person is deceased, for example if you need to close down your relative’s bank account. We explain more in our page about Registering a death.

What is a verification of death?

In some cases, there isn’t a doctor around to issue the medical certificate of cause of death. Since it’s sometimes necessary to move the body before a doctor is able to attend, for example if the death occurs in a public place, medical staff other than doctors can confirm that someone is deceased. This is called verification of death.

A verification of death is a temporary measure until a registered medical practitioner (the GP if it’s a home or care home death, otherwise a hospital doctor) can write the medical certificate of cause of death.

Burial or cremation?

If you know whether you want your relative to be buried or cremated, let the doctor who is completing the medical certificate or the coroner’s officer know. Additional forms are needed for a cremation to take place, and it is easier for the professional staff if they are aware of this at an early stage.

More information

  • Coping with grief: losing someone close to you is always going to be very difficult, but there are things you can do to help you cope.
  • Obtaining a medical certificate of cause of death: find out why you need a medical certificate before you can register your loved one's death and how to go about obtaining it. 
  • Arranging a funeral: find out what happens at a burial and the options for burial in a churchyard, cemetery, green burial ground or on private land.

Page first published: December 2015
Next review due: November 2017