What happens immediately after someone dies will depend on the cause of death and where your relative died.
When someone dies there are certain procedures that have to be followed. Our guide aims to simplify the process and provide help and support during this difficult time.
If the death was expected and the cause of death is clear, the process should be quite straightforward. You will need to get a medical certificate, register the death and start making funeral arrangements. If your loved one died in hospital or a care home, the staff should be able to offer advice on the first steps.
If the death was unexpected and the cause of death is unclear, a coroner will need to be called and they will deal with the necessary paperwork. You may need to wait a little longer before you can finalise the funeral arrangements.
On this page, we give you information about what to do:
1. If your relative dies in hospital or a care home
2. If your relative dies at home
3. If your relative dies abroad
If your relative dies in hospital or a care home
If your relative is staying in hospital or a care home, staff should contact the next of kin if they feel that death is imminent, so that family members have a chance to say goodbye. However, there won’t always be time to do this if your relative’s condition deteriorates rapidly or if they’ve been admitted to the accident and emergency department. The hospital staff or care home manager should be able to advise you on what to do after someone has died.
All hospitals have a specialist bereavement or patient affairs unit, which helps those who have lost a loved one in hospital. You may be able to see someone straightaway or you may need to make an appointment so they have time to prepare the necessary documents.
Specialist staff at the hospital should:
- deal with paperwork, including contacting a doctor and getting the medical certificate
- advise you on 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.
In Scotland, hospitals don’t have centralised bereavement services and formalities are dealt with on the ward where the patient died.
What will happen to my relative’s body?
After someone has died in hospital, nursing staff will clean the body and prepare it for the mortuary. If you have any particular requirements, for example to do with your relative’s faith, you should let the staff know. The body will then be taken to the hospital mortuary where it stays until you arrange to have it moved, usually to the funeral directors. You’ll have another chance to view your loved one here if you want to.
After someone has died in a care home, you will need to arrange for a funeral director to come and remove the body. See arranging a funeral for more information about this.
Under certain circumstances, the hospital or care home must report a death to a coroner. If that happens, it might take a little while longer for your relative’s body to be released for funeral.
If your relative dies at home
What happens after a death at home depends on whether the death was expected or not.
In cases where the death was expected
If the death was expected, for example if your relative had a terminal illness, you should call your relative’s GP surgery as soon as possible so that the on-call doctor can issue a medical certificate.
If the deceased didn't have a GP or you do not know their name, call an ambulance.
Once your relative’s body has been seen by the doctor you can arrange for a funeral director to collect them.
In cases where the death was unexpected
If someone dies unexpectedly, you should 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. Depending on the circumstances, they may send an ambulance and/ or police.
If the cause of death is unclear, paramedics will usually call the Coroners Officer to attend. They will arrange for the body to be taken to the mortuary – either at the hospital or the coroner’s.
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’s 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 your relative lived abroad or was on a holiday, their death must be registered in the country where it occurred. The process can vary a lot between different countries, so it’s a good idea to get help from a local tour guide or police, or from the British authorities, such as 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 ask for your consent to transplant organs from your relative, once they have died. Organs may only be donated under certain circumstances. Before talking to you, medical or nursing staff will check the NHS organ donor register to see if your relative 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.
Your relative will be treated with the utmost care and respect during the removal of organs for donation. Specialist healthcare professionals will carefully close and cover the surgical incision after donation as in any other surgical procedure, so that loved ones can still view the body if they wish.
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 express 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 last reviewed: October 2017