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

On this page we give you information about:

1. What is a medical certificate of death?
2. How is a medical certificate of death different from a death certificate?
3. Who will issue the medical certificate?
4. What is a verification of death?

What is a medical certificate of death?

If the death was expected, the cause of death has to be determined by a medical professional. The cause of death will be detailed on an official document called a medical certificate of death (MCOD). You’ll need a copy of the medical certificate before you can register the death. The certificate gives:

  • the name of the deceased
  • their age
  • the date of death
  • 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.

If it’s clear why the person died, and it was from natural causes (for example, if your relative suffered from heart disease), it should be simple for a doctor to determine the cause of death and issue the medical certificate straightaway. However, if the doctor is unsure about the cause of death, or hasn’t seen the patient for 14 days (in England, Scotland and Wales) or 28 days (in Northern Ireland), they won’t be able to issue the medical certificate immediately.

In these cases, the death must be reported to a coroner. If the coroner sees no need to investigate, the GP can then issue the medical certificate. If the coroner decides that a post-mortem is needed to determine the cause of death, this will be carried out and the relevant documents will then be passed to the registrar.

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.

Who will issue the medical certificate?

The person issuing the medical certificate will depend on where your relative died. If they died at home, the GP may give you the certificate personally, or you may be asked to collect it from the GP’s receptionist. If your relative died in hospital, or a care home, the administrative staff will usually give the certificate to the next of kin. They will also usually include some further information about how to register the death.

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's easier for the professional staff if they are aware of this at an early stage.

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.

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.
  • Getting a medical certificate: 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 last reviewed: October 2017