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First steps when someone has died

Read about the first steps that need to be taken immediately after someone has died, whether this was at home, in a hospital or in a care home.
6 min read
In this article
What you need to do when someone has died If your loved one dies in hospital or a care home If your loved one dies at home
Next steps Organ donation in England and Wales Organ donation in Scotland

What you need to do when someone has died

When someone dies there are certain procedures that have to be followed. The following advice should 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’ll 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 be involved and they will deal with the necessary paperwork. In this case, you may need to wait a little longer before you can finalise the funeral arrangements.

If your loved one dies in hospital or a care home

If your loved one 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 their condition deteriorates rapidly or if they’ve been admitted to a hospital’s A&E 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.

The hospital staff or care home manager should be able to advise you on what to do after someone has died.

Specialist staff at the hospital should:

  • deal with the first stages of the paperwork, including contacting a GP and getting a medical certificate
  • advise you on what to do next, including registering a death and choosing a funeral director
  • return your loved one’s 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 loved one if you wish (this is very much a personal decision, so don’t feel obliged to do this).

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 relating to your loved one’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 see your loved one here if you want to.

After someone has died in a care home, you’ll need to arrange for a funeral director to come and remove the body. See first decisions when 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 loved one’s body to be released for a funeral.

If your loved one 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 loved one had a terminal illness, you should call their GP surgery as soon as possible so that the on-call doctor can issue a medical certificate.

Once your loved one’s body has been seen by the doctor you can arrange for a funeral director to collect them.

If they didn’t have a GP or you don’t know their name, call for an ambulance to collect them.

In cases where the death was unexpected

If someone dies unexpectedly, you should call the emergency services immediately on 999. 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 coroner’s officer to attend. It 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
  • 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.

Next steps

Read our checklist for the next steps to take and things to do when a loved one passes away. This is also available as downloadable list.

Organ donation in England and Wales

From May 2020, all adults in England are considered to have agreed to be an organ donor when they die, unless they record a decision not to donate. In other words, the organ donation process is now an ‘opt-out’ system, whereas before it was opt-in. In Wales, organ donation has been opt-out since 2015. 

This means that if your loved one hadn’t confirmed whether they want to be an organ donor – either by recording a decision on the NHS Organ Donor Register or by speaking to friends or family – it will be considered that they agreed to donate their organs after death. However, medical staff will still talk to you to make sure that your loved one didn’t express any objections to organ donation before they died. 

Your loved one 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 you can still view the body if you wish. 

Organ donation in Scotland

Organ donation in Scotland is currently an ‘opt-in’ process, but the law will change to an opt-out system in March 2021. 

Before talking to you, medical or nursing staff will check the NHS organ donor register to see if your loved one 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 family member or friend hadn’t signed up to the register, medical staff will ask you to decide whether their organs should be transplanted.

For more information, see the following websites:

Further reading

Registering a death

After the medical certificate has been issued, the next stage is to register the death. Here, we explain the next steps.

Last updated: 19 Aug 2020