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.
The hospital staff or care home manager should be able to advise you on what to do after someone has died. Most hospitals have a specialist bereavement or patient affairs unit, which helps those who have lost a loved one in hospital.
Specialist staff at a 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
- provide 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.
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.
If 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 a doctor can issue a medical certificate (see below).
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.
If 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.
What is a medical certificate of death?
If the death was expected, the cause of death has to be determined by a medical professional and recorded on an official document called a medical certificate of death. You’ll need a copy of the medical certificate before you can register the 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. If it’s clear why the person died, and it was from natural causes, 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 doctor can then issue the medical certificate. If the coroner decides that a post-mortem examination 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 their bank account. We explain more in our page about registering a death.
Checklist: the steps to take when someone dies
Use our checklist of the things to do when a loved one passes away. This is also available to download.
Get a medical certificate which confirms the cause of death. If your loved one died at home, you can call their GP. If your loved one died in a hospital or a care home, they should take care of this.
Inform the next of kin (if that’s not you) and other members of the family.
Contact others who may need to know immediately, such as close friends, carers, their employer or landlord.
Keep a notebook handy to jot down any important details from the GP or hospital – if you’re in shock you may not remember things clearly later.
If you're making arrangements for someone who lived alone, make sure the property is locked up and secure, and cancel any deliveries (such as milk and newspapers). Arrange for any pets to be fed and looked after.
Once you have the medical certificate you can register the death.
Ensure you have four or five copies of the death certificate.
Choose a funeral director.
Start making funeral arrangements – did your loved one leave any instructions about their wishes?
Check for a will. This should name the person responsible for dealing with your loved one’s finances. If there’s no will, the intestacy rules will determine how the estate should be managed.
Start cancelling accounts or contracts or transferring them to your own name if, say, your partner has died. Examples of these include banks, telephone provider and gas and electricity providers.
Don’t be afraid to talk to close friends and family about your grief. You might want to consider bereavement counselling to help you through this difficult time. You may also need to tell your employer if you will need time off work.
Find out whether you need to carry out probate. This is the official process of dealing with someone’s finances, property and assets after their death.
Download the checklist
In England, Scotland and Wales, all adults 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 previously it was opt-in.
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.
Unlike the rest of the UK, the organ donation system is opt-in in Northern Ireland. At the moment, the only way someone can register their wish to be an organ donor is to sign the NHS Organ Donor Register.
For more information, see the following websites: