What to do when someone passes away: step by step

Having a loved one pass away is a traumatic time for anybody. Unfortunately, at a time when most people just want to grieve and remember their loved one, there are a number of tasks you will have to carry out. For most people, this event is a fairly uncommon one, so it can be hard to remember everything that needs to be organised.

This article will help you understand what you have to do and how to do it; it will cover how to register the death, notify government departments and manage financial issues.

Where have they passed away?

The location and circumstances of a person’s passing will have an impact on what you need to do.

Passing away at home:

There are several things to consider if the person was at home when they passed. The process will depend upon whether the death was expected and what time of day it occurred.

If someone dies at home and the death was expected

The NHS definition of an expected death is: “a death where a patient’s demise is anticipated in the near future and the doctor will be able to issue a medical certificate as to the cause of death (i.e. the doctor has seen the patient within the last 14 days before death).” 

‘Expected death’ is a legal term referring to the NHS’s anticipation of a patient’s imminent demise, it is not whether the family expect it. If you are unsure whether the death was expected or not you will be able to get guidance by calling 111.

During the day – If your loved one died during the day, and it was expected, for example due to a terminal illness, the first step is to contact their GP or the NHS helpline (dial 111) as soon as possible.

At night – If your loved one passed away at night your GP will not be open, so you should call the NHS helpline (dial 111) and they will advise you on the next steps. When your GP surgery opens in the morning you should call them to inform them.

Whatever time of day, as soon as you have notified the NHS, you should immediately contact the individual’s next of kin if that is not yourself.

You should also contact a funeral director immediately to arrange for them to take your loved one into their care. These are very experienced and sensitive professionals who will support you with advice and guidance, and assist you in this challenging time.

If someone dies at home and the death was unexpected

If the death does not comply with the legal definition of an expected death, it should be treated as unexpected. This does not mean that it is being treated as suspicious, just that it was not imminently anticipated by the individual’s medical team.

If that is the case, you must immediately call the Police and Ambulance service by dialling 999. When the operator answers, explain that you are reporting an unexpected death and they will provide instructions which may include advice on how to commence resuscitation. When the paramedics arrive, they will either attempt CPR or simply confirm the death, depending on the circumstances.

If the cause of death is unexpected and unknown, they will expect the body and the immediate area/room to remain untouched other than any resuscitation attempts. In those cases, the police will arrange for a funeral director to take the deceased into their care. When they do this, they are acting on behalf of the coroner.

The law is very clear in these situations and even if they died from natural causes, the coroner will need to be contacted. Once the coroner has been contacted, they will decide if a post mortem or inquest will be required. In those cases, the police or coroner’s office will be able to give you all the information you need.

It is important to note that a funeral cannot be conducted until the coroner’s inquest has been completed and cause of death established.

What to do when someone dies in hospital

If someone passes away in hospital, the hospital staff will immediately inform the next of kin. Where possible (not withstanding any restrictions caused by Covid-19), the hospital will do everything they can to ensure the closest family members are with them at their passing.

Many NHS hospitals have bereavement specialists as part of their staff, who can explain processes and procedures and tell you what you need to do next. If no specialists are employed, the ward staff will assist you.

Will the hospital issue a medical certificate of cause of death?

If the cause of death is known, the hospital doctor will usually issue a medical certificate of cause of death. If cause of death is unknown, or suspected but not confirmed, the hospital will may request permission from the next of kin to carry out a post-mortem examination.

In cases where cause of death is unknown, even when definitely due to natural causes, or when the death is sudden or unnatural, they will contact the coroner who may order a post-mortem or inquest.

Where is my loved one kept if they die in hospital?

If a loved one has died in hospital, they will remain in the hospital mortuary until a funeral director or family member collects them.

If your loved one is being collected by a funeral director, they will liaise with the hospital directly to ensure safe transport of the deceased into their own chapel of rest facilities, keeping you fully informed each step of the way. You may need to sign an authorisation form to enable the funeral director to take the deceased into their care from the hospital.

Any possessions belonging to your loved one will be kept safe until the next of kin arranges for them to be collected.

What to do when someone dies in a care home

Care home staff are experienced in people passing away and the staff will know what to do and what processes need to be followed. They are there to help and will be able to advise you on next steps.

What happens immediately after their death?

Wherever possible (not withstanding any restrictions due to Covid-19), the care home staff will do their very best to ensure loved ones are present when someone’s passing is expected. At the time of this article’s writing, care homes across the UK were open for end-of-life visiting. For obvious reasons we cannot guarantee that further restrictions by UK Government do not change this in the future. For more information about this, contact your care home and they will be able to explain the current situation.

If you are not present when your loved one passes away, the care home staff will notify you as soon as possible after their death.

If the death was expected

The first step is to verify the death, this is where an appropriately qualified medical practitioner certifies that the individual has passed away. This may be done by a member of the care home team, a District Nurse or GP. The care home staff will also contact the NHS 111 service and/or the person’s GP.

If the death was expected, or the GP has seen your loved one in the last 14 days, the doctor will issue a medical certificate of cause of death, allowing you to register the death.

If the death is unexpected

If the death is sudden, or the cause is unknown, or if there are any suspicious circumstances, the doctor or care home staff will contact the coroner. The coroner may order a post-mortem examination or inquest to determine the cause of death, and then issue the documents allowing the death to be registered. It is important to note that a funeral cannot be conducted until the coroner’s inquest has been completed and cause of death established.

Care home staff will often help you to notify your local funeral director and liaise with them on your behalf. The funeral director will collect your loved one and transfer them safely to the funeral director’s own chapel of rest facilities, keeping you fully informed each step of the way.

Customs and religious rituals

Care home staff will usually be happy for you to spend time with your loved one after their death. For some, this can be a time to sit peacefully, say goodbye or share memories. For others, there may be important cultural or religious customs that should take place. Please notify staff as soon as possible if you wish to spend time with your loved-one, so that they can plan appropriately.

For more information or if you wish to discuss care for your loved one please email care@greensleeves.org.uk