Many of us only discover the practical procedures that are necessary after someone dies when we need to carry them out for someone we ourselves have loved and are grieving for. What follows is a brief guide to the main steps, with links to other more detailed sources of information.
Information on where these procedures differ in Scotland and Northern Ireland can be found at the bottom of the page.
If the person who is dying or who has died expressed a wish to donate their organs, their tissues or their whole body, it is essential to inform any professional involved in their care as soon as possible.
After someone dies, their death is usually confirmed by a qualified professional. In a hospital their body will be moved to a mortuary. If a death at home or in a care home had been expected, the body can be moved to a funeral director of your choice. If the death was not expected or was not from a natural cause, the person who has died will be moved to a hospital or public mortuary on the instructions of the coroner.
When a death is from known and natural causes, the doctor who has been looking after the person will issue a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death. Hospital staff will explain their arrangements for this if the person died in hospital. If the person died at home, you need to contact their GP’s surgery. You will need to register the death in the area where the person died within five days unless the coroner is involved. Nearly all registrars operate appointment systems so phone first to check you have the right office and are entitled to register.
Use the Gov.UK website to find the correct register office.
If the cause of death is unknown or is not natural, the coroner will investigate the death. This usually requires a post-mortem examination. You will be informed about this by the coroner’s office, who will also give you the results. If the death is found to be from a natural cause you will be told how to make an appointment to register the death.
If the death is not from natural causes, there will an inquest but you will usually be given permission to arrange the funeral and also be given an Interim Certificate of the Cause of Death to allow you to deal with the person’s financial and property affairs (their estate) as the death will not be registered until the end of the inquest.
More information on coroners and inquests can be found at the Gov.UK website.
The registrar will issue as many certified copies of the death certificate as you need (priced at £4.00 each on 1 December 2013), a certificate of registration or notification of death (BD8) form for the Department of Work and Pensions and a certificate for burial or cremation (‘green form’). Both of these are free and the green form is sometimes replaced by a form from the coroner.
Many registrars will also inform you about the Tell Us Once service. This is available in most of the country and allows you to inform central and local government departments of the death very quickly. This helps to avoid over-payment of benefits and pensions and reduce the number of phone calls you need to make.
Visit Tell Us Once
If a person has a pre-paid funeral plan it will usually include details of what they wanted and also which funeral director to use. If someone has left instructions for their funeral but there is not enough money available to carry these out, the instructions are not legally binding and you can make changes. You can either take full responsibility for organising the funeral; use a funeral director to make all the arrangements; or a combination of the two. The funeral itself can be a faith-based ceremony, have no religious element at all or be somewhere in-between. A good funeral director will listen to what you want and help you achieve it.
The most important thing is that you do not sign a contract (or the arrangement form) with the funeral director until you are certain you want to use their service and you have identified how the funeral will be paid for.
Advice on arranging a funeral yourself can be obtained from the Natural Death Centre.
If the person who died has left a will, it is the responsibility of the executor to administer the estate. It will depend on the value of what is left and how it is held as to whether probate is needed, eg: whether it is property or accounts or shares. Probate is a court order which can be required to release the assets. If there is no will, how the estate is distributed is set out in the rules of intestacy and a very similar process to probate may be needed.
The person responsible can choose to do all the work involved personally but the decision needs careful thought as it can take up to a year or even more to administer a complex estate, especially if a property has to be sold. Professional help is available from solicitors and specialist probate services provided by trust corporations.
As with all professional services, do ask about the terms and conditions of the service and how fees are charged before entering a contract.
More information can be found at www.gov.uk/wills-probate-inheritance.
Procedures in Northern Ireland are very similar to those in England and Wales.
Details of the registrar, coroner and other information can be found at www.northernireland.gov.uk
Scotland has a very different legal system, and you have eight days in which to register a death. Investigations of unnatural deaths are carried by the procurator fiscal instead of a coroner and there are no inquests. In certain circumstances a fatal accident enquiry may take the place of an inquest.
Probate is replaced in Scotland by a process called confirmation.
More information can be found at www.scotland.gov.uk
This content was commissioned as part of Find Me Help, Dying Matters' new online search tool which gives access to a comprehensive database of national and local organisations providing support and advice for people coping with death, dying and bereavement.