Practical things you need to do after a death | Cancer Research UK
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Cultural rituals and practices

In some cultures specific rituals and practices are carried out after someone’s death. It is important for you to do whatever you feel is right. You are likely to feel very shocked, even if you were well prepared and had been expecting it to happen. 

In most cases there is no need to do anything straight away. You can just stay with your friend’s or relative’s body for a while. You might want to have someone there to support you.


What you need to do soon after someone dies

Some things need to be done fairly quickly after the death and you might not know where to start. We hope this information helps to make the early days after the death as easy as possible.

Being with the person after their death

If your relative or friend dies in hospital or a hospice, you may find after you leave that you would like to see them again. If you want to, you can arrange to visit by contacting the ward staff. They will arrange for you to see the body in the mortuary. There are rooms in the mortuary specifically for this. You will be in a small private room and be able to spend some time alone with your friend or relative. If you have certain religious needs, most mortuaries will be able to help you with these.

If your loved one died at home you will have as much time as you want to be with them after they die. You will need to contact the GP and the funeral director and let them know that your loved one has died. If you wish, the funeral director will take your relative's body to the funeral home. If you feel that you want to see your loved one again before the funeral, you can arrange this with the funeral directors.

Caring for the body

If you want to keep the body at home for some time, the funeral director or nurse will wash and dress your relative’s body. You can help them to do this if you like. The process is different in different cultures and religions. But usually the body is carefully washed and dried, the eyelids are closed, and the mouth is supported shut. The person’s hair is tidied and sometimes washed. You can keep the body at home until the funeral if you like. If this is longer than a few days the body may need to be embalmed. 

Collecting the death certificate

Soon after the death, the next of kin needs to make an appointment with the Patient Affairs Officer or a nurse from the ward or hospice. At this appointment you collect the medical certificate with the cause of death written on it (the death certificate). If your relative died at home, your GP will give you the form or you might need to collect it from the surgery the next day. The form tells you how to register the death.

Collecting personal belongings

If your relative died in a hospital or hospice you will most likely need to go and collect their personal belongings. Most people find this hard but the ward staff will be supportive and very aware of your feelings. If your loved one had any valuables such as a watch, jewellery, or money in the ward safe, just check that the nurses have remembered to include these in their belongings. Or if there are certain items you want to remain with your loved one, such as a wedding ring, you will need to make sure you let the staff know.


Registering the death

It is a legal requirement to register all deaths within 5 days in England and Wales, and within 8 days in Scotland. You have to register the death before you can complete the funeral arrangements. The hospital or your GP will let you know where the nearest registry office is. You can register the death in any registry office but if you register them in the district where the person died they will give you the documents you need on the day. You don’t have to pay for registration.

Practically, the procedure is usually straightforward. But it can be very upsetting for some people, so you might want to take someone to support you. If there are special situations, such as a post mortem, registering a death may involve more paperwork and may take a bit longer.

A relative is the best person to register the death.  Someone else can do it but you will need to discuss this with the registry office if it isn’t possible for a relative to do it.

What you need to have

You will need 

  • The death certificate
  • The full name, address, date and place of birth, and the occupation of the person who has died
  • Information about their pension or other income from public funds
  • If the person was married you will need to give the full name and date of birth of the surviving partner

After registering the death

Once they complete these details the Registrar will give you a certificate for burial or cremation, depending on what you decide to do. You will need to give this certificate to the funeral director so they can complete the funeral arrangements. This certificate is free of charge but you will need to pay a small fee for a certified copy. You will need this copy for any bank or insurance issues or if you want to bury your friend or relative abroad.

If the dead person was receiving state benefits, the Registrar will also give you a form. This will be a BD8/344. You will need to give this to their Benefits Agency.


Arranging the funeral

Arranging your loved one’s funeral can be overwhelming. You may need to think about many things, including these issues.

Choosing a funeral director

A good funeral director can make this difficult time easier for you. Friends or relatives who have had to arrange a funeral might be able to suggest good funeral director services. Hospitals and hospices can also make recommendations. You can contact the National Association of Funeral Directors. They can give you details of local funeral directors who are part of this professional association. Funeral directors will respect your wishes about the funeral and they will want to make this time as easy as possible for you.

Go to the National Association of Funeral Directors website

When you make your choice, you need to give the funeral director the certificate of burial or cremation that the Registrar gave you. The funeral director will contact the hospital or hospice and organise for your loved one to be taken to the funeral director’s chapel of rest.

Choosing the type of funeral

You can have the funeral at your local church, cemetery or crematorium. If you have the funeral at the cemetery or crematorium, you can have a minister of religion lead the service, have a humanist ceremony or organise your own order of service. Your funeral director will be able to put you in touch with whoever you need. 

For a burial, choosing a coffin will depend on how much you want to spend. Prices vary greatly. You will also need to decide whether you want your loved one to be buried in a separate grave or in a shared grave. 

A shared grave means they will have their own coffin but they will share the grave with several other people. This is much cheaper. With a shared grave you may not be able to put up a headstone in memory of your loved one. But you may be able to place a small stone on the grave to acknowledge the person buried there.

For a cremation you can choose what you do with the ashes. They can either be buried, or scattered in a cemetery or somewhere meaningful to you and the person who died. Some people choose to keep the ashes in their home or scatter them abroad.  Speak to your funeral director for advice as you might need to pay a fee or seek permission in some situations. They can also advise you if you want to choose a memorial.

Costs of a funeral

Your funeral director will be able to help you make some of the decisions about how you want the funeral to be. For some people, the cost will help decide. A cremation is usually much cheaper than a burial. It may be upsetting if you can’t afford to do things exactly as you would like. But try not to worry too much. It can help to focus on the things you can do, such as choosing a special song to play or a poem to be read at the funeral. These are the things that you will remember more.

There are two types of bereavement benefits available. To qualify, you must have been the husband, wife, or civil partner of the person who has died. They are

  • Bereavement Payment – this is a one off payment
  • Bereavement Allowance – this is a weekly payment for 1 year after the death of a husband, wife or civil partner

They are based on your partner's National Insurance contributions. To find out if you are able to get either of these benefits contact your local benefits agency or look on the Department for Work and Pensions’ website.

Go to the Department for Work and Pensions’ website

If you, as the next of kin, are getting certain benefits such as unemployment or sickness benefits, you might be able to get help with paying for the funeral. You can read about who can claim for this funeral payment, and what costs are covered, on the NHS choices website

This grant helps towards the cost of the funeral. But even if you plan a very simple funeral, the grant will probably not cover all of the costs. It is helpful to plan for the costs of the funeral in advance, as often the undertaker needs payment before the service goes ahead. You can get information about this funeral grant from your specific Benefits Agency or the Citizens Advice Bureau.

The person's wishes

If your loved one was able to discuss their funeral before they died they might have left specific instructions on how they would like it to be. They may have already organised their funeral or cremation before they died or left instructions in their will. If they did, then you will need to include them in your plans.

If they didn’t let you know, making these decisions can be difficult. You can discuss them with other relatives and try to think what your loved one may have wanted. 

For some people, religious and cultural reasons mean they must organise the funeral as quickly as possible. But if this is not the case you don’t have to organise things in a hurry. Take all the time you need to make the funeral exactly how you want it to be.

Having a private or public funeral

You might need to decide whether your relative would want to have a public or private funeral. This means whether or not you want the funeral to be open to anyone who knew the person or whether you prefer to have only close family and friends present. Do what you feel is right for you or what your loved one asked for.

Having flowers or donations

Many families now choose to have friends and relatives make a donation instead of giving flowers. The donations usually go to a charity or to the hospital or ward where their loved one died. They may choose to buy a piece of equipment for the ward in memory of the person. The piece of equipment you buy will usually have a plaque saying ‘in memory of’ and your loved one’s name.


Unusual situations affecting funerals

Funerals may not be straightforward if there is a need for a coroner's inquiry, a hospital postmortem or a burial abroad.

A coroner's inquiry

A coroner is an official who is responsible for investigating deaths of unknown cause, or sudden, violent or suspicious deaths. This is called the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland. If your loved one has been ill with cancer for sometime before their death, it is highly unlikely that you will need to have a coroner's inquiry. But if the doctor can't issue a death certificate because they are unsure of the exact cause of death, then they must contact the coroner. 

The coroner will arrange to do a postmortem to help decide the cause of death. They don’t need any consent from the next of kin to do this. But you can choose a doctor to be there on your behalf.

Hospital postmortem

A hospital postmortem happens when your relative's doctor asks for permission to do a postmortem. They hope it will help them understand the cause of death and improve the way they treat others with a similar illness in the future. 

It is uncommon for a doctor to ask for this, especially when someone dies of cancer. If they do, they will discuss the procedure in depth with you. Don’t feel under any pressure to say yes to this procedure. Some people find it helps them better understand why the death happened but not everyone feels this way. A doctor can only arrange do a hospital postmortem with written consent from the next of kin.

Burial abroad

If someone dies in England and you want to bury them abroad, (including in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland), ask your funeral director for advice and help with this. You will need to buy 2 or more copies of the death certificate when you register the death. Your funeral director will need these to get you an Out of England Certificate.


Donating body parts for transplant or research

Some people worry that parts of their body may be kept without their permission for medical use. This is not allowed. But if your relative wanted to donate their body for medical research or to help other people this can sometimes be arranged.  Your relative will have to give permission before they die. You can't give permission for this on their behalf.

Even if your friend or relative had an organ donor card, they may not be able to donate their organs for transplant because they had cancer. This is because their internal organs may have been damaged by their illness. Some people may be able to donate parts of their eyes, or ligaments, tendons or heart valves. If this is possible you need to talk about it before the person dies, as the tissues need to be removed very soon after death.

Donating a body for medical research or education is not usually possible if the person had cancer. Cancer Research UK isn't able to accept bodies for research. But if your relative wanted to donate their body, you can get advice about this from the professor of anatomy at the nearest medical school or

The Human Tissue Authority
151 Buckingham Palace Road
Telephone: 020 7269 1900


Procedure for donation

If the body is accepted for medical research or education purposes, the next of kin needs to fill out several forms. These forms give details about how long the body can be used for, which can be up to 3 years. 

You might want to have the body back for a private funeral or you can arrange to have a memorial service after the death. Most funeral directors will be able to help you with this. Alternatively, the medical school receiving the body can arrange for a cremation, which the next of kin are able to attend.

Every year in May there is a general thanksgiving service held at Southwark Cathedral in London in memory of all people who have donated their body to medical research in the previous year. All next of kin are invited to this service.



A will is a legal document or a letter signed by the person who died. It gives instructions on what they want to do with any money and assets they leave behind. Hopefully you will have been able to discuss this before your relative died. But if not then you will need to find this document. You will most likely need to seek the advice of a lawyer about the will.

If there is no will, contact the The Probate and Inheritance Tax Helpline on 0300 123 1072 and they will tell you what to do. Generally, you just have to get a solicitor to organise a Grant of Probate and any assets go to the closest relative or are divided amongst them if there is more than one. You can contact the Probate Registry for further information. The address is

Principal Registry
(Probate Dept)
First Avenue House
42–49 High Holborn
London WC1V 6NP
Telephone: 0207 421 8509


Letting people know about the person's death

Telling people about a death can be difficult and also emotionally tiring. But it is important that you tell people who knew your loved one personally or did business with them. If you don’t feel like doing this yourself, you can ask a friend or another family member to help you. With so much on your mind it is easy to miss someone. This list might help remind you of all those who may need to be told

  • Family and friends
  • Neighbours
  • Work colleagues and employer
  • Sporting clubs – cancel any memberships at gyms or sports clubs
  • Place of worship
  • Family doctor
  • Bank
  • Credit card companies
  • Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency – you must return the dead person’s driving licence
  • Local library if they were a member – you may need to return books, DVDs etc
  • Mortgage and insurance companies
  • Council Tax office
  • Utility companies – gas, electricity, telephone, water
  • Landlord
  • Passport office
  • Accountant and solicitors

Cancel any social services such as meals on wheels, transport assistance or home help.

Most local authorities offer a service called Tell Us Once, on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions. This service tells all the government services that your relative has died, so you don't have to make lots of separate phone calls. When you register the death, they will give you a Tell Us Once reference number. You can pass this reference number on to the Tell Us Once service. They will then tell all the government services, such as the tax office, local library and passport office. You can use the Tell Us Once service


For more information

Find out about

Coping with grief

Funeral payment and costs covered - NHS website

Blood and transplants information - NHS website

Tell us once government page

For general information and support

Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 (Open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)

Share experiences on our online forum – Cancer Chat

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Updated: 13 May 2016