Decorative image

Practical things to do after a death

There are practical things you need to do when someone dies. This can be hard to deal with at such a difficult time. 

When the person dies

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.

You are likely to feel very shocked, even if you were well prepared and had been expecting it to happen. 

Cultural rituals and practices

Some cultures carry out specific rituals and practices after someone’s death. It’s important for you to do whatever you feel is right.

What you need to do soon after someone dies

Some things need to be done in the first days after your loved ones has died. Knowing what to expect and what to do can help you cope to a degree. Ask other friends and relatives if you don't want to do them on your own.

Being with the person after their death

If your relative or friend dies in hospital or a hospice, you might find after you leave that you would like to go back and see them again.

You can make this visit by contacting the ward staff. They will arrange for you to see the body in the mortuary.

There are private rooms in the mortuary specifically for this. You will be able to spend some time alone with your friend or relative. Most mortuaries will be able to help you with any religious needs you might have.

If your loved one dies 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 the person has died.

The funeral director will take the person’s body to the funeral home if you wish. You can arrange with the funeral directors to visit your loved one, if you feel you want to see them again before the funeral.

Caring for the body

You might want to keep the body at home for some time. In this case, 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 people carefully wash and dry the body, close the eyes and support the mouth to stay closed. They also tidy the person’s hair and sometimes wash it.

You can keep the body at home until the funeral if you like. The funeral director may need to embalm the body if this is longer than a few days. 

Collecting the death certificate

The next of kin has to collect a medical certificate with the cause of death written on it (the death certificate). The GP will give you the form if your relative or friend died at home. Or you might need to collect it from the surgery the next day.

If your loved one died in hospital or another healthcare setting, you need to make an appointment with the Patient Affairs Officer, or a nurse from the ward or hospice. You will be given these contact details when your friend or relative dies.  

You need the death certificate to register the death of your loved one.

Collecting personal belongings

You will probably need to go and collect your loved one’s personal belongings if they died in a hospital or hospice.

Most people find this hard. But the ward staff will be supportive and very aware of your feelings.

Your loved one may have had 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, 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. Contact the registry office beforehand as you might need to make an appointment.

You can register the death in any registry office, but if you register it 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.

Registering a death is usually straightforward. But it can be very upsetting for some people, so you might want to take someone to support you.

In special situations, such as a postmortem, registering a death might involve more paperwork and could take a bit longer.

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

What you need to have

When you register the death you will need to have:

  • 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

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. There are many things to think about. Discuss it with other family and friends if it helps. 

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.

Or 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.

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 arrange for your loved one to go to the funeral director’s chapel of rest.

The person's wishes

Your loved might have left specific instructions about their funeral. They might have discussed it with you before they died, or left directions in their will. You can then include these instructions in their plans.

But if they haven’t left instructions, making decisions can be difficult. You could discuss things with other relatives and try to think what your loved one might have wanted. 

In some religions or cultures, people have to organise the funeral as quickly as possible. But if this is not the case for you, 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.

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. 

Burial

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.

Cremation

After a cremation you can choose what you do with the ashes. They can 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, because in some situations you might need to pay a fee or get permission.

The funeral director can also advise you if you want to choose a memorial.

Having a public or private funeral

You might need to decide whether your relative would want to have a public or private funeral. This means whether the funeral will 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 ask friends and relatives to 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.

Costs of a funeral

It is helpful to plan for the costs of the funeral in advance, as often the undertaker needs payment before the service goes ahead.

The costs of different types of funeral could help decide what you can have. A cremation is usually less expensive than burial. Prices of coffins vary greatly too.

It might be upsetting if you can’t afford to have the funeral exactly as you would like. Focus on the things you can do, such as choosing a special song to play or a poem to read at the funeral. These are the things that you will remember most afterwards.

Your funeral director will be able to help you make some of the decisions about how you want the funeral to be

Funeral payment

You might be able to get help with paying for the funeral if you are the next of kin and are getting certain benefits such as unemployment or sickness benefits. 

This payment helps towards the cost of the funeral. But even if you plan a very simple funeral, it probably won’t cover all the costs.

You can get information about this funeral payment from your specific Benefits Agency or the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Go to the Citzens Advice website, click on England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales as the advice can vary depending on where to live. Search under Funeral Payment. 

Bereavement benefits

There are two types of bereavement benefits available:

  • 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

To qualify, you must have been the husband, wife, or civil partner of the person who has died.

These benefits 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.

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 (Procurator Fiscal in Scotland) is an official who is responsible for investigating deaths of unknown cause, or sudden, violent or suspicious deaths.

A coroner’s inquiry is not usually necessary when someone has died after having cancer.

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 if you want, you can choose a doctor to be there on your behalf.

A 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. But if they do, they will discuss the procedure in depth with you.

Some people find that a postmortem helps them better understand why the death happened. But don’t feel under any pressure to say yes to this procedure.

A doctor can only arrange do a hospital postmortem with written consent from the next of kin.

Burial abroad

Ask your funeral director for help and advice if someone dies in England and you want to bury them abroad (including in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland).

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

Because your loved one had cancer, they might not be able to donate their organs for transplant, even if they had an organ donor card. This is because the illness might have damaged their internal organs.

Some people might 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

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 from:

The Human Tissue Authority
151 Buckingham Palace Road
London
SW1W 9SZ
Telephone: 020 7269 1900

Email: enquiries@hta.gov.uk
Website: www.hta.gov.uk

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 can attend.

Wills

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.

Contact the Probate and Inheritance Tax Helpline on 0300 123 1072 if there is no will. They will tell you what to do.

Generally, you have to get a solicitor to organise a Grant of Probate and any assets go to the closest relative (or are divided among them if there is more than one).

You can contact the Probate Registry at:

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. You can ask a friend or another family member to help you if you don’t feel like doing this yourself.

With so much on your mind, it is easy to miss someone. This list might help remind you of all those you might need to tell.

  • 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 might need to return books, DVDs etc
  • Mortgage and insurance companies

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

Tell Us Once

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:

  • in person, when you register the death
  • by telephone on 0800 085 7308
  • via the GOV.UK website
Last reviewed: 
16 May 2016
  • The good funeral guide: Everything you need to know
    Charles Cowling
    Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 2010

  • What to do after someone dies
    Department for Work and Pensions GOV.UK website
    Febuary, 2017

  • What to do when soemone dies
    ageUK
    Accessed May, 2013

  • What to do when someone dies
    Paul Harris
    Which? Essential Guides, 2009

  • When someone you care for dies 
    NHS Choices
    January, 2015 

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.