What to do when someone dies
Updated: Jan 31
You've got this. And, if you don't, that's okay. I've got you.
I'm going to walk you through some of the steps to take after someone close to you has died. This is not a fully comprehensive list, but I've provided links to further sources which can give you that.
When someone dies in the UK, the government information page tells you the basic and legal things you must do :
Register the death within 5 days, for that you need a certificate signed by the GP or hospital doctor.
Arrange a funeral.
Tell UK Gov and other agencies/banks etc and sort out the will and estate.
Around these requirements are all the less obvious choices which can impact how you cope with the death of someone close to you.
Take a moment
There is no rush. Take a moment to breathe. If you can, sit with them; spend time with them. If you're with them, this is an opportunity for you to talk to them and say whatever is coming up for you. It's okay to touch them, hold their hand, brush their hair.
In this moment it takes great courage to face death. Honour your feelings in this experience and don't rush. Take a moment away if you feel panic arise. Breathe again.
Contact the GP or hospital doctor
Depending on where you are, a GP or hospital doctor will advise you on immediate concerns.
They will need to confirm the death. You can call your local GP if someone has died at home. Or, if someone has died unexpectedly, it's best to call 111 and get their advice.
Within the first few days you are lawfully required to get a medical certificate from a GP or hospital doctor. You will need this to register the death.
Decide what to do with their body.
Did they state where they wanted their body to be cared for after death?
The choices include:
at a funeral directors or funeral home
If someone dies in a hospital, unless told otherwise, they will be taken to the mortuary and the hospital can contact a funeral director on your behalf if this is what you want to happen. This director will take their body into their care. This may also happen if there has been a sudden or unexplained death and the coroner needs to verify that everything is OK. You can change your mind about the funeral directors if you want to.
If they've died at home, you can choose to keep them at home and care for their body yourself or call a funeral director of your choice. Just as there are people in all areas of life who we 'click' with and others who we don't want to spend time with, there are many excellent funeral directors who will support you and who you feel comfortable with and some that you won't. I can help you to choose someone who will support you in the way that works for you and your family. This may be a smaller independent organisation or a larger one that you feel confident with, I work with them all. Although this option is not for everyone, there is support to care for your deceased person's body at home. The Natural Death Centre or The Home Funeral Network offer you support if this is what you wish and I can give you advice about this also.
Register the death.
Register the death within five days. You will then get the documents you need for the funeral.
You can google 'register a death' and up will come the government website. Or, click this link: https://www.gov.uk/register-a-death From this, you’ll get a ‘certificate for a burial’ to give to the funeral director, or an application for cremation which you need to complete and give to the crematorium.
Arrange the funeral.
You can legally do this with or without the services of a funeral director, faith minister or celebrant and do it all yourselves.
Being open and transparent in all aspects of death and death planning, is really important for everyone involved. Everybody deserves a funeral which not only reflects their own unique personality and approach to life, but that also honours and celebrates the unique gifts they brought to the world, and the legacy they leave behind.
If you know death is approaching, it's best to do some research on the next steps to take beforehand. This makes decisions much easier later on when in a high emotional state.
There are different options to consider when planning ahead: who will lead the service? Where will it be held? Flowers, music, invitations, programmes. It can be overwhelming. I recommend researching online, asking friends and family who you know have arranged a funeral in the past. Remember to breathe and ask for support wherever you can.
As an independent celebrant, I help people to create the service that serves the story of their loved ones. We meet in person or over the phone a number of times to talk and you can tell me all about the person who has died. I make notes so that I can create the service. For the most part, I listen, support and guide you through the process. I can help you choose music and create the programme. I will write the eulogy with your friends and families' input. It's a collaborative partnership. Celebrants are often hired through a funeral directors and you can contact me directly and I can help you with your choices.
It is good to know that the funeral world is slowly changing in the UK from one that was dominated by huge money making corporate businesses and outdated Victorian rituals, to more openness about costs and doing things in less traditional ways. There are some interesting TV adverts now which reflect some of these changes! Concern for the environment is an important factor when making these choices too. There are many great independent funeral directors some of which are classed as ‘alternative’ as well as those bigger household names that are able to offer you choices and a bespoke service. Experience of working with so many different local Funeral Directors means I am in a good position to help you choose one that is right for you.
A burial in a local cemetery, a woodland glade / natural burial ground or a cremation at one of the many crematoriums in your area? The farewell ceremony can take place at the chapel or lodge provided by the ground/crematorium but if you don't like the thought of waiting for your 'turn', you can hold the service at home, a hotel, a village hall in a wood even!
Support with Grieving
There are organisations in place to support you through the difficult process of grief.
Call on your friends and family. Ask for time from work - you are entitled to some "compassionate leave" after the death.
What to do with the ashes
If your loved one's body has been cremated, you may hold on to the ashes, or you may choose to do something with them. You can scatter them in a special place; you could have them turned into jewellery or ornaments, or place them in a beautiful location such as a barrow. Here is some candid advice about 'The 9 Things No One Tells You About Scattering Ashes' from Modern Loss.
This decision has no time limit. However, making the difficult decision helps you to accept their death and let go of their physical form.
Remember, your memories of them are going nowhere. Their imprint is with you. In moments you find it difficult to let go, lean into this.
After some time, you may wish to hold gatherings in celebration of their life. This may come round at milestones such as birthdays, anniversaries, etc.
As I said, this is no extensive list of what you need to do, but it is a starting point. The most important thing is: breathe and ask for support.
Below are further resources for you.
Liz Barka is an independent celebrant in South Cambridgeshire, England. She provides authentic, compassionate ceremonies across Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. She has a qualification in Grief and Bereavement Counselling and is available for support. Get in touch via the website. Read more about her here, and more about what a celebrant is here.