What To Do When Someone Dies
The death of a loved one is a traumatic time for family and friends. The emotional turmoil that ensues can be made more difficult if plans haven’t been made for this eventuality. In this article, I’ve outlined a step-by-step process to follow when someone in your family, or someone for whom you are responsible, dies. I have generalized these steps based on information from my home country of Canada but they are largely applicable to the U.K. and the U.S. Always consult your local laws for details relevant to you. I also recognize that my suggestions are based on a secular approach. This, in no way, disregards the importance and relevance of various cultural customs and beliefs.
12 Steps to take following a death in the family
- Unexpected and Expected Deaths — Call the doctor or emergency services. If the death is unexpected, call emergency services (911 in U.S. and Canada; 999 in the U.K.; 112 in Europe). If emergency services or a doctor is not available in your area, call the Coroner’s Office.
- Arrange the funeral — Many people choose or have previously chosen a funeral home to arrange the services. A local cemetery or crematorium can also provide assistance with funeral arrangements. However, you can also make your own arrangements. Consult your local Coroner’s Office for details.
- Register the death — You are required by law to register a death. Burials and cremations cannot take place until you do. You will need two documents: 1) a Medical Certificate of Death that a doctor or attending coroner completes outlining the cause of death, and 2) a Statement of Death that you and the funeral director complete detailing the personal information of the deceased. If you do not use a funeral director, you will be responsible for obtaining and completing these forms and submitting them to the municipal clerk’s office.
- Burial permit — A funeral director would normally oversee this process. If you are not using a funeral director, you can obtain one from your local municipal office once the death has been registered. You must have this permit before funeral services and body disposal can take place. If the death occurs outside your province, state, or country, you will have to obtain these permits from the local jurisdiction where the death took place.
- Death certificate — Once a death has been registered, you can obtain a death certificate or copy at any time. Anyone can apply for a copy of a death certificate but only the next of kin and the deceased’s executor can apply for a certified copy. You will need a death certificate to settle an estate; access government services; access insurance benefits; and research a family tree.
- Locate the will — You will need to check if the deceased has a will. If so, a ‘probate court’ will need to determine if it is legal. Once probate is granted or approved, the executor or named estate trustee can carry out the will’s instructions regarding inheritance and distribution of property and finances, and other assets. If there is no will, the state will step in as an administrator. This can be a complicated and lengthy process and it would be best to consult a lawyer or your local law society for assistance.
- Notify others — In addition to notifying the government, you will also have to notify other members of the family and the deceased’s friends and business associates. Ideally, a good end-of-life plan has already identified these contacts. However, you may have to search the deceased’s email contacts or address book for help. You will also need to make a list of businesses and online services to contact to end any subscriptions or contracts or other services. Parking permits and the deceased’s driver’s license will also need to be canceled and refunds sought if outstanding. Consult your local government office for instructions. You will require a death certificate.
- Obituary — consult with family members and friends about publishing an obituary in the local paper or online and elsewhere where it might be relevant (particularly if the deceased lived in other localities).
- Administer the deceased’s finances — The executor of the will has the power to administer the deceased’s finances. Banks and other financial institutions will have to be informed and his/her/their accounts settled. Income tax forms will have to be filed on behalf of the deceased. Check to see if beneficiaries have been named. An executor is not liable for the deceased’s debts.
- Assign a digital executor — If someone hasn’t already been assigned in the deceased’s end-of-life plan, appoint or ask someone with technical knowledge and time to memorialize or cancel the deceased’s social media and other online accounts, newsletters, websites, blogs, and other online presences. If the deceased had an online business, check to see if plans have been made for the continuation of the business or its termination. Inform clients and customers.
- Create a legacy or plan a memorial — If appropriate and desired, family and friends may want to create a legacy or other memorial to celebrate the life of the deceased. This may take many forms from ritual celebration to a party to a creative work of art such as photograph collection, writings, artwork, performance, sharing of memories, and testimonials. Others may want to celebrate privately while some will enjoy a public gathering.
- If appropriate, seek grief counseling — Grief is a natural response to a loss of any kind. Everyone grieves differently and there’s no particular timeline or process to follow. Unresolved grief can be debilitating leading to emotional and behavioral issues in the future. While many people, with the support of family and friends, can navigate grief, many others find it overwhelming. If this is the case, seek help from a professional or qualified grief counselor or therapist in your area or online. Remember that grief is both a personal and public journey. You don’t have to do it alone. At the very least, share your feelings with a close friend.
I hope you find the above twelve steps make your journey, following a death, a little easier to bear. Accept my condolences for your loss and my blessings for a meaningful experience.
The Importance of Your Own End-of-Life Plan
I also want to point out that our loved ones’ experience of our own dying and eventual death can be vastly ameliorated by having an end-of-life plan that includes an up-to-date will, powers-of-attorney for our health care and finances/property, an Advance Care Plan, funeral plans, and our last wishes clearly documented and discussed with our family ahead of time. Think of having an end-of-life plan as your gift of love to those who survive you, allowing them to grieve and honor you without unnecessary anxiety and stress. Contact me if you want to know more about creating your own end-of-life plan (email@example.com)
In other countries, Google the phrase “what to do when someone dies” for resources in your local region.
Michael Williams, Ph.D. is an accredited and licensed End-of-Life Planning Facilitator and Educator. He currently works as the Head Facilitator for Before I Go Solutions (www.beforeigosolutions.com) a leading provider of resources, training, and support for end-of-life planning. Dr. Williams is also a professional storyteller, writer, and co-host of the popular podcast “Death-Defying Discussions” with Diane DeVivo. Download and listen wherever you get your favorite podcasts (Apple, Spotify, Google, Anchor, and more). Having previously lived and worked in Scotland for 30 years, Dr. Williams recently moved to Canada to be nearer his youngest grandchildren. He currently resides in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Learn more about Dr. Williams’ work at www.myendoflifeplan.ca and www.michaelwilliamsstoryteller.com.