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This section is written for the partner, relatives or friends of the person who is dying. However, you may want to read this section together and discuss plans well in advance. This can make things a lot easier for the people left behind.
When a person has planned their funeral and taken care of their financial affairs, they can then make the most of the time they have left and do the things they want to do.
When a person close to you has died, you may feel very shocked, however well prepared you were. You may feel confused and bewildered. Don’t feel that you have to do anything. You can just stay with your relative or friend’s body for a while. You may have many different emotions or you may just feel numb.
The death of someone close to you is a very significant event in a person’s life. Most cultures and religions have developed rituals or processes to mark this event and to help the people left behind to adjust to the change.
During the first few hours, the loss of your loved one may seem very unreal, but there are some things you will need to do.
It’s important though, that you don’t feel rushed to ‘get on with things’. If you want, you can just spend some quiet time with the person who has died. Many people like to sit and talk or hold hands, and see the person at peace, especially if the last few hours or days were a strain.
In many religions this is a time when there are things that the people who have been left behind need to do to help their relative or friend to pass onwards. It’s important to follow your instincts and do what you feel is appropriate.
If you are in a hospital or hospice, the nursing staff will be nearby. If your relative died at home, you should let your doctor know within a few hours. Your GP or district nurse, or someone who is covering for them, will come as soon as possible to verify the death. If you’re alone, you can ring a relative or friend to come and be with you. You may want a spiritual leader to be with you as well.
You might want to help wash and clothe (lay out) the body. In a hospice or hospital, the nurses will usually do this, but they will be happy to let you help if you would like to. At home, if you contact an undertaker they will show you what to do. This process is different for different religions but may involve carefully washing and drying the body, closing the eyelids, and making sure the mouth is supported and closed. The person’s hair is tidied and sometimes washed.
You can keep the person’s body at home, if that’s what you’d like to do, but you will need your doctor, district nurse or an out-of-hours GP to verify the death. As soon as the death has been verified, you can contact the undertaker if you wish, as they will be able to take the body to a chapel of rest.
You can find details of your local undertaker in your phone book or on the internet. Undertakers all provide a 24-hour service. However, you may want to wait until morning if the death has occurred during the night.
One of the GPs from your own practice will usually give you a medical certificate for the cause of death if your relative died at home. You may be given this when the doctor verifies the death or you may need to get the death certificate from your GP the next day. If your relative or friend dies in hospital, one of the hospital doctors will complete the medical certificate for the cause of death and you will usually be asked to collect it the next day.
You can make all arrangements for the funeral and burial by yourself if you’d like. Many people, however, want to use the services of an undertaker (funeral director). The undertaker can answer most of the questions you have and guide you through the practicalities of arranging a funeral.
You’ll need to wait until you have spoken to the doctor and they have decided whether a post-mortem is needed (see below|), before you set a date for the funeral or other service. The undertaker can arrange for you or other family members to see the person’s body at home or at the chapel of rest if this is what you and your loved one wanted.
Some people wish to be embalmed. This is a process by which the body is disinfected and treated with chemicals to slow the process of decay. Blood is drained out of the body and replaced with embalming fluid. Embalming is carried out at the funeral directors (undertakers).
The doctor will give you a medical certificate stating the cause of death, with a slip of paper known as the ‘Notice to informant’, which tells you how to register the death. If a post-mortem has been arranged, a certificate may not be available until after the post-mortem.
You need to take the medical certificate, and details of the deceased’s place and date of birth, to the registrar’s office in the area where the death occurred. This needs to be done within five days (eight days in Scotland). Your local council can give you the contact details for your local registrar.
The registrar will ask you several questions about the person who has died. They will then enter the details in a register, which you will need to sign. A certified copy of the entry in the register, commonly known as a ‘death certificate’, will then be completed.
Some registrars’ offices have an appointment system, so check before you go. You can find the number of your local registrar’s office listed under ‘Registration of births, deaths and marriages’ in the business section of your local phone book, and it may be on the envelope containing the medical certificate.
If you’re not able to attend yourself, certain other people can act as an ‘informant’ and register the death for you. Details of who can act as an informant are listed on the back of the ‘Notice to informant’. These include a relative of the person who has died or a person who is not a relative but who was present at the time of death.
The information you need to provide when registering a death depends on where you live in the UK, so it’s important to read the details of the ‘Notice to informant’ carefully and make sure you have all the information before you go to the registrar’s office.
Before you attend the registrar’s office, it’s helpful to think about how many copies of the death certificate you might need. You can buy ‘certified copies’ for a small charge at the time of registration. They are duplicate original certified copies of entry, not photocopies. It is wise to obtain the copies you need when you register the death as certificates obtained at a later date may cost more.
You will usually need one certified copy for each life insurance policy, or similar, which you need to claim. Other organisations, such as a bank, will just need to see the original certificate or will make a copy for their records. The executor, if there is a will, can help you work out how many copies you will need.
The registrar will give you a certificate of burial or cremation, also known as a green form, to say that the death has been registered and that the funeral can take place. You need to give this to the undertaker. The registrar will also give you a Certificate of Registration of Death Form (BD8) if you need this for social security purposes.
The booklets What to do after a death in England and Wales (PDF 228kb)| and What to do after a death in Scotland (PDF 170kb)| may be useful to have as they outline things that you need to do at this time.
A post-mortem will not usually be needed when someone dies from cancer if the death was expected and the person was seen by their GP in the two weeks before their death.
However, there are occasions when a post-mortem can give helpful information. For example, the cancer may have been diagnosed at an advance stage and only the secondary tumours identified. A post-mortem may show where the cancer started. This may be information you will want to know, to help you understand exactly what happened.
People who die from mesothelioma need to have a post-mortem, as this is an occupational disease. A post-mortem may also be necessary for anyone who has ever been a miner and for some people who are claiming occupational compensation. Remember that you can agree to a limited post-mortem, where only the relevant parts of the body will be examined. This may feel like a more acceptable option for you and will still allow the doctors to get the answers needed. A post-mortem can usually be done within two or three days and should not delay the funeral.
The UK is a multi-cultural and multi-faith society, and each group has its own traditions and ceremonies. Funerals and memorials are one way in which we seek to pay our respects to the person who has died. They play a big part in helping us to acknowledge the death and say goodbye to someone. This allows people to express grief and draw strength from other people who knew the deceased. It’s also an opportunity to celebrate their life.
Before making any funeral arrangements it is important to consider several issues:
Some people have no religious beliefs, while others will have a strong religious or spiritual faith or may have lived their lives as humanists, agnostics or atheists. You may have very clear ideas about how you want to pay your respects to the person’s body and how you want the service to be dealt with. Remember, you don’t need to have a religious leader to conduct a funeral or memorial service.
If you’re unsure what to do or didn’t have a chance to discuss this with your loved one, you can get ideas from books or the internet, or an undertaker can guide you through issuing the death notices and planning the funeral service. You can also get information from the registrar.
People who have a spiritual or religious faith often have a clear idea of who they want to conduct the funeral and where they want the funeral or memorial service to take place. A funeral, religious or spiritual service can be held wherever you like, for example, in the person’s home or their favourite place. Often, services are held in the church where the body will be buried or in the chapel next to a crematorium, but they can be held in other places if you like.
After the memorial service, the body of the person is cremated or buried.
Cremation takes place in a designated crematorium, which is sometimes close to a church. The ashes of the person are given in a container to the next of kin. You may have discussed with your loved one what they wanted done with their ashes and you can carry out these wishes when you are ready.
Burial is usually in a churchyard or other designated burial place. It’s also possible for people to be buried in other places, such as a garden. If you want to bury the person on property that you own or in a place that they loved, you can get information from The Natural Death Centre|.
If you and your relative or friend didn’t have the chance to discuss their choice of burial or cremation, and there is a will, it’s important to consult the executor to see if the will contains this information. If you discussed plans for the funeral before death, this makes it easier to be sure you’re arranging a service of remembrance which reflects the person’s wishes. Some people also have strong views on the clothes they want to be buried or cremated in.
The Social Fund is a government fund that makes payments to people in need. These payments include Funeral Payments to help with the cost of arranging a funeral. To be eligible for most Social Fund payments you need to be receiving certain benefits when you apply. The fund is run by the Department for Work and Pensions|. For more information on Funeral Payments visit their website or contact your local Jobcentre Plus office.
Probate is the official validation and approval of a will. Application for probate must be made to the local probate court before the will can be executed (carried out). This will take several weeks.
If a person dies without making a will this is known as ‘dying intestate’. If this is the case, ‘letters of administration’ should be applied for but this process may take even longer. None of the dead person’s property should be sold or given away until probate is granted. If you have questions about probate it might be helpful to discuss these with a solicitor.
In Scotland, probate is called ‘confirmation’ and ‘appointment of executor-dative’ is equivalent to ‘letters of administration’.
It’s important that the executors of the will understand their role and that they keep you up-to-date on progress. If you are a likely beneficiary of the will, bear in mind that probate can take a long time. Try to make sure that you have access to enough money in your own account to see you through the first few weeks and months. Some money can be released early to pay for immediate incidental costs, but it’s much easier to have independent funds in a joint account.
Age UK| has a fact sheet about how to deal with someone’s estate.
Grief is a normal response to the death of someone close to you. It’s usually felt as a yearning for the other person. At times the yearning can be so strong that it feels like very real, physical pain.
Everyone experiences grief in a different way, but most people move through some or all of the stages listed here, often moving backwards and forwards between these stages:
Immediately after the death, and for some time afterwards, you may feel numb. You may find it hard to believe that the person is dead. It’s common to feel angry that the person has died. The anger may be directed at the person themselves for leaving you, or at other people, such as family members or health professionals, for not being able to stop them from dying.
Some people feel physically ill. They might have:
This is normal and it doesn’t mean you have a serious illness.
You may have times of severe anxiety and distress, where you strongly miss the dead person and sob or cry aloud for them. Although this tends to happen less often after the first couple of weeks, finding a photograph of them or visiting a place which holds strong memories can trigger the distress, even months or years afterwards.
On the first day or so after the death, while you are feeling numb, you will probably need help to do tasks such as registering the death, arranging the funeral and coping with visitors.
You may also need to spend some time on your own, coming to terms with what has happened. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions during the grieving process – it’s perfectly natural to cry when you are thinking and talking about your loved one. Tears can help you to feel better, although long periods of crying can make you feel exhausted.
You may be entitled to bereavement benefits such as a bereavement payment, widowed parent’s allowance or a bereavement allowance. You can find out more about any benefits you may be entitled to from your local Citizens Advice Bureau or by calling the Benefit Enquiry Line on 0800 882 200. You can also visit the Department for Work and Pensions website| or talk to us|.
This can be the hardest time as everyone has gone home and you are expected to pick up the pieces of your life. Try not to do too much too soon. You will need time to get used to your loss and the changes that the death of the person you cared for has brought. If you make decisions in a hurry, you may find later that you regret them. It’s important to take time to look after yourself. Some cultures have specific practices to follow, which can help to mark each phase after a person’s death.
Many people continue to ‘see’ or ‘hear’ the person who has died, or have a sense of their presence. For example, some people walk into a room and have an experience of ‘seeing’ the person sitting in their favourite armchair. Other people have vivid dreams in which they see the dead person as fit and well. These are perfectly normal experiences.
Talking through your feelings at this time may be helpful. There are many organisations, such as Cruse|, which run groups for people who are grieving. Your GP can put you in touch with a local bereavement counsellor if you would like more formal one-to-one counselling.
The grieving process is variable and very personal. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if your feelings and emotions are normal. You may find that you get stuck at one stage of the grieving process, for example feeling very angry. If this happens you may want to talk to your GP who may recommend counselling.
Soon after a person’s death you may feel that you’ll never be able to live your life normally again. However these feelings usually resolve over time, although this can take a year or more. You will never forget the person and will always have memories of them. However, it’s usual to be able to get on with life again after a while and to be able to enjoy activities and make plans for the future. You can ask for help and advice from your GP if you feel that you can’t get on with your life after more than a year, as you may need support to help you through the grieving process.
A very small number of people develop suicidal thoughts as part of the grieving process, either because they feel unable to face life without the person, or because they feel that their own death might bring them closer again. If you have suicidal thoughts, don’t be afraid to discuss them with your GP or a trusted friend or relative. You may need expert counselling and possibly medicines to help you feel better.
It’s common for feelings of grief to be brought up again at particular times. This may happen on the anniversary of the person’s death or on birthdays and anniversaries. At these times you may feel many conflicting emotions and may like to do something to remember the person, such as go to the place where they are buried, or somewhere that meant a lot to you both. You may want to hold a gathering of relatives and close friends to share memories of the person and celebrate their life. You will know the best way to remember them and pay your respects.
Our Bereavement| section has help on how to cope with grief, and, when you're ready, offers ways to celebrate the life of your loved one.
Content last reviewed: 1 February 2011
Next planned review: 2013
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