After death

After someone dies, you may feel angry, upset, relieved, shocked or numb. There are some practical things you will need to do, but you don’t need to do them all straight away, or alone.

Within a few hours, a doctor or nurse will need to confirm (‘verify’) the death. If the person died at home, you will need to contact their GP or district nurse to arrange this. You can also contact a funeral director, who can take care of your relative’s or friend’s body. If their death took place in a hospital or hospice, the staff will guide you through what needs to be done.

You will need to register the death at the local register office. The registrar will give you paperwork to make funeral arrangements and deal with legal and administrative matters. There will be legal processes to deal with your relative’s or friend’s property. These vary, depending on whether your relative or friend had made a will or not.

After someone you care about has died

In the first few hours after their death, you may feel very shocked or numb however well-prepared you were. You may have lots of overwhelming emotions, such as feeling extremely upset and angry. Many people also feel very relieved that their relative or friend can now be at peace.

Most cultures and religions have processes or rituals that they carry out at the time of death. It’s important for you to do what you feel is right. There may be some things that you need to do but don’t feel that you have to do anything straight away or rush 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 difficult.

You may want to have someone there to support you. It may help to ask them to contact other people to let them know, if you don’t feel up to telling them. A spiritual or religious adviser can also support you and carry out any processes or rituals that are important to you and your relative or friend.

What the GP will do

If your relative or friend dies in a hospital or hospice, the nursing staff will be nearby. They will guide you through what needs to be done over the next few hours.

If your relative or friend dies at home, you’ll need to let their GP or district nurse know what’s happened within a few hours. The GP or a disctrict nurse will come as soon as possible to confirm the death. This is also known as verifying the death.

If the GP comes, they will verify the death and give you a medical certificate for the cause of death with a form called Notice to informant, which tells you how to register the death. If a district nurse comes, or you have to call an out-of-hours doctor, they can verify the death but you may need to get the death certificate from your GP the following day.

When you have the medical death certificate, you need to take this to the local registrar’s office to register the death.


The doctor who certifies the death has a legal responsibility to inform the coroner (procurator fiscal in Scotland) if a post-mortem is needed. A post-mortem isn’t usually necessary if the death was expected and the person was seen by their GP in the last 14 days (28 days in Northern Ireland) before their death. However, there are some exceptions. For example, a post-mortem may be needed when a person dies of an occupational disease such as mesothelioma.

If a post-mortem is needed, it usually takes a few days to arrange. You’ll get a medical death certificate afterwards. This can help to give exact information about the cause of death. You’ll need to wait until the doctor has decided whether a post-mortem is needed before you set a date for the funeral or alternative service.

What the funeral director will do

Once the death has been verified by a nurse or doctor, you can contact the funeral director (undertaker).

They provide a 24-hour service and can advise you on what to do. Details of funeral directors are in your local phone book or on the internet. You can also get information from the National Association of Funeral Directors. The funeral director will come as soon as you want them to.

You can let the funeral director know if you’d like them to help you look after your relative’s or friend’s body at home until the funeral, or whether you’d like the body to be taken to the funeral director’s chapel of rest. You can visit the chapel of rest to be with the body if you’d like to.

Caring for the body

The funeral director will take care of your relative’s or friend’s body and will wash them. This process is different for different religions and cultures but usually involves carefully washing and drying the body, closing the eyelids, and making sure their mouth is supported while closed. The person’s hair is tidied and sometimes washed. The funeral director will also ask if you’d like them to be dressed in any specific clothes, such as a favourite outfit.

If you’d like to help the funeral directors wash and dress your relative or friend, let them know as soon as possible so they can arrange this.


Some people want to be embalmed. This is when the body is disinfected and treated with chemicals to help preserve it. Blood is drained out of the body and replaced with embalming fluid. This is carried out at the funeral directors.

Registering the death

You need to take the medical death certificate - and birth and marriage certificates - to the registrar’s office in the area where the death occurred. This needs to be done within five days (eight days in Scotland).

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. It may also be on the envelope containing the death certificate. If you’re not able to go yourself, another person can act as an ‘informant’ and register the death for you.

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. These are duplicate original certified copies and not photocopies. You’ll usually need one certified copy for each life insurance policy (or similar) that you need to claim.

At the registrar’s office, they will enter details of the death in the register and give you a certificate of burial or cremation. You need to give this to the funeral director. The registrar will also give you a certificate of registration of death, if this is needed for social security purposes.

Your district or palliative care nurse can give you information about what to do when someone dies.

Planning a funeral and burial or a cremation

Funerals and memorials allow relatives and friends to pay their respects to the person who has died. It’s a way of acknowledging their death and saying goodbye.

You can make all the arrangements for the funeral and burial yourself if you’d like to. However, most people prefer to have the help of the funeral director. The GP will need to know if you’re planning a cremation so they can complete the relevant paperwork.

Before making any funeral arrangements, it’s important to consider several issues:

  • What were the wishes of the dead person?
  • Have they expressed their wishes in a will?
  • What are your wishes?
  • How will the funeral be paid for? Is there a pre-paid funeral plan?

Some people have no strong religious beliefs, while others 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. An undertaker can also 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. Services are often 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 prefer.

After the memorial service, the person’s body is cremated or buried.


This takes place in a designated crematorium. The ashes of the person are given in a container to the next of kin. You and your loved one may have discussed what they wanted done with their ashes. You can carry out these wishes when you’re ready.


A 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 someone on a 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’s 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 their death, this makes it easier to be sure you’re arranging a service of remembrance that reflects the person’s wishes. Some people also have strong views on the clothes they want to be buried or cremated in.

Help with the cost of a funeral

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, contact the Department for Work and Pensions or your local Jobcentre Plus office. If you live in Northern Ireland, contact nidirect or your nearest social security agency office for more information. You’ll find their number in the phone book.

Financial help

Financial help

If your spouse or civil partner has died, you may be entitled to a Bereavement Payment or Bereavement Allowance. You may also be entitled to extra pension payments from your spouse or civil partner’s pension or National Insurance contributions.

If you live in England, Scotland or Wales, you can find out more at If you live in Northern Ireland, contact your local Social Security Agency benefits office. To find it, visit You can also contact Macmillan’s Support Line on 0808 808 00 00.

Wills and probate

When a person dies, the person who deals with their estate (their executor), needs to apply for probate before the will can be executed (carried out). Probate is the official validation and approval of a will. Application for probate needs to be made to the local probate court and usually takes several weeks. Probate may not be needed in some situations, for example when the person who died owned everything jointly with their spouse.

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. This process usually takes longer and 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 letters of administration is called “appointment of executor-dative”.

It’s important that the executors of the will understand their role and keep you up-to-date on the progress. If you’re 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 costs, but it’s much easier to have independent funds in a joint account.

Returning documents

At some point you should return documents belonging to the person who has died, such as their passport, driving licence, season ticket, bus pass and membership cards to the organisations that issued them. There is no need to do this straight away. You can ask someone else to do it for you if you find it too distressing.

Working together to create information for you

We worked with Marie Curie Cancer Care to write our End of life information.

Thank you to all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed what you're reading and have helped our information to develop.

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Back to After death


You will probably feel a range of emotions when someone you care about dies.