After someone dies

There is no right or wrong way to feel when a relative or friend dies. Everyone reacts differently. You may feel shocked, numb or as if everything is unreal. Or you may feel relieved that they are now at peace. You may have known that your relative or friend was dying and been preparing yourself for that. But sometimes a person dies unexpectedly, and this can be a huge shock. You may have many different feelings.

Your relative or friend may have died at home or in a hospital, hospice or care home. If you are alone when your relative or friend dies, it may be helpful to have someone with you soon after the death to support you. This might be a relative, friend, religious adviser or someone from the health or social care team.

It is important to do what feels right for you. Do not feel that you have to do anything straight away or rush to get things done.

You may be with the person when they died. You can spend some time just sitting with the person.

If your relative or friend is donating their body, organs or body tissues, you should tell a doctor as soon as possible.

Many cultures and religions have ceremonies or rituals that are important when someone dies. A spiritual or religious adviser can help you with these.

When someone dies at home

If your relative or friend dies at home, you may be alone with them. You may not be certain that they have died, and you may be unsure of what to do next.

You can take your time, as you may find it difficult to think clearly at first. You may have some written information from the GP, district nurse, or palliative care team about what to do. Follow that if you can. If you are on your own, you may want to call a family member or friend to be with you.

You will need to tell the person’s GP or district nurse what has happened. They will come as soon as they can to confirm the death. If the person dies when the GP surgery is shut, you should call the out-of-hours doctor.

If the death is expected, the person’s GP will confirm the death and write a medical certificate of cause of death (MCCD). The GP will also give you a form called a Notice to informant, which tells you how to register the death.

If a district nurse or out-of-hours doctor comes, they will confirm the death. But only a GP who has seen the person alive in the last 14 days (or 28 days in Northern Ireland) can complete the MCCD.

If the GP has not seen the person in this time, you will need to get the MCCD and Notice to informant form from your GP surgery. This may take a few days. You can call the GP surgery to find out when the forms will be ready for you to collect.

When a nurse or doctor has confirmed the death, you can contact the funeral director (undertaker). You do not need to do this straight away if you would like to spend some time with your relative or friend. Funeral directors are available 24 hours a day. They will explain what you need to do.

When you have the MCCD, you need to take it to the local registrars’ office to register the death.

It can be a shock to see the MCCD, as this may be the first time you see the details in writing. Some people describe feeling as if they are being told all over again that their relative or friend has died. You may want to have someone with you when you read it.

If you have questions about what is written on the MCCD, you may be able to ask your GP at the time. Or you could arrange to speak to them later.

From 2018, in some areas, a medical examiner will need to see and agree with the MCCD before the GP gives it to you. Your doctor can tell you more about this.

When someone dies in hospital or a hospice

Your relative or friend may be in a hospital or hospice when they die. You may or may not be with them.

Even if their death was expected, you may feel shocked and numb and unsure what to do next. The care staff should support and guide you through the next few hours.

A doctor or nurse will confirm the death. If the death was expected, they will give you a medical certificate of cause of death (MCCD). You will need this to register the death. You may have to collect the certificate from the hospital the next working day. The nurses will tell you what you need to do.

After you have left the hospital or hospice, your relative or friend’s body may be moved to a mortuary. If you want to see your relative or friend, you will be told who to contact. The undertakers will collect the body from the hospital or hospice.

If the death was not expected

If your relative or friend dies unexpectedly, you may be totally unprepared. You may find it difficult to believe what has happened. The ward staff or GP will talk to you about what has happened and try to answer any questions you have.

If the death was not expected, or if the person dies at home and had not been seen by their GP in the last 14 days (in England, Scotland, and Wales) or 28 days (in Northern Ireland), the death will be referred to:

  • the coroner (a doctor or lawyer who investigates unexpected deaths) in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland
  • the procurator fiscal in Scotland.

This is a standard procedure.

Most deaths that are reported to the coroner or procurator fiscal are natural. Sometimes, the cause of death is not clear. The coroner will decide if an examination of the body (post mortem) is needed to find the cause of death. If a death is referred to the coroner or procurator fiscal, the funeral may sometimes be delayed.

You can find more information about what to do after a death at:

The Bereavement Advice Centre also has information on what to do when someone dies.

Caring for the body

The funeral director will arrange for your relative or friend’s body to be taken to the funeral home. Some people like to keep the person’s body at home before the funeral. The funeral director can give you information about how long the body can be at home and what you need to do.

The funeral director will take care of your relative or friend’s body. They will carefully wash and dry them, and close their eyelids and mouth. They will tidy and sometimes wash their hair. If you would like to, you can help the funeral directors wash and dress your relative or friend. Let them know as soon as possible so they can arrange this.

They may also ask what you would like them to be dressed in. This could be an outfit or jewellery that had special meaning to them.

You can tell the funeral director if there are any cultural or religious practices you would like to be followed.

Some people want to be embalmed. This is when the body is disinfected and treated with chemicals to help preserve it. The funeral director can give you more information about this.

Registering the death

The doctor will usually give you information about how to register your relative or friend’s death when they give you the medical certificate of cause of death (MCCD).

The person who can register the death varies in different parts of the UK. You can find more detailed information about this at gov.uk/register-a-death.

You will register the death with the Registrar of Births, Marriages, and Deaths. This has to be done within 5 days (in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) or 8 days (in Scotland), unless it has been referred to the coroner or procurator fiscal.

Some registrars’ offices have an appointment system, so call and check before you go.

You can get the telephone number for the registrars’ office:

Things to take with you include:

  • the MCCD – you must take this with you
  • your relative or friend’s birth certificate, and their marriage certificate if they had one
  • details of any state benefits they were getting
  • their NHS medical card, if they had one
  • the National Insurance number of the person who has died, and of their surviving husband, wife, or civil partner, if they have one.

The registrar will enter the details of the death in the register and give you a certificate for burial or cremation. You need to give this to the funeral director. If you need a certificate of registration of death for social security purposes, the registrar will give you one.

Before you go to the registrars’ office, it is helpful to think about how many copies of the death certificate you might need. These are original, certified copies and not photocopies. You can buy certified copies for a small charge at the time of registration.

You can also buy certified copies at a later time, but they may cost more.

You usually need one certified copy for each life insurance policy (or similar) that you need to claim. You may need copies for other official agencies and organisations. They will usually return the copy of the death certificate once they have seen it.

You can get more information about registering the death from:

Telling relatives and friends

You may feel that you want to tell people yourself. But this can be tiring and emotional, so do not feel you have to do it all. You could contact close relatives and friends and ask them to tell other people.

You could start by writing a list of people you would like to contact, and think about how to do it. Use address books, mobile phones, or social networking sites to help you make a list.

You might also find it helpful to think about what you want to say and write it down before you contact people. There is no right or wrong way to tell people, but this might be a starting point: ‘I am sorry to say I have some very sad news. (Name of person) has been ill for some time/was suddenly taken ill and died earlier today/this week’.

Telling official agencies and organisations

When someone dies, there are a lot of official agencies and organisations that need to be told. These include:

  • employers
  • the tax office
  • banks and building societies
  • insurance companies
  • gas, electricity, or phone companies
  • the local council.

Many of these organisations will need a certified death certificate and other information, such as full names, addresses, and account numbers.

Contacting all these organisations can take a lot of time, and you may not feel emotionally ready to do this. You do not have to contact everyone at once. You can also ask a relative or friend to help you. Many organisations and companies have staff who are trained to deal with calls from relatives and friends when someone dies. You can ask to speak to the bereavement team if they have one.

Some people find it helpful to write a list of all the organisations they need to contact and gradually work through it over a few weeks. Others prefer to contact them all at once.

It is important to tell insurance companies straight away, as insurance policies become invalid as soon as someone dies.

The Bereavement Advice Centre has a useful checklist of the organisations you need to contact.

Tell Us Once

Tell Us Once is a service available in some local authorities in England, Scotland, and Wales. It allows you to report a death to most government organisations at the same time. The local registrar will tell you if the Tell Us Once service is available in your area and how to use it. They will give you a unique reference number to access the service.

Wills and probate

A will is a legal document that gives instructions from the person who died about who they wanted to leave their money and belongings to.

When someone dies, what they leave is called their estate. This is worked out from any money or possessions the person owned and any debts they may have had when they died. Probate is the process of proving what someone owned and owed when they died. In Scotland, probate is called confirmation.

When someone dies, the person who deals with their estate (the executor) needs to apply for probate or confirmation before the will can be followed.

This can be done by applying to:

  • the local probate court in England and Wales
  • the probate registry in Northern Ireland
  • the sheriff court in Scotland.

It usually takes several weeks. Probate or confirmation may not be needed in some situations, for example if the person who died owned everything jointly with their spouse.

If a person dies without making a will, this is called dying intestate. If this happens, you should apply for letters of administration in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland, or for an appointment of executor dative in Scotland. The probate process usually takes longer for people who die intestate. You should not sell or give away any of your relative or friend’s property until probate is granted.

If you have questions about probate, it might be helpful to discuss these with a solicitor or your local Citizens Advice:

It is important that the executors of the will understand what they have to do and tell close family or friends what is happening. If you are likely to be left something in the will, you are called a beneficiary. It is also important to note that probate can take a long time.

If your relative or friend has not left detailed instructions in their will, you may have to decide what to do with their property. There may be pieces of jewellery, furniture, pictures, or personal items. Deciding what to keep and what to pass on can be very upsetting.

Try to do it at a time that feels right for you. Think about whether you would prefer to sort through their personal things alone or have help from others. Do not feel you have to make all the decisions yourself if other people offer to help.

You can find more information about wills and probate at gov.uk/wills-probate-inheritance.

Financial help

If your husband, wife, 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 their pension or National Insurance contributions.

You can also contact the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00, 7 days a week 8am - 8pm.

Online accounts

Your relative or friend may have online accounts such as email, online banking, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. You may not be sure what you want to do with these accounts.

You can find information online about closing or deactivating accounts or making memorialised accounts on social media websites.

Planning a funeral

Funerals and memorial services allow relatives and friends to get together to remember the person who has died. They can be a celebration of the person’s life as well as a chance to say goodbye to them.

We have more information about planning a funeral.

How we can help

Macmillan Cancer Support Line
The Macmillan Support Line offers confidential support to people living with cancer and their loved ones. If you need to talk, we'll listen.
0808 808 00 00
7 days a week, 8am - 8pm
Email us
Get in touch via this form
Chat online
7 days a week, 8am - 8pm
Online Community
An anonymous network of people affected by cancer which is free to join. Share experiences, ask questions and talk to people who understand.
Help in your area
What's going on near you? Find out about support groups, where to get information and how to get involved with Macmillan where you live.