When someone close to you passes away, it’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed. You may experience a whirlwind of emotions all at once—grief, confusion, anger, shock, even relief—and the laundry list of things that have to be taken care of can add tremendous added stress. How can any person be expected to deal with all the details that need attention at such a difficult time?
Knowing what to do and when to do it can free up the mental and emotional capacity you need to grieve and be where you’re needed most. Here is our list of the 10 most important things to do when a loved one dies. We’ve listed them here for quick reference and explained them in more detail below.
- Declaration of Death
- Are they an organ donor?
- Begin notifying family and friends.
- Notify the person’s doctor and arrange for transportation.
- Manage care of dependents and pets.
- Call any employers.
- Secure your loved one’s property.
- Arrange for a funeral and burial or cremation.
- Obtain death certificates
- Begin the probate process.
Declaration of Death
Immediately following the death of a loved one, a legal pronouncement of death is necessary for everything that follows, so your first step needs to be seeking a formal declaration from a doctor or medical professional. In the state of Colorado, only a physician or a coroner may pronounce death, but in other states, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, and medical students may also declare death.
If a doctor isn’t present at the time, you’ll need to contact someone to do this. If your loved one is at home under hospice care, call the hospice nurse, who will be able to contact someone to make the pronouncement. If that’s not the case, call 911. But be aware that paramedics may not be permitted to pronounce death—in fact, they may be required to start emergency procedures and take your loved one to a doctor for the declaration. Don’t be disturbed if this is the case. But if you do already have a legal do-not-resuscitate (DNR) document, this is the time to have it at hand.
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If your loved one happens to be an organ donor, time is of the essence after their passing. This may feel impossible to think about at the moment—especially if it’s a topic that’s never come up between the two of you before—but the truth is that, in order for your loved one to save the lives of others, it’s important that his/her body be transported to a hospital as soon as possible. If you’re not sure about your loved one’s wishes, check their driver’s license or, if possible, a living will or healthcare proxy. If they are an organ donor and not already at a hospital or in hospice, call the nearest hospital to speak with their staff.
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Begin notifying others.
If your loved one passes away at home and someone such as a hospice nurse is able to come to the house to officially declare the death, then this is a time to begin processing what’s happened. Contrary to popular belief, a body does not immediately need to be transported elsewhere. In the state of Colorado, you have 24 hours until the deceased must be embalmed or refrigerated. You may choose to use this time for religious or cultural customs and to begin your own grieving. Some families prefer to simply sit quietly with the deceased, while others request the attendance of a spiritual leader.
During this time is also when you should start notifying close family and friends—and don’t hesitate to request that they, in turn, continue contacting others. People can build up an astonishing number of connections over their lives, and it can easily become overwhelming trying to get in touch with all of them. Allow others to help you.
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Notify the person’s doctor and arrange for transportation.
If no doctor is present when your loved one passes away, you should notify their doctor or the county coroner. If an autopsy isn’t needed, then the body can be picked up by CremateSimply, a mortuary or other cremation provider when you and your family are ready. CremateSimply offers a pickup service that can be arranged over the phone or online. We believe families shouldn’t have to feel rushed, so we offer to take your loved one to one of our facilities and keep them in our care for free for up to 72 hours.
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Manage care of dependents and pets.
It can be easy to overlook children and pets during such a tumultuous and hectic time. It’s good to remember that they, too have lost a loved one and need support. For children, make sure that they not only have a safe and comforting place to stay, but also the company of family members and access to resources to help them process what’s going on emotionally. And pets will need not only shelter, care, and food, but as much semblance of stability as is possible to provide during this time. If you’re not personally able to care for your loved one’s pets, look for other family and friends who may be able to assist for the moment.
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Call any employers.
If your loved one was still working at the time of their passing, it’s important to let their employer(s) know what has happened. This allows them to make other arrangements, and it gives you and other family members the chance to request information regarding benefits and any compensation due. It’s also wise to inquire as to whether your loved one was covered by a life insurance policy through the company.
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Secure your loved one’s property.
This is another easily overlooked step. But it’s important to remember that your loved one’s home may be empty for a while, so be sure to make a thorough scan of it for anything that might be perishable. That might mean throwing out what’s in the fridge, but it can also mean doing things like watering plants (or taking them elsewhere) or doing any dirty dishes. Make a plan for maintenance, so that the lawn is mowed, phone messages are answered, the temperature in the house is set appropriately, the home is winterized, etc. If possible, ask a friend or relative to keep an eye on the person’s home. Finally, notify the post office and set up mail forwarding for your loved one.
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Arrange for a funeral and burial or cremation.
This is one of the biggest steps—in fact, many articles could be (and have been!) written on the many components of this step alone. But it’s also one of the most complicated to describe here because, by nature, this step varies according to the deceased’s wishes, family preferences, religious practices, and larger cultural attitudes. In other words, we recognize that this looks different for each person, and you have to choose the exact arrangements that work for you. In general, questions of whether or not to have a traditional funeral and whether to cremate, bury, or donate to science are dealt with in the few days after death.
Start by checking whether there is a prepaid burial plan by searching the person’s documents. If there isn’t and it isn’t specifically stated in a will, consider the following: What would your loved one want? What can you realistically afford? What process will help the family most (both logistically and emotionally)? If you are charged with making these decisions, ask a friend or family member to accompany you. If the person served in the military, contact their branch or veteran’s organization. They may provide burial benefits or offer funeral services.
You may be wondering, how much does a cremation cost? How much does a burial cost? What does the cremation process involve? Is it possible to have the cremation near me? In addition to our website, a wealth of resources exists to help you answer these questions. This is also the time to consider ways to memorialize your loved one. At CremateSimply, we know that many families prefer to handle these details themselves, and we do not offer memorialization services or merchandise. We do, however, strongly encourage that some type of service, big or private, be arranged to honor the deceased in a way that’s best for their family. Many places offer cremation urns or burial urns, or even something you can keep on you at all times to remember your loved one, such as cremation jewelry.
Finally, once arrangements are in place, you may want to prepare an obituary. Don’t be afraid to seek out online resources or help from a friend. Writing something of such importance can be a challenging task. Speaking of help, don’t be afraid to enlist it from friends and family members during this part of the process. Death is never easy, but with the help and support of those around you, it doesn’t have to be as heavy a burden.
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Obtain death certificates.
After the death of a loved one, you’ll need multiple copies of their death certificate to officially inform various organizations of your loved one’s passing. CremateSimply includes five copies of the death certificate in the cost of our Simple Cremation.
Be sure to notify your loved one’s financial institutions and close any accounts, including credit cards. Likewise, contact any financial advisors or brokers with whom they worked, along with all three major credit reporting agencies (an important step in ensuring that the deceased’s identity can’t be stolen). You’ll need to contact your loved one’s insurance provider to cancel any policies, as well as government agencies like the Social Security office, through which you may also be able to apply for survivor benefits. CremateSimply will notify Social Security for you. It’s also wise to cancel your loved one’s driver’s license, which you should be able to do online or through your local DMV—again, this is an excellent way to help prevent identity theft. For the same reason, once you have all the information you need, be sure to close your loved one’s email accounts. Contact their email providers for specific instructions.
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Begin the probate process.
This is often the longest and most complex of the many processes that need to happen after the death of a loved one. Like Steps 7 and 9 above, it has many moving parts, so our advice should be taken as a starting point for further research.
In essence, probate is the process through which the state supervises the authentication of a last will and testament. It involves identifying and determining the value of your loved one’s assets and typically involves paying any outstanding bills or taxes. It also ensures that beneficiaries receive what’s rightfully theirs according to the will or trust. In most places, the probate process can take anywhere from eight to twelve months, though every state’s probate process is different.
If you are named administrator or executor of a loved one’s will, the first thing to do is consider carefully whether you are in a position to accept the role. (Just because a will states that you are the executor doesn’t mean you are automatic—you must first be legally certified by a probate clerk before you can become the representative of another person’s estate.) Keep in mind that probate can be an enormous undertaking, and it’s important that this process be done right so that you don’t end up in a position of legal liability. For that reason, most people seek out an attorney who specializes in trusts and estate issues.
It is certainly possible to tackle this process on your own, but if you go it alone, know that it will involve a substantial amount of paperwork and a lengthy series of strict deadlines. In truth, probate can feel like a full-time job, so be honest with yourself and others if you don’t feel you can manage it entirely on your own. We highly recommend speaking to an attorney, even if only to learn as much as possible about probate issues and the process of transferring assets before you make a decision.
Unfortunately, not everyone dies with a will in place. This is known as dying “intestate.” Each state has established guidelines on how property and other assets will be distributed when this happens, and in general, the probate court is responsible for selecting the estate administrator under these circumstances. Usually, the surviving spouse is appointed, but if that’s not possible (say, if there is no surviving spouse or he/she declines the role), the next nearest relative will be appointed. Probate can also be started without a will if someone wants to be the administrator; this usually involves filing a petition in probate court. Again, we highly recommend seeking the advice of an attorney who specializes in these matters—having the benefit of guidance through such complicated matters can be invaluable at a difficult emotional time.
This moment may have arrived for you unexpectedly, or you may have known for a while that this day would come. That doesn’t make actually experiencing it any easier. Whatever your circumstances, know that you have our deepest condolences.