What to Do When Someone Dies

When someone dies, there are many things that need to be done. Among them are urgent, high-priority matters; other issues can take a back seat but still need to be addressed.

Still other things need to be addressed, but are a lower priority (for instance, choosing the design for funeral invitations or selecting a caterer for the memorial reception).

So, what all should you expect to do when someone you love dies? Let's take a look.

What to Do When Someone Dies

Please note that this isn't necessarily a comprehensive list. There may be other things you need to do, depending on the time, place, and manner of death, as well as the level of advance preparation and planning that has been done.

Also, you may not need to do everything on this list. In all likelihood, many of these things will apply to your situation but not all.

You may also find that you can wait a little while on some of the "immediate" things, and sometimes the "priority" tasks will need to be done immediately. Each situation is different!

Our intention is to give you an overview of what you might expect to be doing when someone close to you - such as a spouse or parent - passes away.

Immediate: First Things to Do When Someone Dies

  • Get a legal pronouncement of death. Most often this is done by a nurse or doctor. If your loved one died in a hospital, this will be taken care of. If your loved one died at home, the quickest way is to call 911. Some hospice workers can pronounce death, as can some other medical and state-employed professionals (varies by state).
  • Check for organ donor status. This will be displayed one the person's drivers license, some state ID cards, or in their advance directive. If they are an organ donor, notify the hospital or hospice staff (or call the nearest hospital if at home). This must be done as soon as possible to maintain organ viability.
  • Decide what to do with the body. Find out their wishes for body disposition and begin to follow their directives. This will determine where and how the body is transported. They may have had burial insurance or a prepaid funeral plan. If they haven't chosen a funeral home, you'll want to call one soon. If your loved one made other arrangements (direct cremation; body donation for medical research; home/natural burial; etc), you'll need to take the first steps soon.
  • Arrange transportation of the body. Depending on their final wishes, you may need to transport the body to the funeral home, to the crematorium, back home, or a longer distance. Most often, the funeral home and/or medical professionals can help direct the transportation.
  • Notify immediate family members. This might include a spouse or significant other, parents, children, siblings, or close friends. You'll have a lot to do, so it is often best to call a very small number of the closest people, then delegate further notifications to someone else.
  • Notify pastor, priest, or clergy. If the decedent was a member of a church or other religious community, notify their minister, who will be able to come provide support and guidance to the family and perform and relevant rites.
  • Arrange dependent/pet care. If there are children or pets in the home, you'll need to get someone to care for them.

Priority: Important Next Steps When Someone Dies

  • Change the locks. This may seem strange, but it's unfortunately necessary. The person's home will be empty, and a lot of people will come to know it in the next few days as word of the death gets out (especially with funeral notices/invitations). You may not know who has access to the decedent's home or property, and even close family members can sometimes preempt the will and begin taking things. So, if you can't do this yourself, hire a professional or ask someone you trust to change out the locks. The decedent's property will be distributed according to the will, at the appropriate time, and not before.
  • Notify the decedent's employer or business associates. If they worked for someone else, let the employer know. Be sure to ask for not only the final paycheck(s), but also any further benefits, life insurance, or vacation pay accrued. If they owned their own business, contact the manager or any business partners. For freelancers, you'll need to communicate with clients, especially when there are near due dates.
  • Get multiple copies of the death certificate. If you use a funeral home, the funeral director will typically take care of this for you. Otherwise, you'll need to contact the state or county's vital records office. It is recommended to get at least ten copies. Many offices and accounts will require them, including the Social Security Administration, banks, investment and POD accounts, life insurance, Veterans Affairs, and more.
  • Plan the funeral. This will include what to do with the body, obituaries, burial or cremation, perhaps a viewing or visitation, a reception, a graveside ceremony, choosing a casket (or cremation urn), a headstone, and so on.
  • File for insurance benefits. Look into and begin the process to file for insurance benefits. Most commonly this will be life insurance; other types, including medical and auto insurance, may have funeral benefits.
  • Take care of the decedent's home. Arrange for small things like watering plants, taking out the trash/recycle, cleaning out the fridge, mowing the grass, and other regular household maintenance tasks.

Necessary: Plan on Doing These Things In the Coming Weeks & Months

  • Deal with the estate. This will likely begin soon after the death, but many of the details can and will be put off until after the funeral. Contact a lawyer, find out about the will, see if probate is necessary, name or inform the executor, and so on.
  • Notify agencies and organizations. Here's a list of who to notify. The list include government agencies, financial institutions, insurance companies, credit reporting agencies, memberships, and so on. All are important, but be sure not to overlook the credit reporting agencies as many identity thefts happen after a death.
  • Notify the post office. If the person's mail needs to go to a different address, file a change of address with the post office.
  • Cancel accounts & subscriptions. Utilities, phone, internet, Netflix, magazines, and so on. There are many subscription services that will continue charging until you notify them, and others may provide a refund. Here is a helpful list of accounts to cancel when someone dies.
  • Take care of their personal belongings. Major items will be dealt with by the estate, but often the decisions about little things like clothes, jewelry, and other belongings will be yours to make. There are many ways to approach this. And you don't have to it immediately, but in your own time you will need to address all the personal belongings that are no longer in use. Save some things (don't rush and do anything you might regret; you can always pass them on or get rid of them later), and feel free to sell, give, or donate some things. Box up items, or decide to leave their room as-is for a set period of time. Ask friends and family members to help. Preserve and cherish their memory as you go through their things, but you will often need to 
  • Find ways to honor your loved one's memory. This is important as a way for you to process their death, and also as a way to preserve and honor their legacy. One of the first and central ways to do this is through the headstone or monument at their grave. If they were cremated, the urn serves as a memorial. If their remains are scattered, or if you would like some other way to honor their memory, consider creating a memorial garden, bench, an endowment or scholarship fund, or decorative plaques, candles, and other memorial items for the home. A memorial bird feeder is one unique and creative way to do this.
  • Take time to grieve. You've just lost someone very dear to you. It will affect you powerfully and emotionally in ways you may not expect. Schedule time to do all the things on this list, but also plan time to just be alone to remember, cry, journal, pray, and grieve. Ask friends to come and spend time with you (they will welcome the opportunity to help!) and be in contact with a pastor or grief counselor.

More Tips on Funeral Planning

If you'd like further guidance on funeral planning, including what to expect, check out this comprehensive and helpful funeral planning guide from US Urns Online.

Two Final Tips

At Urns Northwest, our specialty is cremation urns and memorial items. Since we work with families on a daily basis who have just lost a loved one, we have two important and insightful tips about choosing the urn.

Tip #1

First, we suggest that you purchase the urn earlier rather than later. If you're planning in advance, buy the urn now. Or if your loved one has just died and you're beginning to plan the funeral, order the urn soon.

This will often save you the expense of expedited shipping fees, and will provide peace of mind knowing that you have one less thing to do.

Tip #2

Second, we suggest that if you're unsure or having difficulty choosing the right urn, you can purchase the urn later rather than sooner.

Yes, that's exactly opposite of the advice in tip #1. Here's why:

Sometimes, it's better to wait on an important decision like the choice of a permanent final resting place for your loved one's remains.

So instead of rushing to get the urn delivered in time for a funeral or memorial service, you can do one of two things.

You can have the funeral with the body present in a casket. When an individual is cremated, you have the option to do the cremation after the funeral and the funeral home will provide a casket for the funeral. This may be included in a package, or you may have to pay a rental fee.

If the cremation has already taken place, or if it will take place prior to the service, you can also rent a nice urn from the funeral home for use during the service. Often, the urn rental fee will be less than rush shipping fees, and you won't have to worry about it not showing up in time.

Then, once everything has settled down, you can take your time and choose the perfect urn to honor your loved one.