What to do when someone dies
If you are reading this guide because someone you know is dying or has died, please accept our condolences. We're sorry that you’re going through this. This guide has been written to support you in having a more empowered approach to arranging a funeral at what can be an unsettling and uncertain time.
Dealing with the death of someone close to you is not easy, but it is manageable. There’s going to be paperwork. There’ll be people to talk to. There’ll be things to sort out. There’ll be some difficult decisions to make. But you should know that there’s no rush to make any decisions and there are supportive professionals who can guide you through the next steps.
If you’re reading this in preparation, you might want to print out this guide and keep it somewhere safe and accessible.
You can call us for support and advice anytime of the day or night.
020 3291 3426
There are different things you’ll need to do, depending on where the person has died.
When someone dies at home, a doctor will need to certify the death. Sometimes this will be the person's registered GP, sometimes it will be the on-call doctor. After someone has died, you can spend time with them, if you want to do so. You may want to play some music and light a candle. There’s no rush. Whenever you're ready, you can call us on 020 3291 3426 and we'll bring the person who has died into our care in South East London, providing the death has been certified.
If the death was expected, the GP will provide a medical certificate showing the cause of death, which you will need to register the death.
At a Nursing Home
When someone dies in a nursing home, a doctor will need to certify the death. Sometimes this will be the person's registered GP; sometimes it will be the on-call doctor. Once the doctor has been to see the person, the nursing home may require that we collect them straight away. If the death was expected, the GP will provide a medical certificate showing the cause of death, which you will need to register the death.
In Hospital or Hospice
If the person has died in hospital or hospice, you'll liaise with the bereavement team who will offer practical and emotional support. The person who has died will usually be kept in the mortuary at the hospital or hospice until a funeral director is appointed or alternative arrangements are made. If you appoint us as your funeral director, we'll be able to call the hospital or hospice and make the necessary arrangements.
If Someone Dies Unexpectedly
If someone dies unexpectedly or if they haven’t been seen by their GP in the last 14 days, their death will be reported to the coroner, who may request a post-mortem or inquest. This may take some time so it's a good idea to speak to us so we can liaise with the coroner and make provisional arrangements for the funeral. We won’t be able to confirm a date or time until the coroner has finished their investigations.
The Government’s website provides helpful information about how to handle the administration following a death.
You can call us for support and advice anytime of the day or night.
020 3291 3426
Registering the Death
You’ll need to make an appointment at your local register office to register the death within five days. You’ll need to take along the certificate showing the cause of death, signed by a doctor. If you have their birth certificate, NHS medical card or number and marriage or civil partnership certificates, take these along as well.
You’ll be issued with a certificate for burial or cremation (the green form) and a death certificate. You'll need to give us the green certificate for the funeral to go ahead.
It may be a good idea to get several copies of the death certificate, as various authorities may need it (such as banks and life insurance companies.)
Please don’t be pressured into appointing a funeral director straight away. There’s no rush to make a decision about who to appoint. Give yourself some time to consider how you’d like to approach arranging the funeral.
Choosing a Funeral Director
You may wish to appoint a funeral director (such as Poetic Endings) to take care of the person who has died and to make arrangements for the funeral, although using a funeral director is not a legal requirement. Funeral directors are all different, so it’s important to choose someone who feels right for you. If you’re looking for a good funeral director in your area, the Good Funeral Guide will be able to help.
Using a funeral director is not a legal requirement. You may wish to handle the arrangements yourself. You can do everything from collecting the person who has died from the mortuary to taking care of them at home, transporting them to the funeral, and even arranging a burial or cremation. As flexible funeral directors, we're able to support you in any aspect of the funeral, even if you'd rather do most of it yourself. The Natural Death Centre will be able to provide support and guidance.
Direct cremation is when the person who has died is collected from the place of death and cremated with no ceremony and no mourners. It has become increasingly popular in recent years with people who have disregarded the need for a funeral ceremony.
A good funeral can be profound and transformational in helping the people left behind to accept and acknowledge the death of someone close to them. A funeral doesn’t have to be like the ones you’ve been to in the past; you can create a funeral that works for you and helps you to grieve.
If you don’t want a traditional funeral but don’t want a direct cremation, it may be better to opt for a simple funeral where you choose the elements that work for you. If you work with a flexible funeral director, they’ll be able to facilitate this for you. For example, it may be important for you to spend time with the person who has died, but not important that they are transported to the funeral in a hearse followed by limos. You don’t need to buy the entire funeral package.
Funerals don’t have to take place in a church or a crematorium.
Service time differs between crematoria from 30 minutes to one hour. Be aware that a 30 minute service is only 20 minutes of service time as 10 minutes will be needed for entering and leaving.
If you know that there’s going to be a lot of content, you can book double (or even triple) service time.
You don’t have to go to the local crematorium or the crematorium closest to your funeral director. Ask about how much time you’ll be given and whether the crematorium is in good repair. You can visit and have a look around before you make a decision. Have a look at our guide to crematoria in London here.
At some stage, you may be asked to make a decision about the committal. This is when the curtains close around the coffin and/or the coffin moves through the doors and out of sight. Each crematorium is set up differently. It’s your choice as to how you say goodbye – you may want the curtains to remain open and the coffin in place.
You may prefer to say goodbye in your own way. For example, a message writing ceremony, a simple word of farewell or placing a favourite flower on the coffin as you depart. There are no rules.
Woodland & Natural Burial Grounds
Woodland and natural burial grounds can provide a more peaceful setting for a funeral. They’re often set in beautiful locations and some have ceremonial halls on site. See our guide to woodland and natural burial grounds around London here.
With a natural burial, there’s much more time and space to hold the ceremony you want without the pressures of the crematorium.
Be aware that some natural burial grounds will not allow you to mark the grave site. Some will allow a simple marker whilst others encourage the idea that the person who has died is becoming part of the landscape.
There are no laws stating where a funeral must be held. You can hold the service outside of the crematoria or church. Community halls, theatres and historic houses may work well for you but check that they will allow the coffin to be there, if that’s important to you. You can even hold the funeral at home or in your garden.
See our guide to alternative funeral venues in London here.
The Funeral Ceremony
If you decide to have a funeral ceremony, you’re going to need to make some decisions about the kind of ceremony you’d like and who you’d like to lead it.
Will it be celebratory? Solemn? Upbeat? Informal? Formal? What matters most is that the funeral reflects the person who has died, and serves the needs of those left behind. The process of putting the funeral together can help the grieving process. Sitting down with relatives to share stories, taking time to write a tribute or gathering photos for the order of service is as important as the funeral itself.
A religious service will follow the traditions of your chosen faith and will follow a fixed format.
The Church of England has done a lot of work to improve the funerals they offer and to make them much more personal.
Funeral celebrants will facilitate the funeral that you’d like to have based on your beliefs, not theirs. The funerals they put together are usually life-centered and can include elements of religion such as prayers. A good celebrant will visit you at home and spend time talking about the life of the person who has died before putting together the funeral.
There’s a whole spectrum of celebrants with different styles and offerings. Some celebrants are brilliant, others aren’t so good. Your funeral director may recommend a celebrant. You don’t need to go with the recommendation and can book someone independently. It’s your choice. You can see our directory of recommended celebrants in London here.
If you’d like a funeral that’s entirely free of religion, spirituality and any mention of God, a celebrant from the British Humanist Association will be able to take the service. Some Humanist Celebrants won’t allow any spiritual content so if you’re looking for something more flexible, you’re may wish to choose a different celebrant.
We live in a society of multiple faiths. Belief systems in families can be complicated. Mourners may have differing needs, but they don’t need to be contradictory.
For example, we helped an Imam to work with a celebrant to put together a funeral ceremony for a young woman who had died. Her family were religious, her friends weren’t. The resulting funeral met everyone’s needs.
Family/ Friend Led
If you or someone you know feels capable of leading the funeral service, you can do that. You can put together the funeral yourself or appoint an open-minded celebrant to assist you with certain elements such as how to structure it.
Funerals don’t have to stick to any structure or format. You can just play a favourite song on repeat or sit in silence if that resonates with you.
A good funeral can be transformational in helping the people left behind to accept and acknowledge the death of someone they love. It may be joyful, solemn, sad, relaxed or formal, depending on the circumstances. You may choose to call it a funeral, a festival, a celebration of life, or something entirely different. It might be extravagant, it might be blissfully simple. A funeral can be meaningful and relevant and doesn’t need to break the bank.
If you want to find out more about funerals, good funeral directors or you have additional questions, we'd love to hear from you.
After the Funeral
In the days after the funeral, support networks often disappear. Friends stop phoning and relatives stop calling by with offers of help. This can be the most vulnerable period for a bereaved person.
Grief is messy, complicated and painful. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t come in neatly defined stages. The idea of ‘getting over it’ is deeply unhelpful. There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription.
Not dealing with difficult emotions leads to greater problems later on. There’s so much help out there. Julia Samuel’s Grief Works is a refreshingly helpful and modern approach to grief. She has many helpful suggestions as to how to build pillars of strength that enable bereaved people to rebuild their lives, in their own time.
It’s ok if you’re not ok
The Good Grief Trust exists to help people experiencing grief in the UK. The charity aims to be there for anyone who has been bereaved by acknowledging grief and providing reassurance, a virtual hand of friendship and ongoing support. If you’re struggling and need support and guidance, you can find specialist help by looking at the directory on their helpful website.