When someone dies many decisions and arrangements must be made, many of them difficult at a time of grief. If a person has died at home the first thing to do is to notify the GP. Then the death must be registered with the local registrar of births and deaths; in England and Wales within five days. A relative usually registers the death but various other people can do it.
The person registering the death needs a medical certificate showing the cause of death, signed by a doctor. If a post-mortem isn’t required the registrar issues a certificate of registration of death. This is used for social security purposes if the person was on a state pension or benefits. People can buy one or more death certificates at this time. The registrar also gives the person registering the death a certificate for burial or cremation (called the 'green form'), giving permission for burial of the body or to apply for the body to be cremated.
Some people we interviewed had been bereaved through pancreatic cancer. They talked about the practical things that needed doing after their relative’s death and recalled their grief. After Anthony’s wife died in hospital he went to the hospital bereavement office, where he cried so much that he ‘used up half their box of tissues’.
Seeing her death certificate was ‘a moment of great pain’ for Anthony. He burst into tears because it was additional proof that his wife was dead. He pointed out that it is important to buy a number of death certificates because many organisations, such as the insurance company, need an original death certificate. The executor (of the person’s estate) will also need one when sorting out the person's affairs.
David (Interview 30) talked about the pain of losing his wife and said that at that time he ‘stepped back’, letting other people do the practical things. John (Interview 21) also found someone else to get the death certificates.
Theadora and her father went to the register office for her mother’s death certificate. It was a strange experience because the people waiting in the register office were there for quite different reasons.
Simon’s wife died at home. Her GP arrived soon afterwards to certify the cause of death. A few days later Simon went to register the death. The experience distressed him because he and his wife had got married in the same office and the staff’s attitude and behaviour upset him.
The only legal requirement in the UK regarding funerals is that the death is certified and registered and the body properly taken care of, by either burial or cremation. Funeral ceremonies in the UK take many forms. They differ according to a preference for burial or cremation, and in line with any religious beliefs or affiliation. People can organise it with or without the help of a funeral director. The Natural Death Centre
is a charitable project which gives independent funeral advice with information on all types of funeral. It is particularly helpful for those who wish to have an inexpensive, family-organised, and environmentally friendly funeral. Some people described what happened at their relative’s funeral.
People from different cultural backgrounds and with differing beliefs will have their own ideas about where a person should be buried or the remains scattered. In medieval Christian Europe people thought that it mattered for the destiny of the soul to bury people in consecrated ground, as close as possible to the altar of a church. Some people still believe this, others don’t.
People often plan some sort of memorial for a person who has died. It sometimes takes many months to decide whether and how to mark a grave or special place. It can take time for people to be sure what they want written on any permanent memorial. People are often advised to wait a year before buying a headstone because the ground tends to drop after a burial.
After the funeral or commemoration people usually have some gathering or wake. David’s (Interview 30) wife had her funeral in the local church and was buried in the local cemetery. A wake in the village hall followed.
After someone dies other practical matters need attention – cards and letters to answer and the dead person’s ‘estate’ to sort out. A person’s ‘estate’ is their money, property and belongings at death. Before people start dealing with someone’s property, they need to find out whether or not they left a valid will. Hugh thought that after his mother died his father got much satisfaction from clearing things out and sorting his mother’s belongings.
For much more information about what to do after someone dies see Department of Work and Pensions.