Deaths that occur at home can be expected as a result of someone being diagnosed with a terminal condition, naturally from old age or as a result of unexpected circumstances such as an accident. Whatever the circumstances, a death at home requires certain things to be taken care of and often in the correct order.
In this guide, we take a closer look at the protocols of what you should do when someone dies at home including who you should call first, what you should expect to happen after death has been confirmed and whether the body needs to be moved.
- How do I check if someone has died?
- Who do I call first? Should I call 999?
- What happens if someone dies at home at night?
- What will the GP do?
- What should I do after the GP has left?
- When do I contact a funeral director?
- Does the body have to be moved to a funeral home?
- How do I break the news to relatives?
- Who else should I inform of a death at home?
- Can the deceased's organs be donated?
- How can I care for the deceased at home after death
- Where can I get support when someone dies at home?
How Do I Check if Someone Has Died?
It might seem like an obvious piece of advice but the first thing you should do is confirm that the person has, indeed, died.
If someone has been suffering from a long illness or is expected to die from natural causes there can be times when their breathing becomes so shallow or they become unresponsive that you could mistake this for death.
Always check for these vital signs before assuming that death has occurred:
- Check for a pulse either by holding your fingertips to the wrist or neck. A pulse can be difficult to detect so being unable to find one does not necessary mean that someone is dead.
- Also check for breathing using a mirror placed under the person’s nose. Even if they are breathing more shallowly, the glass should fog up slightly if there is any breath.
- Feel the person’s skin to check the temperature. The exterior of the body cools quite quickly after death and will feel cold to the touch after half an hour or so. Within 4-6 hours, this will be noticeably cold and some stiffening of the joints (rigor mortis) may have set in. There are things that can make someone feel colder such as the room temperature, draughts and the time of the year but, combined with the other checks above, will help you determine if someone has passed away.
If there has been an accident where you suspect someone has died or been killed then you should call an ambulance immediately using the emergency number, 999. The operator will talk you through the process of checking vital signs (as above) which may also include instructions on any immediate first aid that should be given if there is a chance to keep the victim alive.
Response times to a call like this should take under 8 minutes for an ambulance to arrive and to take over the care of the patient or to confirm death. In a situation where the cause of death is suspicious then the police will also be alerted.
Who Do I Call First? Should I Call 999?
Not all deaths should involve a police presence and it is only necessary to call 999 if there are any unusual circumstances around death and the reasons are considered unnatural.
Natural causes of death are considered those situations where a person has been suffering from a terminal illness or is expected to die from old age.
Accidental, violent of premature (such as with a child) deaths will always be investigated by the police.
If someone dies at home naturally and their death was expected as a result of failing health or from a terminal illness then the first person you should call is the family doctor and the next of kin (if this is not you).
If you do not know the details of the GP who was treating, or last saw, the deceased then you should contact the NHS on 111 for advice.
You may also wish to inform other relatives or friends who may wish to come to the house to support you and/or pay their final respects to the deceased. This is not always something that people feel comfortable doing but for some people, particularly older generations or close relatives, it is important for them that they have an opportunity to say their goodbyes if they need do.
If there has been a death at home which is not expected such as an elderly relative or in a patient who has been suffering a terminal illness then you should always contact the police using 999 (see above).
What Happens if Someone Dies at Home During the Night?
If death was expected and occurred naturally then you do not need to contact a GP immediately; it is okay to wait until morning if you are able to do so.
Being with a loved one who has passed away can be a difficult experience for some whilst for others this can be a peaceful way to spend a last few intimate hours together before starting the official process.
You may wish to use this time to notify other members of the immediate family or ask for someone to be with you whilst you wait for morning.
What Will the GP Do?
The family doctor will come to the house and perform a mortality check in order to confirm death. If the cause of death is known and was expected then the GP will issue a medical certificate.
If there is any uncertainty about the cause of death then the doctor will not provide a medical certificate. Instead, they will report the death to a coroner (or procurator fiscal in Scotland) and the body will be transferred to a hospital where a post mortem can be carried out.
In this instance, if there are any suspicious circumstances, the doctor may also inform the police.
What Do I Do After the GP Has Left?
You will need to take the medical certificate that the GP issued to the Register Office within five days of the death to allow a death certificate to be produced.
You will need this death certificate to be able to organise a funeral.
When Do I Contact a Funeral Director?
There is no law in the UK that states that you must use the services of a funeral director and you are able to arrange for burial (traditional or natural) or cremation yourself.
Most people opt to use the services of a funeral director who can arrange to collect the body of the deceased and transport them in a dignified and appropriate way to a funeral home in preparation for a cremation or burial service.
Does the Body Have to Be Moved to a Funeral Home?
If there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding death then there is no legal requirement for the deceased to be removed or their body transferred to a funeral home.
Some families prefer to have the deceased remain at home before they are buried or cremated (see ‘How Can I Care for the Deceased at Home After Death?’, below).
In circumstances where death is premature either by accidental death or violent death then the body will be taken to a hospital mortuary or direct to a coroner (or procurator fiscal in Scotland) where a post-mortem will be carried out to confirm the cause of death.
How Do I Break the News to Relatives?
Breaking the news of a death to relatives is difficult in any scenario, even if the person was suffering from an illness. Unlike in a hospital or hospice where staff can make these calls on your behalf, the responsibility will fall to you.
Patients with a terminal illness may have planned for their death and not wished to die at home. In these cases, news of their passing can be difficult for relatives and friends to deal with.
If you are not the next of kin then it is important that you break the news to this person first so that they can help decide who should be informed, when and how.
Notifying other people about a death that occurred at home is a personal decision but one that can have lasting implications so consider how you break this news very carefully.
Who Else Should I Inform of a Death at Home?
When someone dies there are many organisations (banks, government departments etc) that require to be officially informed; this is the role of the Executor of the deceased’s Estate.
However, there are some people that should be notified sooner, especially if death occurs unexpectedly at home.
The decision of when and how these people are informed, and by whom, is a personal one. Our suggestions of those people who you might wish to inform include, but is not limited to:
- Close friends and relatives, particularly anyone who has been involved in the care of the deceased up until death.
- The deceased’s employer, university or school.
- Your employer if you require to take leave of absence from work.
- Any medical or social care organisations who have been providing care and for which the deceased may have upcoming appointments.
- The deceased’s landlord if they were renting their accommodation.
Can The Deceased’s Organs Be Donated?
Unfortunately, if someone dies at home then they will not be able to donate their organs but tissue donation may still be possible. If these are the wishes of the deceased then you should make this clear to the GP or emergency services when you notify them of a death at home.
How Can I Care for the Deceased at Home After Death?
Caring for the body of someone who has died at home is not an easy or simple task and should not be undertaken without due consideration and the right preparation.
In some religions, and more traditional families, the care of the deceased is undertaken by the family in the home rather than via a funeral director.
The reasons for this can be cultural, religious or may even stem from the fact that the family are just not ready to be separated from their loved ones.
In those instances where a funeral is arranged swiftly and burial or cremation can take place within a few days, then caring for the deceased’s body is more straightforward. However, the decomposition process begins soon after death has occurred and changes can occur in the body quite rapidly.
If you are considering home care prior to a funeral without involving a funeral home then your family doctor can provide advice and the Natural Death Centre also offer support and guidance about how to do this.
You may also wish to consider the services of a death doula. Also known as death midwives, these non-medically trained advisers can offer important help during any palliative care processes as well as offering guidance on how to care for the deceased at home, after death.
Where Can I get Support When Someone Dies at Home?
When someone dies at home, even if this was expected, any surviving relatives (or friends) who formerly resided with the deceased can find living at the property a struggle.
It is common for deaths in the home to increase anxiety and stress on top of the normal grieving process as it is difficult to detach yourself from the memory of your loved one dying within the house itself.
There are many charities and organisations in the UK that offer support during this time of mourning and who have experience dealing specifically with a home death can affect those left behind.
- Cruse Bereavement Care & Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland: The UK’s largest grief support charity who offer a free support line as well as group support and one-to-one sessions.
- Grief in Common: An online support group offering a community of people who may share similar experiences.
- Samaritans: As well as offering a 24/7 support line which is intended to offer someone to talk to when you are in emotional distress, the Samaritans also have lots of local branches which run support groups and drop in sessions.
- The Good Grief Trust: Run by the bereaved for the bereaved, the Good Grief Trust offers a range of ways to access professional support as well as connecting people who have shared experiences.
- Child Bereavement UK: A charity that specialises in supporting families who have lost a child or baby, they offer both online and telephone advice. They can also help support children who are grieving for parents or loved ones who have died.
- Bereavement UK: An independent online support group for people who are dealing with the loss of someone they love.
It is also worth speaking to your own GP to find out what local groups can offer support (both practical and emotional) to you during this time. You can also find a directory of private therapist and counsellors with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy who may also be able to help you.