Immediate Help: What Do I Do When Someone Dies?

If you are reading this guide, someone you love has just died. This is a stressful time, so take a deep breath, and take the time you need to read this section and make conscious, informed decisions. In most cases, there is no need to rush, and you can make plans at your own pace. See Which Authorities Do I Need to Contact? below for decisions that need to be made right away.


What Should I Take Care of Immediately Following a Death?
Read through this section to identify any pressing matters you’ll need to take care of. We've compiled this list of what may be your first considerations; note that not all of these will apply to you.

Note: The following legal and logistical information is most readily applicable to residents of California. However, where California’s laws or procedures differ greatly from those of the majority of other states, we have made an effort to make our out-of-state readers aware of this.

1. Do I Have the Personal Information of the Person Who Passed?

Early in the process, it is helpful to track down as much of the important personal information of the person who has died as possible. This may come in handy as you are filling out paperwork, settling the estate, and making final arrangements. If you do not have all of this information, try asking other close family and friends of the person, or anyone who may know where you can find it. Download our After Death Checklist to fill out the Personal Information below and refer to it as you find necessary.

Personal Information

  • Name of Person Filling Out Form
  • Date and Time of Drafting Form 
  • Name of Person who Died
  • Date and Time of Death 
  • Date of Birth
  • Place of Birth
  • Social Security Number
  • Service in the US Armed Forces, if applicable
  • Marital Status 
  • Spouse’s Name / Maiden Name
  • Occupation and Type of Business
  • Residence Address and how long he/she resided in this county 
  • Names of Parents: Father’s Name and Mother’s Maiden Name
  • Birth State and County of Father and Mother
  • Level of Education
  • Preferred Form of Disposition, if known
  • Place of Burial or Disposition
  • Name, Address, and Phone Number of Certifying Physician
  • Name, Address, and Phone Number of Person with Right to Control Disposition


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2. Who Will Make the Decisions?

It’s important to determine who is the primary decision-maker following the death. Whoever is the agent of the Power of Attorney for Health Care is the one who will be making the final disposition decisions. (Note that this is not the same as the Power of Attorney for the estate.) If no one has been assigned, then the hospital, hospice, and funeral authorities will defer to the next of kin.

Spouse or Legal Next of Kin
If there aren’t any documents indicating an agent of Power of Attorney for Health Care, then either the surviving spouse or the legal next of kin will be in charge of the decision-making. Usually, the order of precedence is as follows: spouse, eldest child of legal age, parents, siblings, and grandparents. You can reference this Kinship Chart prepared at for more information.

Note: If same-sex partners have not set up Power of Attorney for Health Care for each other, or are not state-registered domestic partners, then the next of kin of the person who died will have the legal right to make decisions, not the partner. 

Advance Health Care Directives
In most cases, advance directives apply to before-death wishes rather than after-death. However, if the person who died indicated their after-death wishes in a directive—such as disposition or organ donation—the Power of Attorney for Health Care agent can authorize the procedures. He or she can also authorize an autopsy, if this is desired.

Advance Health Care Directives

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3. What Important Documents Do I Need?

Documents I Need to Locate

Documents I Need to Complete

Locating Important Documents
You’ll want to make sure you have the necessary personal information to fill out important after-death documents. Refer to Do I Have the Personal Information of the Person Who Passed? You should also locate any documents the person may have drafted before their death, such as a will or pre-need contract, in which they may have indicated their final wishes, choice of disposition, or funding for final arrangements.

If you’re not sure whether the person who passed has any of these documents, ask other family members or close friends. Consider checking safety deposit boxes, file drawers in the workplace or home office, strongboxes, even the refrigerator (a place commonly recommended by memorial societies) or any other locations that you think might contain important paperwork. Also consult with the person’s attorney, primary physician, or legal next of kin to see if any instructions were left with them.

A home funeral consultant, hospice worker, or funeral director can also help you with these tasks.

Is There a Prepaid Disposition Plan?
You will need to determine if the person who passed had a prepaid disposition plan before making other arrangements. Had he or she set aside funds in a living trust, given funds to a funeral service provider, established a funeral or burial insurance policy, or set up a Payable-on-Death Account or Totten Trust?

Hopefully, the person who died documented their prepaid plans and stored them with the other important paperwork. You will need to identify the chosen service provider and contact them to make sure everything is set up. You can notify the service provider when you’re ready to have the person who passed picked up from the place of death.

If you have any problems or concerns about securing funds or applying them, or if you feel that the service provider is not dealing with you fairly, contact the Funeral Consumers Alliance for assistance or advice.

In the case that there is a prepaid plan that has not fully been paid for, then it is up to you to decide what to do regarding choice of disposition. Refer to the Choosing Disposition section of our guide for further information.

Death Certificate
In most cases, the last attending physician and the funeral services provider will complete and sign the Death Certificate. However, if the person died outside of the hospital, you will have to contact the physician for this purpose. A home funeral consultant can also help you through this process.

You’ll find that death certificates will be necessary in a number of cases, including transactions involving checking or savings accounts, deeds of property ownership, ownership of stocks and bonds, vehicle registrations, and life insurance policy claims, among others. Make sure you order enough copies; you may need 10 or more.

Death certificates are state-specific, and the required information will vary slightly from state to state. Many states, including California, have instituted an online death certificate filing system that is not available to the general public. However, if necessary you can still fill out a hard copy on your own; just be careful to complete everything accurately and legibly without any mistakes or cross-outs. Contact your local health department or the county Office of Vital Statistics to obtain blank legal copies.

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4. Which Family and Friends Do I Need to Contact?

You may want to consider calling immediate family members and close friends within a few hours of the death. In a family emergency situation, those close to the person who passed will want to be informed right away. Consider calling the spouse, parents, children, siblings, and grandparents of the person who passed. If you are alone, having someone keep you company while you make these calls may be helpful and comforting. If you are not feeling up to making calls about the loss of your loved one, enlist the help of a friend, relative, caregiver, or hospice worker in this task and in sorting out after-death arrangements.

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5. Are There Dependents That Need Immediate Consideration?

You’ll want to make sure that anyone who depended on the person who died is properly taken care of. Are there any minor children, a spouse, or an elderly relative? Was the person paying for a young person’s college tuition or a parent’s assisted living facility expenses? Did they have pets that might need care? Plants or gardens to tend to?

If so, you may need to enlist the help of friends or relatives to immediately handle certain responsibilities. You might also choose to look into day care, hospice, or pet care services for temporary assistance until a longer-term solution can be found.

What to Do When Someone Dies

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6. Which Authorities Do I Need to Contact?

After a death, you’ll want to determine which authorities to notify, and how quickly this should be done. We present several examples based on different circumstances under which the person may have passed away.

In a Hospital
A hospital morgue can hold the person who passed for many days, until you have made after-death arrangements. Some smaller hospitals may not have morgues, in which case you’ll have to make alternative arrangements to move the person from the facilities. Make sure the last attending physician completes the medical portion of the death certificate.

In an Assisted Living Home, State Facility, or Hospice
You will likely have to make arrangements to move the person who passed from the facilities within a day, as most assisted living communities do not have a morgue or storage facility. You can arrange for your service provider to pick up and take your loved one to a funeral home, a cremation service facility, or to your home if you want to have a home funeral. You are completely within your rights to transport your loved one yourself; if you must cross county or state boundaries to do this, see How Do I Transport the Person’s Body or Cremated Ashes? for more information.

At Home Without Hospice
If someone dies at home, without the assistance of hospice, you can take things at your own pace. With proper planning, your loved one can remain at home for several days if you choose, and you can call a service provider or transport the person yourself for final resting arrangements. If you decide to keep the person who passed at home and have a home funeral, we advise that you hire a home funeral consultant. Visit our Local Resources to search Home Funeral Consultants, or see What Is Natural Death Care? below for more information.

At Home With Hospice
If someone dies at home with the assistance of hospice, the hospice worker can help you make arrangements, including enlisting a service provider to pick up the person who passed. If you do choose to spend more time with your loved one, or have a home funeral, you can call on the hospice worker for support. See What Is Natural Death Care? below for information on home funerals.

Unexpectedly or by Uncertain Means
If the person died unexpectedly an autopsy may be necessary to determine the cause of death. If the person died by uncertain means, the coroner will perform an autopsy, and you will have a few days to a week before the person who passed is released to you or your service provider.

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7. What About DNA Sampling?

DNA sampling and analysis are becoming increasingly popular. You may wish to save a sample of your loved one’s DNA, at which point you can store it for inclusion in a larger family tree, determine genetic predisposition to health conditions, or trace ancestral lineage. The sampling procedure involves using a specialized cotton swab to remove cells from the inside of a person’s cheek and a vial to transport the swab back to the lab for storage and analysis.

Ideally, you can plan ahead and order a DNA test kit before the person passes. However, if someone has just died and you do not have a kit, there are still a few ways you can obtain a DNA sample, including using an everyday cotton swab to collect DNA from the inner cheek. Contact a DNA sampling company for instructions on how to proceed.

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8. What About Organ Donation?

Note: In an effort to respect the feelings of those sensitive to certain topics, you may continue to the next section if you are not comfortable reading about this subject. Only view this if you feel you are comfortable reading about this subject.

Many people wish to donate their organs, tissues, or body in order to give life to others in need. A hospital will typically inform family members that their loved one will pass soon, and if the patient is a suitable donor, a non-profit Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) will present the family with his or her registration information. At this point, a transplant team travels to the hospital, and once the patient has passed the team performs surgery to take the donated organs or tissues to a transplant center, where a recipient is waiting.

If the person made arrangements with a full-body donation provider—these facilitate the donation of body and organs to scientific research—the next of kin should call the provider to notify them of the death. Alternatively, if the person left no instructions, the next of kin can elect to register him or her after death for a body donation program. Generally, such programs allow the donor to express a preference for what kind of research their body will be used for (for example, cancer or Alzheimer’s), but cannot guarantee the preference will be granted. See Biogift and Science Care for more information.

If the person made arrangements with a specific research facility—many universities offer body donation programs—the next of kin will have to notify them of the death.

However, if you are unaware of the person’s wishes or arrangements for donation, you can check a few places:

Drivers License
If a person has registered as an organ donor in their state, there should be text or an icon somewhere on their Drivers License or State Identification.

National Donor Websites
If the person has registered through a national website, such as, they may have a record of their donation. Some donors tape their printed registration behind their Drivers License, or store it with other important paperwork. A hospital’s organ donor consultant can also search for the person’s name on organ donor registries.

Living Will
The living will may explain the person’s wishes regarding organ donation. The person with Power of Attorney for Health Care should have access to this document; if no one has these legal powers, though, you might want to ask close friends and family if they are aware of its existence, or check to see if it was left with an attorney or in a safety deposit box. The primary decision-maker will ultimately decide whether or not to donate the organs of the person who has passed.

Advance Health Care Directives
The person who died also may have explained their wishes for organ donation in their advance health care directives. The person with Power of Attorney for Health Care should have access to these documents. You can also ask close friends, relatives, attorney, or primary physician of the person who died if they are aware of any advance health care directive documents.

Depending on whether the person indicated their wishes to donate, after-death arrangements for them may differ. If you do find instructions about organ donation, they may indicate exactly what the person wished to donate. If they wished to donate their whole body to science, contact the medical research facility or medical college where they registered or have your service provider contact them. You’ll have to sign disposition rights over to the facility or university. After the person’s body has served its research or educational purposes, the body will be cremated and scattered by the university. If the person who died wished only to donate organs or tissue, their body will be returned to the family or their service provider for final resting arrangements.

If the patient has no registration documentation, whoever is the executor, Power of Attorney for Health Care, or legal next of kin may still be able to authorize organ or body donation. Organ donation laws do vary from state to state. Some states have laws that allow the family or friends to refuse the wishes of the person who passed, or to decide for them after death. Go to for more information.

For more information on donating organs, read our Donating Organs or Body article.

Sympathy Food Delivery

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9. How Do I Transport the Person’s Body or Cremated Ashes?

If someone has died in an unexpected location, or in a different state or area than the location where they will to be put to rest, you will need to ensure that transportation is arranged.

Note: In an effort to respect the feelings of those sensitive to certain topics, you may continue to the next section if you are not comfortable reading about this subject. Only view this if you feel you are comfortable reading about this subject.

Transporting Between States - Cremated Ashes
If you choose to have cremation performed in the state of death and then bring the ashes to a different state for ceremony or keepsake, you have a few options. Cremated ashes can be mailed through the U.S. Postal Service (note that UPS and FedEx do not ship remains) or shipped through an airline cargo service. When mailing or shipping cremated ashes, make sure to pack them securely, even double boxing them to be safe. Also, make sure that the business or person you are shipping to is expecting the package.

You can also carry the ashes with you on a flight. Many airlines will not allow ashes to be in checked baggage, but will allow them in carry-on baggage. Just make sure that the container you use is scan-able at the security checkpoint. Metal, stone, or ceramic containers cannot be easily scanned, but containers made of cardboard, plastic, and most woods should be scan-able. You can also keep the ashes in a removable plastic bag, and take them out of the container at the checkpoint to be scanned separately. See the TSA website for more information.

Transporting Between States - Body
The Funeral Consumers Alliance advises that you work with a funeral director or service provider in the location where the body is to be cremated or buried, rather than the location of death, to save costs. Costs for transporting will vary; discuss with your provider the itemized costs for Forwarding Remains (if the body was already taken to a funeral home at location of death), Receiving Remains, and shipping services.

You can also make arrangements yourself for transporting the body. One option is to ship via airline cargo service. Make sure you notify airport authorities ahead of time of your arrangements, as it is more typical for funeral directors to handle the transport of the body.

You also have the option to transport the body by car or van. A few states require embalming if you are crossing state lines, although in some cases exceptions can be made. Contact the Funeral Consumers Alliance if you decide to transport on the road.

Transporting From Outside the U.S.
If the person was a U.S. citizen and died outside of the country, notify a U.S. embassy or consular official in the country where death occurred; they will produce documentation and available options to the next of kin. Visit for consulate contact info. Disposition choices will usually need to be made immediately, and your options will vary according to the country. The U.S. consular office should be able to assist you in this process.

Transporting from Outside the U.S. - Cremated Ashes
Most countries allow cremation, with the exception of certain predominantly Catholic or Muslim countries. The cost will vary according to the country, as will the amount of time it takes for the ashes to be returned to you. Arrange with the U.S. Department of State and/or the representing U.S. consular officer to ensure proper documentation according to U.S. and foreign laws. The State Department advises wiring the necessary money through them as opposed to private banks, which can take longer.

Transporting from Outside the U.S. - Body
Arrange with the U.S. Department of State and/or the representing U.S. consular officer to ensure proper documentation. These vary by country, but will usually include a body transit permit along with foreign death certificate. Embalming is not practiced in all countries; in some places, there are alternatives such as chemically-saturated shrouds. If the body has not been embalmed, the U.S. consular officer should alert U.S. Customs and the U.S. Public Health Service ahead of time and provide documentation to ensure there are no issues with receiving the body upon arrival.

Again, the State Department advises that you wire money for payment through them rather than going through a private bank, which can take longer. After receipt of payment, the body will be shipped to the U.S., sometimes up to ten days later. Make arrangements with a funeral director or service provider to pick up the body at the airport.

Burial Transit Permit
Some states issue burial transit permits to those responsible for transporting the person who passed, often the service provider who filed the death certificate and disposition permit. However, laws vary from state to state. In California, the disposition permit serves the purpose of the burial transit permit. If you’re planning to move the person who passed over state lines, it is likely that a burial transit permit will be required. Your service provider or local health board can advise you on the necessary permits. For a detailed look at your state’s laws, a good resource to look up is your state’s chapter in the book Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson.

How to Write an obituary

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10. How Do I Place an Announcement or Obituary?

You might want to create a public announcement or send an email to friends and family about your loss. You can include digital images of the person who passed and of special moments in their life, as well as a poem or a meaningful quote. See our section Remembrance Event for further recommendations.

There are also online obituary services, which have a directory of nationwide newspapers you can choose from. Or you can simply place an announcement in your local paper. You’ll usually have to pay a fixed rate, per line and day; contact your newspaper for details.

When you’re writing an announcement or obituary, think about areas of significance in the life of the person who passed that you might want to mention such as: employment and business achievements; prizes, awards, and degrees; clubs and organizations; passionate causes; hobbies; special achievements; and whatever you feel is important to their memory. If you wish, a service provider can help you with this process.

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11. Am I Taking Care of Myself?

Through this process, while there are many things you’ll feel you need to take care of, it’s very important that you continue to look after yourself. It can be easy to neglect your own needs as you deal with the emotional and practical difficulties following a death.

In particular, if you were the primary caregiver for the person who passed during a prolonged illness, you might experience adverse physical, mental, and emotional health effects known as caregiver burnout. Caregiver burnout can strongly manifest following the death of the person being cared for. You should make sure that you are eating well, getting enough sleep, and keeping active and healthy.

If the person who died was a member of your family, you may all be facing a difficult journey towards healing. You can find ways to grieve together as a family, such as going on family outings or looking at old photos. It can be something as simple as mentioning your loved one’s name from time to time. Some people might not be ready to talk about it immediately, so it’s good to simply keep avenues of communication open for when they are.

For more information on caregiver burnout, grief and healing, see our section Healing Process.

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12. What Is Natural Death Care?

In keeping with the movement towards natural burial and simplified services, a growing number of people are choosing to personalize how they spend their last moments with their loved one. Some simply want to stay with the person for a few extra hours or days before saying goodbye, while others choose to have a home funeral.

Natural death care allows the family to keep the loved one in the home after death and take care of the body in traditional and organic way. No embalming fluid or other chemicals are used. The body is cleaned and prepared by hand, either for a home funeral or for a simple viewing in the home.

Though it’s becoming more popular, natural death care is still a relatively novel choice, so it’s possible you’ll meet resistance from hospital or health board officials who haven’t had experience with it. You’ll also need to make sure you are in accordance with local laws. For assistance, hire a home funeral consultant. Visit our Local Resources section to find one in your area.

Whether or not you want to hire a consultant, you will definitely need to research and prepare for this process. It’s a good idea to enlist the help of three to six friends and family members. Keep in mind that there are currently laws in the following states that make home funerals illegal or difficult without the involvement of a funeral director: Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, and Utah.

Keeping the Person who Passed at Home
You might not want to prepare for a full home funeral, but prefer simply to keep the person who passed at home for a little longer before saying goodbye. Typically, a person who died can be kept in the home from three days to a week.

Though it may be more difficult, you can choose to perform natural death care without the assistance of a home funeral consultant. You’ll want to clean and prepare the person’s body, particularly if you’re planning to hold a viewing. By using dry ice or frozen gel packs, you can slow the process of degradation. Many states have laws dictating the maximum amount of time that can pass before a body must be cooled, refrigerated, or embalmed. Consider purchasing your state’s chapter in Joshua Slocum’s book Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death to find out about your local laws.

For more information on this process, read our article The Natural Death Care and Home Funeral Process.

To see the industry experts whose gracious contributions helped make this guide possible, visit our Acknowledgements.


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