Whether a loved one’s death is sudden or expected, many people are overwhelmed by the process of facilitating their departure. You will need to determine their final wishes and do your best to honor their memory. This includes personal details like arranging their memorial as well as practical processes like initiating probate. If you’re working with a funeral planning service, this list prepares you for the documents they’ll need.
Steps to Take When a Loved One Dies
After your loved one passes away, access their living quarters. Try to find important documents such as a last testament and will, financial documents, and other important records. These will help you as you go through the process.
As Soon as Possible
Each of these tasks must be done as soon as possible.
1. Get a Pronouncement of Death
A pronouncement of death is a ritual performed at the time of someone’s passing. If the family is present, the pronouncement gives permission to grieve. In a hospital setting, this is usually performed by the doctor or nurse providing care. If someone dies outside a hospital, an EMT, firefighter, or police officer may declare death.
This individual records the time and it becomes the official time of death on their certificate. This is an important legal step that begins the process of putting someone to rest.
2. Arrange for Organ Donation
Medical professionals at a hospital will identify a potential candidate for donation. If appropriate, they will approach you about your loved one’s status. When your loved one has registered as an organ donor, you will be notified at the appropriate time. If they are not registered, you will be asked to provide consent. This happens in the hospital and the donation coordinator will assist you during the process.
Learn More about How Organ Donation works at organdonor.gov/about/process.
3. Notify Friends and Family
This notification usually takes two forms. First, an information notification happens immediately when you contact your family and friends. Most people call text, or email with an initial update.
Later, most people choose to send a formal message. Below are a few decisions you’ll need to make.
- Choose a Medium: Most people write a post on social media, send an email, mail a letter.
- Express sympathy: Your message should contain an expression of sympathy for everyone’s loss.
- Declare Details: Include important details about how your loved one passed and how their life will be memorialized.
See Sample Letters and Messages HERE. This should be sent to anyone who should be notified before a formal obituary.
4. Arrange Care of Dependents and Pets
Often, a person expresses their wishes for dependents and pets in a living will. If they have not, you’ll need to contact the appropriate organizations to arrange their care.
- For Children: If the child has no other legal guardian, your state’s child protective services. They will work with you to arrange care.
- For Other Dependents: If your loved one leaves behind an adult dependent, you must contact your state’s adult protective services. They will assist you with the arrangements.
- For Pets: Your local humane society can assist you with rehoming a pet.
5. Call Your Loved One’s Employer
Contact your loved one’s Human Resources department to let them know of their death. You can call or send an email. They will ask you for additional information for their records.
6. Secure Large Property (eg: house, car)
Depending on the circumstances, you may need to secure your loved one’s large property. Make sure their car is parked in an appropriate and safe location. Check their house to make sure the doors and windows are locked. Also, make a note of who has additional keys and decide if they should still have access to these areas.
7. Decide What you Will Do With the Remains
Your loved one’s living will may provide insight into what they would like to do with their remains. Some people provide explicit instructions and may have even pre-paid for a funeral planning service. If so, follow their instructions and contact the appropriate service providers.
If your loved one did not plan, you will need to choose between several options, including:
- Ground Burial
- Water Burial
8. Arrange for Transportation of the Body
Depending on your choice, you will need to direct the remains from the morgue to the appropriate funeral planning service provider. This might be a funeral home, a crematorium, or a mausoleum.
Within a Few Days
These tasks must be finished within a few days of your loved one’s passing.
9. Arrange for a Funeral or Burial
Now that you have chosen the method of your memorial, you’ll need to work with your service provider to arrange for a funeral or burial. You’ll need to decide on the location for the memorial service and where you are putting the remains to rest.
- If you are doing a ground burial, you will work with a funeral home. They can hold the services at their location and help you with interment in a cemetery. You can also work with them to hold the service at another location (like a church) and transfer the body to the cemetery. In the U.S. these services usually take place 3 to 7 days after death. If you choose a natural or green burial, the timeline is shorter.
- If you are doing a water burial, you’ll need to work with a service provider that performs these ceremonies. Typically, they are held on a ship and the remains are buried in the ocean as part of the ceremony. These follow a similar timeline as a funeral but are dependent on the weather.
- If you are cremating your loved one, you can ask a funeral home or a crematorium to perform the service. Often, this is called a direct cremation. Then, you can choose to hold a memorial service with the funeral home or plan one yourself. With cremation, you do have some extra time to arrange a service.
10. Order a Casket, Urn, or Scattering Service
You must choose the appropriate vessel for your loved one’s remains. If you are doing a ground or water burial, you will need to order a casket. The funeral home or another service provider can help you order this. If you choose cremation, you can order an urn or simply use the box provided by the crematorium. Most of the time, people order an urn if they plan to display their loved one’s remains for some time. If you are scattering them shortly after the cremation, you can keep them in the original packaging.
11. Get their Mail Forwarded
Forward your loved one’s mail through the US Postal Service at https://www.usps.com/manage/mail-for-deceased.htm. They have a simple online form that takes you through several steps.
Also, you should contact DMAchoice.org to register them on the Deceased Do Not Contact List (DDNC). Within 3 months of registering, advertising mail should decrease.
12. Check Home for Plants or Expired Food
Even if you visited your loved one’s home to find important documents, you should return to check on perishable items. Check their refrigerator and cabinets for items that can expire. Consider donating the other items to a food distribution charity if you are able.
Also, look for any plants and take them with you. These steps avoid attracting pests to the empty living space.
13. Check with Fraternal Services or Military
If your loved one was part of the military or any fraternal services, notify them of your loved one’s passing. They will let you know if any special ceremonies and honors can be bestowed upon your loved one. Additionally, the Military or fraternal organizations often assist with the cost of a service or burial.
14. Write an Obituary
If you choose to place a formal obituary in the newspaper, you should write it before the wake. According to Legacy.com, these cost between $100 – $800. The price depends on the length of the obituary and the chosen publication. Alternative options include:
- Funeral Home Website: Many funeral homes allow you to post a copy of your loved one’s obituary on their website.
- Social media: Social media platforms provide another, less-formal option to leave an obituary message. Many friends choose to interact by leaving comments.
Leading Up to the Wake
As you plan the funeral, wake, or memorial service, you’ll need to facilitate each of these tasks.
15. Establish Financial Needs
Common costs related to a funeral planning service include the cost of burial or cremation, the vessel, and legal paperwork. Additionally, you may choose to include memorial programs, floral arrangements, printed photos, and other displays. Celebrations surrounding the service may require catering and a venue. Create a budget and determine if there are costs that aren’t covered by your loved one’s estate.
16. Choose Participants
You’ll need to decide on a format for a memorial service. Typically, someone leads the service and introduces each person to speak. This may be the funeral director or a religious advisor. Even if you have a time when anyone can speak, someone will need to facilitate the transition between speakers. Plan who will participate in the ceremony.
17. Set a Schedule
You’ll likely have a limited amount of time to spend at your service. Plan how you will fill that time of remembrance by setting a schedule. This helps direct people through the ceremony and any special moments of remembrance.
18. Order Programs and Flowers
If you are working with a funeral home or another service provider, they can help coordinate programs and flowers. You’ll need to decide the details with their assistance.
If you are arranging the memorial service yourself, you’ll need to order these and plan delivery.
19. Coordinate Food and Drinks
Often, people have a meal as part of awake. You’ll need to choose the venue for the meal and plan the food. Some choose to cater the event. Others may plan a potluck for a close-knit community.
20. Tell Loved Ones About the Service
Once you have planned the service, you should send clear instructions to anyone who would want to attend. This includes friends, family, and other mourners. Sometimes, people differentiate between the different parts of the mourning process and only invite those closest to the deceased to the intimate parts like a graveside service.
Within a Few Weeks
After the ceremony, you’ll need to finalize these important details.
21. Order a Headstone
If you are burying your loved one, you may order a headstone after they are interred. This serves as a permanent marker. Often, people have another small, private moment of remembrance when the headstone is installed. If you are scattering your loved one’s ashes in a garden, you may put a marker in that area.
22. Get at Least 5-10 Copies of the Death Certificate
As you are settling your loved one’s estate, you’ll need several copies of their death certificate. Order many copies to avoid reordering later.
You can order these through your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Health. Most states have online forms on an option to visit their offices.
23. Start the Will Probate Process
Probate is the legal process of administering a person’s estate after their death. If the deceased has a last will and testament, probate confirms that the will is legally valid and executes the written instructions. If the deceased did not write a will, the probate court will consult your state’s intestate laws. These laws vary from state to state. A lawyer can guide you through either process.
24. Talk to Financial Benefit Organizations
This may include stocks, bonds, retirement benefits, or social security. Go through the deceased records to find out the entitlements their loved ones may be able to collect.
25. Notify Banks and Insurance Companies
To notify your loved one’s bank of their death, you can visit their office or their website. Most banks have an online form where you can start the process. They’ll need to verify the death and help close the accounts.
Similarly, you must notify insurance companies of your loved one’s death. They will verify the death and determine who receives benefits.
26. Contact an Accountant
In addition to a lawyer, you’ll want to use an accountant to help close out your loved one’s finances. They can guide you through the taxes necessary to settle their estate.
27. Notify Pension Services
If your loved one had a pension, you’ll need to notify them as well. They’ll confirm the death and facilitate any financial benefits.
28. Cancel Insurance and Utilities
Cancel the insurance and utilities that are no longer necessary. If your loved one owned a property, you may need to keep some of these accounts active to keep the property safe.
29. Find and Pay Important Bills
As you’re closing out your loved one’s account, you’ll need to settle any outstanding bills. Use this as another opportunity to close out their accounts.
30. Close Credit Cards and Notify Credit Reporting Services
Close all of the deceased’s credit cards to protect their accounts. Also, notify credit reporting services. Equifax provides simple instructions for protecting credit after death HERE.
31. Cancel Driver’s License
Contact your local DMV to cancel the deceased driver’s license. You’ll need a copy of their death certificates and any license plates in their name.
32. Close or Memorialize Social Media and Email Accounts
Social media accounts like Twitter and Facebook can be closed or memorialized after death.
- Twitter: https://help.twitter.com/en/rules-and-policies/contact-twitter-about-a-deceased-family-members-account
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/help/103897939701143
If you need to close out an email account, submit a support form from their email account to their email provider.
Download our Checklist
Although this list may seem overwhelming, you can work through these tasks slowly over the weeks following your loved one’s departure. This document contains printable checklists to make the unthinkable a little bit easier.