None of us likes to think about the day someone close to us might die. When it does happen, the shock can be overwhelming, even for a death that we knew was coming.
Who do you call first? How do you organise the funeral and the death certificate? And what about the person's utility bills, bank accounts, even social media profiles?
Knowing what to do can relieve some stress from an already stressful situation. Here are some of the essential steps you'll need to take when a loved one dies.
Many people die in a hospital or nursing home. When this happens, the staff will handle most of the formalities and advise any next of kin what steps they need to take.
Most public and some private hospitals will have their own mortuary. The deceased can be kept there until the body is transferred by a funeral director, if you choose to appoint one.
You can also keep the body at home. However, smaller hospitals and most nursing homes are unlikely to have the facilities for body storage, so it's important to decide in advance so you can arrange to transfer the deceased as soon as possible.
If someone you know dies at home, it's important to try to stay calm and not jump to conclusions in the stress of the moment.
If the person's death was expected, their doctor will probably have been in touch with you or other close friends or family to discuss what will happen next. You can call the doctor's surgery to ask them to visit as soon as possible. If the deceased doesn't have a regular GP, call the police instead.
A doctor is needed to examine the body and determine the cause of death, and to write a medical certificate. A funeral cannot be arranged until the doctor has created this certificate.
If the death was unexpected, not certain, suspicious, or the person did not have a regular GP, you must call the police
If the death is unexpected or you aren't sure if the person is dead, call 000 immediately, ask for an ambulance, and explain what's happened as best you can. Once the ambulance crew arrives, they will contact either the person's GP or the police.
If the death was unexpected, not certain, suspicious, or the person did not have a regular GP, you must call the police. In some cases, a coroner may get involved to do a post mortem and determine the cause of death.
Doctor's certificate vs death certificate
A doctor's certificate of cause of death shouldn't be confused with an official death certificate, which is issued by the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in your state.
If you know the deceased had wished to donate their organs, it's important to move quickly because the process of donation needs to happen soon after death.
If the person dies in a hospital, the staff can check that the person is a registered donor on the Australian Organ Donor Register. This lets authorised medical staff who have permission from the Australian government check your donation information anywhere in Australia, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Consent is always needed before donation can go ahead. So if you wish to donate, discuss your decision with your next of kin and those close to you to make sure your decision is upheld.
It's the duty of the deceased's executor to arrange the funeral.
If a family member or friend dies and you're arranging their funeral, there are many things to consider and several steps to take. The first thing to check is the will, if there is one, as it may have directions for funeral arrangements.
If you know that the deceased has already chosen a funeral director, be sure to check that they haven't entered into a pre-paid funeral agreement before you make any new arrangements.
However, the will by itself isn't enough to ensure funeral directions are followed (it may also not be read until after the funeral). It's the duty of the deceased's executor to arrange the funeral and, if there is no will, the senior next of kin will be called on to give personal details of the deceased within one month of the death, so that the death certificate can be registered.
The law says the executor will take possession and custody of the body from the moment of death until it's buried or cremated. If nobody is willing to take responsibility, the funeral may be arranged through the government contractor.
What to consider before making funeral arrangements
If there aren't specific instructions for the funeral, here are some things to consider:
- Have any financial arrangements been made to pay for the funeral such as funeral insurance or a prepaid funeral?
- Did the deceased person have a prepaid burial plot?
- Is there enough money in the deceased person's bank account to pay for the funeral and have you contacted the bank about accessing the funds?
- Are there any sickness, accident, life, superannuation or private health insurance policies that could pay towards the funeral?
- Was the deceased a returned service person or did they belong to any club, pensioner association or trade union that may entitle them to a payment to help cover funeral costs?
- If you or the deceased person received payments from Centrelink, check with Centrelink about a possible bereavement payment or allowance.
- Did the deceased person have a preference for where to hold the service? This could be different from the actual burial or memorial location.
If the deceased hasn't specified any of the above, you may want to appoint a funeral director to manage some or all of the funeral arrangements.
What does a funeral director do?
A funeral director will help with many of the legal responsibilities and guide you through the steps of organising a funeral.
Some of those steps may include:
- arranging the transfer of the deceased's body
- registering the death
- preparing a viewing
- liaising on your behalf with the cemetery, crematorium, church or venue of your choice
- organising flowers or music
- consulting with religious community members or a celebrant
- organising an event after the service.
Although you may prefer to use a funeral director to deal with all the logistics, in most states and territories you can organise a funeral yourself. (In WA, you must use a licensed funeral director or obtain a permit from a cemetery board to arrange a funeral without one.)
Shopping around for a funeral director is probably the last thing you'll feel like doing at such a distressing time. But it's worth knowing that they do vary wildly in terms of costs and services. So get a few quotes or some personal recommendations, bearing in mind that organising the funeral yourself would be much cheaper.
If you'd like to see itemised, upfront funeral prices become mandatory throughout Australia, email your consumer affairs minister to tell them to change the law.
Choosing a funeral director
If you want to use a funeral director:
- ask for a quote in writing, with an itemised breakdown of the costs. This is a legal requirement in NSW and Victoria, and good practice in other states and territories
- make sure they offer you enough information about your options. Equally, were they engaged and prepared to listen to your requirements?
Once you've chosen and engaged a funeral director, a representative from the funeral company will go through the details about what happens next – and take the body, if you choose.
You'll have to give information such as the deceased's name, age, religion and next of kin. You can also discuss when the funeral might be held, or save this discussion for later if you'd prefer.
All deaths in Australia must be registered with the state or territory's registry of births, deaths and marriages where the death happened. This is usually done by the funeral director but you can do it yourself too.
Once the death is registered, a death certificate will be issued. You'll need this certificate to deal with the deceased person's estate, as well as to claim any insurance, superannuation death benefits (if there are any), and to move any money from the person's bank account if you didn't have a joint account.
In addition to notifying government departments, banks, telcos etc, you may want to deactivate any social-media accounts.
Once you have the death certificate, you can set about notifying all the institutions and places the deceased has had dealings with. This can include government departments, banks, telecommunications and utilities providers, local councils and any memberships the deceased had.
The Department of Human Services has a handy checklist of some of the more common organisations you'll need to notify.
You can also enter the deceased's details into the Australian Death Notification Service, which lets you notify multiple organisations in one go so their accounts can be closed or transferred.
Removing names from mailing lists
You can stop most unsolicited mail being sent to the deceased person by registering with the Association for Data-driven Marketing and Advertising (ADMA) for the 'do not mail' service.
What to do with social media accounts
Most social media sites offer a way to deactivate an account if the account owner has died, usually after they've been shown the death certificate. Facebook also lets you "memorialise" accounts if the account owner dies.
Depending on your relationship with the deceased, you may be eligible for government assistance. The Department of Human Services has a detailed list of ways to get financial support.
It's easy to lose yourself in the business of organising a loved one's funeral. But it's important to look after yourself when you're experiencing grief, especially after the hubbub of the funeral has passed.
If you're struggling, a good place to seek help is through your GP, who can refer you to a counsellor or psychologist if you need one.
Otherwise, there are plenty of places to seek out support and assistance when you're grieving, including: