Where To Get Help When A Death Occurs


Federal law requires that the death must be pronounced by a coroner, medical examiner, or attending physician. State laws and regulations vary significantly regarding which cases must be investigated by a medical examiner or coroner, according to the CDC.

You can call the police or ambulance services, who will come to examine the situation and the law, and then contact the necessary individuals for you.

You can also choose to notify your clergy or a funeral home director at this time as well.

WHN TIP – Don’t Be Afraid to Ask For Help. Never be afraid to ask for help, many of these things happen simultaneously.

WHN TIP – It’s Your Time. If you want to spend a short time with the deceased to say goodbye, the funeral director won’t come until you call.

Death at hospital or care center:

  • Notify the hospital or care center staff. Tell them the funeral home and contact name, if there is one prearranged, or they can contact a home for you.
  • At a time convenient to the family, the funeral home will review matters and procedures to be aware of as you move forward with planning and the funeral.

Death at home or residence:

  • Depending on your state laws, the deceased may have to be transported to a health facility for formal pronouncement of death or transported directly to the funeral home.

At home, under physician’s care and family or friends are present:

  • Option #1: Call the funeral home directly; they will notify the proper authorities by phone, and the police may not need to go to the residence.
  • Option #2: If 9-1-1 is called and an ambulance responds, the ambulance crew notifies the police. The police will conduct their routine business before calling the funeral home.

At home with hospice service:

  • Notify hospice or the home health care provider; they will notify the physician, the medical examiner’s office (if necessary) and the funeral home.

No one is there at the time of death:

  • Police must be notified and respond to the residence before the deceased is removed from the home. This may result in a coroner’s case.

If the death occurs in another state or country:

  1. Contact a local funeral director in that area to help with details of disposition, which includes transporting the body.
  2. Airlines have regulations regarding body transport; an airline representative or the funeral home director can help explain these to you.
  3. If you need to travel to attend the funeral or make arrangements, you may be eligible for discounted rates, also known as “bereavement” or “compassion rates”.

WHN TIP – Bereavement or Compassion Rates: Call your travel agent or your airline’s customer service line to find out if rates are available for your flights. Also, at the time of purchasing a ticket, be prepared to provide information such as the name of the relative and your relationship to the relative, contact details of the funeral home, hospice or hospital, a copy of a death certificate and so on.

Administrative List

Here is a list of those you will need to contact. (You can also download our Loss of a Loved One Contact List.)

  1. Coroner
    Phone – work and cell
    Contact Date
  2. Medical Examiner
    Phone – work and cell
    Contact Date
  3. Attending Physician
    Phone – work and cell
    Contact Date
  4. Clergy
    Phone – work and cell
    Contact Date
  5. Funeral Home
    Director Name
    Phone – work and cell
    Contact Date

WHN TIP – Ask Questions: If you have any questions for the funeral home or coroner, ask them. Be sure you are clear who has any valuable or sentimental items of the deceased, where the body is being prepared and a time when the funeral home or religious organization will call you to plan the services.

WHN TIP -Personal Effects: If the deceased has any jewelry you would like to keep, ask the funeral home personnel to remove it and give it to you before they leave with the deceased.

Get the date of when you will meet with whoever is helping plan and orchestrate the service and list the points you will go over.

Decisions to Make

  1. Locate the original copy of the will, if there is one. Instructions for a service or other preparations may be included.
    • Where to look for a will: file cabinets, safety deposit boxes, safes and so on.
  2. Did the deceased have any specific requests or plans regarding funeral arrangements or burial? Don’t know?
    • Consult with the deceased’s family members, faith provider, funeral
      director or attorney for instructions or a possible will.
  3. Did the deceased want to donate organs or his or her body to a medical school?
    • Check with your doctor or coroner regarding organ donation.
    • There is no cost to the donor’s family or deceased donor’s estate for organ donation. Also, there is no financial compensation to the donor’s family or deceased donor’s estate for the organ donation – organ donation is considered an act of charity. For more information visit the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services: Organ Donation
  4. How quickly must the deceased be buried? Time frames vary by:
    • State considerations; in some states, you are allowed to skip embalming if the burial takes place soon enough (ask your funeral home about your state’s regulations)
    • The deceased’s wishes
    • Family wishes
    • Religious considerations
  5. Military Funeral Honors have always been provided whenever possible. Read 3 FAQs About Military Funeral Honors for more information.

WHN TIP – Military Honors: A will may have military honors service wishes specified. Before planning a funeral, check with a family member and/or attorney about a will or other written instructions.

Notifying Others

  1. Create a list of people to call with phone numbers, e-mail and the date you contacted them. The list includes family members, friends, legal, benefit providers, services, etc.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help at any time.
    • If you’d like help, consider asking a family member or friend to make calls and to help with tasks over the next few days and weeks.
    • If possible, have one phone number or e-mail as the main contact for all funeral service and other necessary arrangements.
  3. You may also need to provide hospitality arrangements for visiting relatives and friends.
    • Extra items such as food, chairs, bedding, dishes, transportation, maps of your area and other information may be needed.

WHN TIP- Thank-You’s: Start keeping a list of those who send condolences, flowers, etc., so thank-you cards can be sent later. One way to do this is to put all the envelopes in a box, jotting a name on those that do not have return addresses, and a brief note on each about what was sent.

Gathering Information and Documents

There are certain documents and facts that will need to be gathered for arrangements, finances, legal documents and so on (see below). If you cannot do it, ask a trusted family member or friend for help.

WHN TIP – Death Certificates: You might need a death certificate in order to obtain certain information or for other purposes. See below for instructions on writing for a death certificate.

Personal Information

  1. You’ll need this information for death certificates, other applications and obituaries.
    • Citizenship status (U.S. or another country)
    • Date and place of birth
    • Father’s name and birthplace
    • Mother’s maiden name and birthplace
    • Length of time deceased resided in the state (for the death certificate)
    • Name of business, address and telephone number, occupation and title
    • Name, home address and telephone number
    • Spouse/partner name
    • War Veteran’s serial number, branch of service, discharge date

Legal and financial documents and information

  1. Try to gather as many of these forms as possible and keep them all together in a file. You will need them when settling the estate and for other financial and legal purposes.
  2. Understand you might need a death certificate in order to obtain some of these documents (see below for instructions on how to apply for death certificates)
    • Account numbers
    • Brokerage accounts
    • Cemetery plot proof of ownership (if pre-purchased)
    • Citizenship papers
    • Credit cards
    • Current/pending bills
    • Deeds to property
    • Disability claims
    • Employee benefits
    • Family trust documents
    • Income tax returns
    • Insurance policies, credit life insurance
    • Legal proof of age or birth certificate
    • Marriage license
    • Retirement accounts
    • Safety deposit boxes
    • Social Security card and number, benefits
    • Statements and books (savings and checking)
    • Stocks and bonds
    • Travel documents: passport, visas
    • Vehicle titles
    • Veteran’s discharge papers
    • Will

Death Certificate

If you are writing for a death certificate you will need to give the following information:

  1. Type of record you are looking for (death certificate)
  2. Number of copies desired
  3. Your loved one’s full name as it should appear on the death certificate
  4. Date of death
  5. Place of death (Name of hospital, county, state)

You’ll usually need to head to or contact the county clerk’s office where the death occurred in order to receive a copy of the death certificate. You can also write to your state’s vital records department.

The cost is usually around $10-15 for a copy of a single death certificate. You will probably need a minimum of 10-12 certified copies for administrative purposes. Write down the name, address, phone number for the county clerk’s office in case you need additional records.

Writing the Obituary

An obituary includes a biographical outline and possibly a picture of the deceased. As early as possible, begin compiling the information for the obituary. Friends and family can help write this. Read our article 2 Steps to Preparing an Obituary for a general starter guide.

Planning a Funeral, Memorial and/or Committal Service

Types of Services

There are at least three different kinds of services; they vary by state, religious requirements, and the wishes of the deceased or of family. Discuss your options with whoever is in charge of your service. A memorial notice detailing information about the deceased’s life can be distributed to those in attendance as well as others who are not able to be present.

Funeral Service

A funeral service is held with the body present soon after death, and usually takes place in a religious setting or mortuary, or possibly in the family home.

Memorial Service

A memorial service is held without the body and can be scheduled several weeks after death to allow friends and family members time to gather.

Committal Service

This is the ceremony at the graveside or in a crematory chapel before cremation. (Our article, 2 Points to Consider When Considering Cremation, gives useful information.)
If you choose to have a ceremony at the graveside, consult with the cemetery regarding arrangements and restrictions.

For the service (funeral, memorial, committal) you may need to make decisions on any or all of the following (these might also be specified in the will):

  1. Locations for gatherings and services
  2. Who should lead the service (faith provider, friend, family member, funeral home director)
  3. Who should be invited
  4. If the service should be private (invited guests only) or public (open to anyone)
  5. Makeup/jewelry and clothing the deceased will wear for service
  6. Open or closed casket
  7. Prerecorded/live music that will be played, hymns to sing
  8. Who will give eulogies (friends, family members, faith providers)
  9. Any special readings for the service and who will read them
  10. If you would like to compile books, photos, stories, videos, other memories for viewing by attendees
  11. If you would like to arrange a memorial fund, plant a tree, in honor of the deceased. (Planning a Funeral: 4 Ideas for Memorial Donations gives additional ideas.)

A Funeral Program

You may also want to create a funeral program, which explains the schedule of events for the service and includes any special instructions for post-funeral gatherings.

You may have a family member or friend create the program for you and have them printed at a copier shop. You can also allow the funeral homes or religious organizations to create a program for a fee (cost depends on the quantity of programs printed, type of paper, color copies, etc.)

A typical funeral program usually includes any or all of the following:

  1. Full name of deceased, date of birth/death,
  2. Date and time of funeral service,
  3. Name, address, city, state and phone number of location of funeral service,
  4. A photo of the deceased,
  5. A short essay about his/her life,
  6. List of the music in the service (if you are asking guests to sing, be sure to include the name and page number of a favorite hymn or include the music itself).
  1. Poetry/passage/readings with name of reader, source and page numbers
  2. Eulogy with name of reader
  3. Address and time of post-service gathering (if applicable)

WHN TIP – Keep a List: Make sure you designate someone to keep a list of all donations and floral tributes received.

Planning an After-Service Gathering

Prior to the service, either you or a helper (friend, family member) will need to determine:

  1. Where the after-service gathering will be held
    • Consider asking a friend or family member to help direct people to the after service gathering. You may want to have extra copies of directions on hand for guests who may be unfamiliar with the area.
  2. Who will be invited and how they will be notified
  3. Who is supplying the food (a caterer, a local restaurant, a grocery store, family and friends)
  4. What items (tables, chairs, serving pieces, plates and utensils) will be needed
  5. How you will store any perishable foods or baked goods that have been sent for future meals
  6. Where you will place any floral tributes

WHN TIP – Floral Tributes: You may also wish to arrange for floral tributes to be delivered to nursing homes, hospitals, friends and family following the ceremony.

Whether you will need to arrange for any transport from the service to the gathering: ask for volunteer drivers from friends and neighbors

Who will be keeping track of gifts of food items and floral tributes (for acknowledgment afterward) and containers that need to be returned to the donors


The information provided here is not meant to be a substitute for professional legal advice. These tips are from lawyers, insurance agents and people who have shared real-life advice; always check with a lawyer or appropriate professional you trust before making any legal or decisions.

Thank You …

A special thank you to the industry professionals, lawyers, insurance agents and families who gave us their time, insight and real-life advice.

Photo Credit: Ryan Crotty

Related posts

How To Get Prepared For Death

Bereavement Resources

Choosing a Cemetery