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What to do when someone dies unexpectedly

Coming to terms with a loved one’s death can be difficult, but when someone you love passes away suddenly and unexpectedly this can make the situation even more emotionally challenging. This guide offers a practical step by step guide, advice and support for those dealing with an unexpected death.

Sudden unexpected death

Sudden deaths occur unexpectedly and have many devastating causes. These may include accidents, natural causes or illnesses. The shock of a loved one passing away unexpectedly can extend the grieving process for the family, which is why it’s important to seek support if you’re struggling to cope. Your funeral director can help and support you through the next steps.

First steps when someone dies unexpectedly

If you witness someone die suddenly, you should immediately call a doctor or 999. When they arrive, the paramedics or doctor will either attempt resuscitation or confirm the death.

If the cause of death is unknown, it is important you leave the surrounding area as it was (apart from any attempt at resuscitation). The Police will arrange for a funeral director to collect the deceased and take the body into their care.

If your loved one died while travelling to, or in, the hospital, they will be kept in the hospital mortuary. There will be experts on hand to inform close family immediately. To find out more about what to do when someone dies in hospital, read our useful guide.

If the doctor is unsure about the cause of death, or if the death was sudden or unnatural, they will contact the coroner (or procurator fiscal in Scotland), who may order a post mortem examination or inquest

Will a coroner be involved? 

There are many circumstances in which a doctor may opt to notify a coroner. These include:

  • If it was an unknown, violent or unnatural cause of death
  • If the death was sudden and unexplained
  • If the death may have been caused by an industrial disease/poisoning
  • If the person who died was not visited by a doctor during their illness, or if they were not seen by the doctor who signed the medical certificate within 14 days before death or after they died
  • If a medical certificate of cause of death is not available
  • If the death occurred during an operation or while under anaesthetic
  • The coroner may decide that the cause of death is clear. In this case, the doctors will sign the medical certificate and the coroner will notify the registrar.

However, if a post-mortem is required, the coroner will keep you informed during their investigation. When a conclusion has been reached, will issue a form (‘Pink Form - form 100B’) to the registrar stating the cause of death. If the body is going to be cremated, the coroner will also send a ‘Certificate of Coroner - form Cremation 6’.

A funeral cannot take place until the Coroner’s inquest has been completed and the cause of death established.

Will there be an inquest?

If the cause of death is still unknown after a post-mortem takes place, if it was a violent or unnatural death or if the person died in prison or police custody, the coroner will hold an inquest. An inquest is a fact-finding legal investigation which is open to the public.

During an inquest, evidence will be reviewed to determine how the person died. You will not be able to register the death until after the inquest has taken place, but the coroner is able to give you an interim death certificate to allow you to notify relevant organisations and apply for probate. When the inquest is over the coroner notify the registrar and inform them of what to put in the register using the Pink form 100B.

A funeral cannot take place until the Coroner’s inquest has been completed and the cause of death established.

Next steps when someone dies unexpectedly

There are many steps you need to follow when a loved one dies. Once the Cause of Death has been pronounced, you’ll need to find a Funeral Director who can take the deceased into their care, and then help you with making the necessary funeral arrangements. This process is much the same whatever the cause of death, but an unexpected death can add additional stress, so it is important to remember that your chosen funeral director is on hand to give you support and guidance.

Next steps:

Registering the death:

When someone dies, you will need to register the death. Once the death has been registered, you will be given all of the paperwork required to arrange the funeral. If you are unsure how to go about it, our registering a death guide will explain everything you need to know.

Inform the relevant people:

When a loved one passes away, you will need to notify various organisations about the death as soon as possible, from relatives and friends, the GP, their employer, mortgage and utilities providers, to HMRC, banks and building societies and even social media providers. Our guide on who to notify when someone dies provides a checklist to help.

Choosing a type of funeral:

As well as deciding between a burial or cremation or alternative funerals such as eco or woodland burials, you’ll need to consider the type of coffin, flowers, transport and details such as flowers and music. Find out about the range of funerals we cater for.

Making funeral arrangements:

A funeral is a personal event and people often have different requirements. There are a number of details that you will need to take care of, from choosing songs or readings for the service to writing a eulogy and sorting out the order of service. Our guide to making funeral arrangements clearly details all of the things you may want to think about when making arrangements.

What to do after the funeral:

Once the funeral is over, there is still a lot to think about. From dealing with the estate and finances through to choosing a memorial and dealing with your own grief. Have a look at our guide, which covers what you need to consider after the funeral.

Coping with the shock of an unexpected death

Speaking with your family and friends can help ease the emotional stress of sudden death. You may also wish to speak with a professional about how you feel, to help you cope with losing your loved one unexpectedly. Our grief and bereavement support guides may help you to identify sources of help and support.

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First steps when someone dies

Follow our step-by-step guides to understand the key things you need to do when a loved one passes away

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