When Someone Dies, Where Do I Start?
This article is written by Louise Winter
Louise Winter is the editor of the Good Funeral Guide –an independent guide to the funeral industry and a not-for-profit resource that helps consumers to get the funeral they actually want in an entirely unregulated industry. She’s also the director of Life. Death. Whatever. – a festival exploring all aspects of life and death that ran in partnership with the National Trust in 2016. She’s a funeral director and the founder of modern funeral service Poetic Endings.
If you are reading this guide because someone you know has died, please accept my condolences. I’m sorry that you’re going through this.
This has been written to guide you through what can be an unsettling and uncertain time. Dealing with the death of someone close to you is not easy, but it is manageable. There’s going to be a lot of paperwork. There’ll be a lot of people to talk to. There’ll be a lot to sort out. There’ll be some difficult decisions to make. But you should know that there’s no rush to make any decisions and there are supportive professionals out there who can guide you through what happens now.
If you’re reading this in preparation for the inevitable, you might want to print out this guide and keep it somewhere accessible. It has been written to enable you to have a more empowered approach to arranging a funeral.
- First steps
Depending on where the person has died, there are different things you’ll need to do.
If the person has died at home and it was expected, you’ll need to notify their GP, who will provide a medical certificate showing the cause of death.
In hospital/ hospice
If the person has died in hospital, a medical certificate will be issued. The person will usually be kept in the mortuary until a funeral director is appointed or arrangements are made.
If someone dies unexpectedly
If someone dies unexpectedly or they haven’t been seen by their GP in the last 14 days, their death will be reported to the coroner, who may call for a post-mortem or inquest. This may take some time and can delay the funeral.
The Government’s website provides helpful information about how to handle the administration following a death.
- Register the death
You’ll need to make an appointment at your local register office to register the death within five days. You’ll need to take along the certificate showing the cause of death, signed by a doctor. If you have their birth certificate, NHS medical card or number and marriage or civil partnership certificates, take these along as well.
You’ll be issued with a certificate for burial or cremation (the green form) and a death certificate.
You may want to get several copies of the death certificate, as various authorities may need it. For example banks and life insurance companies.
- Explore funeral options
Please don’t be pressured by medical staff into appointing a funeral director straight away. They may offer a suggestion as to who to use but you don’t need to take it. There’s no rush to make a decision about who to appoint. Give yourself some time to consider how you’d like to approach arranging the funeral.
Using a funeral director
You may wish to use a funeral director to take care of the person who has died and to make arrangements for the funeral. A funeral director will guide you through the many choices you have – from coffins to hearses, embalming and spending time with the person who has died.
Not all funeral directors are the same. There are traditional funeral directors who will provide shiny hearses and expensive coffins, if that’s what you want. There are also funeral directors who have a more modern approach to undertaking and can offer the services you want on a no frills basis. Don’t be fooled by appearances, the entire industry is completely unregulated. Anyone can become a funeral director with no training, qualifications or experience.
Traditionally funeral directors have been more concerned with funeral hardware – coffins and cars. Funeral software is becoming increasingly important – that’s the ceremony itself and the way emotions around a funeral are dealt with.
Do your research. Ask around. Pick up the telephone and speak to the person on the other end. Are they friendly? Do you like them? Are they prepared to be transparent about costs and service?
Corporate funeral chains do not have a good reputation in the UK and usually cost much more than independents. Corporates are often disguised as independents with a local family name above the door. Double check to make sure your funeral director is genuinely who they claim to be if using an independent business is important to you.
Be wary of funeral comparison websites that compare funeral directors based on price. It’s better to pick up the phone to a funeral director and explain your circumstances. A good funeral director will be able to help or refer you to someone who can.
The Good Funeral Guide is an independent resource that exists to help consumers get the funeral they want. It has a list of accredited independent funeral directors who have all been scrupulously inspected. If you use a GFG recommended funeral director, you’re promised a funeral professional who is emotionally intelligent and has a flexible approach to funerals and is transparent about prices.
If you don’t like the service your funeral director is offering, you can use someone else. Just because they may be taking care of the person who has died, doesn’t mean that it’s too late to change your mind.
You don’t have to let the funeral director handle everything or sell you a complete package. You may wish to create your own orders of service, have members of the family carry the coffin or put together flowers from your own garden. If the funeral director says no to any of your requests, consider changing funeral directors.
Funeral director is a misleading title; funeral producer is more accurate. A good funeral professional will facilitate what it is you want to do. YOU’RE the funeral director. You get to make the decisions.
Using a funeral director is not a legal requirement. You may wish to handle the arrangements yourself. You can do everything from collecting the person who has died from the mortuary to taking care of them at home, transporting them to the funeral, and even arranging a burial or cremation.
You may come across resistance from professionals who may tell you that you have to use a funeral director. This simply isn’t true. If you’d like to sort out the funeral yourself, talk to the Natural Death Centre Charity who will be able to provide guidance and advocate on your behalf.
Direct cremation is when the person who has died is collected from the place of death and cremated with no ceremony and no mourners. It’s become increasingly popular in recent years with people who have disregarded the need for a funeral ceremony.
Think very carefully before committing to this. A good funeral can be profound and transformational in helping the people left behind to accept and acknowledge the death of someone close to them. A funeral doesn’t have to be like the ones you’ve been to in the past; you can create a funeral that works for you and helps your grieving process.
Be aware that you won’t be able to see the person who has died if you opt for direct cremation and you may not know when or where it’s taking place.
Some crematoria offer a direct cremation service which also includes an hour long service that mourners can attend. Sadly this isn’t yet available across the country.
If you don’t want a traditional funeral but don’t want something as brutal as direct cremation, it may be better to opt for a no frills funeral where you choose the elements you would like. If you work with a flexible funeral director, they’ll be able to facilitate this for you. For example, it may be important for you to spend time with the person who has died, but not important that they are transported to the funeral in a hearse followed by limos. You don’t need to buy the entire funeral package.
- Where to have the funeral?
Funerals don’t have to take place in a church or a crematorium. There are no rules.
Be aware that standards are not high at all crematoria. Some are private and others are owned by local authorities.
Most crematoria operate time slots. Lengths differ from an hour to 30 minutes. Be aware that a 30 minute slot is only 20 minutes of service time as 10 minutes will be taken with getting everyone in and out of the chapel.
If you know that there’s going to be a lot of content, you can request a double slot. There will be an extra charge for this.
You don’t have to go to the first crematoria that’s offered to you by the funeral director. Ask about how much time you’ll be given and whether the crematorium is in good repair.
At some stage, you may be asked to make a decision about the committal. This is when the curtains close around the coffin and/or the coffin moves through the doors and out of sight. Each crematorium is set up differently. It’s your choice as to how you say goodbye – you may want the curtains to remain open and the coffin in place.
You may prefer to say goodbye in your own way. For example, a message writing ceremony, a simple word of farewell or placing a rose on the coffin as you depart. There are no rules.
Natural burial grounds
Natural burial grounds can provide a more peaceful setting for a funeral. They’re often set in beautiful locations and some have ceremonial halls on site.
With natural burial, there’s much more time and space to hold the ceremony you want without the pressures of the crematorium.
Be aware that some natural burial grounds will not allow you to mark the grave site. Some will allow a simple marker whilst others encourage the idea that the person who has died is becoming part of the landscape.
There are no laws stating where a funeral must be held. You can hold the service outside of the crematoria or church. Community halls, theatres and historic houses may work well for you but check that they will allow the coffin to be there, if that’s important to you. You can even hold the funeral at home or in your garden.
- The funeral service
If you decide to have a funeral service, you’re going to need to make some decisions about the kind of service you’d like and who you’d like to take it.
Will it be celebratory? Solemn? Upbeat? Informal? Formal? What matters most is that the funeral reflects the person who has died, and serves the needs of those left behind.
The process of putting the funeral together helps the grieving process. Sitting down with relatives to share stories, taking time to write a tribute or gathering photos for the order of service is as important as the funeral itself.
Religious funerals have declined in popularity in recent years. The Church in England has done a lot of work to improve the funerals they offer and to make them much more personal.
If you’re looking for a highly personalised funeral service, it may be best to consider another option.
Funeral celebrants will facilitate the funeral that you’d like to have based on your beliefs, not theirs. The funerals they put together are usually life-centered and can include elements of religion such as prayers. A good celebrant will visit you at home and spend time talking about the life of the person who has died before putting together the funeral.
There’s a whole spectrum of celebrants with different styles and offerings. Some celebrants are brilliant, others aren’t so good. A quick Google search will reveal the names of celebrants in your area. Call them and have a chat. Your funeral director may recommend a celebrant. You don’t need to go with the recommendation and can book someone independently. It’s your choice.
If you’d like a funeral that’s entirely free of religion, spirituality and any mention of God, a celebrant from the British Humanist Association will be able to take the service. Most Humanist Celebrants won’t allow any spiritual content so if you’re looking for something more flexible, you’re probably best choosing a celebrant (as above).
If you’re looking for a funeral from an entirely non-religious and non-spiritual perspective, contact a Humanist Celebrant from the British Humanist Association
We live in a society of multiple faiths. Belief systems in families can be complicated. Mourners may have differing needs, but they don’t need to be contradictory.
For example, an Imam worked with a celebrant to put together a funeral ceremony for a young woman who had died. Her family were religious, her friends weren’t. The resulting funeral met everyone’s needs.
Family/ friend led
If you or someone you know feels capable of leading the funeral service, you can do that. You can put together the funeral yourself or appoint an open-minded celebrant to assist you with certain elements such as how to structure it.
Funerals don’t have to stick to any structure or format. You can just play a favourite song on repeat or sit in silence if that resonates with you.
- Find support
In the days after the funeral, support networks often disappear. Friends stop phoning and relatives stop calling by with offers of help. This can be the most vulnerable period for a bereaved person.
Grief is messy, complicated and painful. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t come in neatly defined stages. The idea of ‘getting over it’ is deeply unhelpful. There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription.
Not dealing with difficult emotions leads to greater problems later on. There’s so much help out there. Julia Samuel’s Grief Works is a refreshingly helpful and modern approach to grief. She has many helpful suggestions as to how to build pillars of strength that enable the bereaved to rebuild their lives, in their own time.
A good funeral can be transformational in helping the people left behind to accept and acknowledge the death of someone they love. It may be joyful, solemn, sad, relaxed or formal, depending on the circumstances. You may choose to call it a funeral, a festival, a celebration of life, or something entirely different. It might be extravagant, it might be blissfully simple. A funeral can be meaningful and relevant and doesn’t need to break the bank.
If you want to find our more about funerals, good funeral directors or you have additional questions, take a look at the Good Funeral Guide.
This guide was originally written for Netdoctor and can be read online here.