Note: This article is the first in a two-part series. Click here to see Part 2 which explains what to do in the first 30 days after someone dies.
What to do after someone dies: A checklist of tasks in the first week
When someone dies, it is the responsibility of the person's family to handle final affairs and arrangements. However, it can be challenging to know where to start. There are a lot of tasks to complete, and many are time-sensitive, so knowing what to do in the first week is crucial. Below is a list of duties and responsibilities to complete within the first week after death. After the task checklist below, you can read a breakdown of each step with more details.
Checklist: What to do after someone dies
Here is a helpful eight-step checklist:
- Report the death
- Notify family and friends
- Check for a funeral preplan
- Plan the funeral
- Select a service provider
- Choose cremation or burial
- Complete paperwork
- Plan a memorial ceremony or celebration of life
For details about each step on the checklist, read on.
Report the death
One of the first things that should be done immediately is to report the death to the necessary authorities. If the death is expected, families can call the doctor who was caring for the person. If the death is unexpected, emergency services should be called first. If there are no available doctors or emergency services in the area, it should be reported to the local coroner's office. If you are unsure about the circumstances or who you should call, be sure to contact the local coroner's office. In the province of Ontario, that is the Chief Coroner's Office.
It is essential to report a death as soon as possible for legal reasons and to facilitate organ, tissue, or body donations. Organ donation has a window of anywhere from four to 72 hours after death, depending on the organ. Reporting the death as soon as possible helps ensure viability.
Notify Friends and family
After the death has been reported, the next course of action is to notify friends and family. For the people closest to the person, a personal phone call is the best way to let them know. If they are at a distance and a phone call is difficult because of schedules or time zones, an email or other electronic message can be used.
Always start with those closest to the person who has died: Contact immediate family and friends. Extend out from there. Informing loved ones of the death is essential when the death is expected, as many will be waiting to hear the news. This is important when the death is unexpected as you don't want people closest to get the news via third parties or in an impersonal way.
This can give family and friends time for their final goodbyes, and it also ensures that people are not waiting on or for the deceased (e.g., their job). The fast notification also allows family and friends to respond to immediate tasks such as emptying their fridge or caring for their pets.
To communicate to a larger group of people, you can use any of the following notification methods, as appropriate:
- Send a group or mass text or email.
- Set up a phone tree, and ask respondents to help by sharing the news.
- Post on social media. Sometimes posting from the person's social account, if you have access, can be the best way to alert their online communities.
- Contact employers or coworkers
- Contact religious leaders if there was an affiliation (e.g., pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, pujari).
- Contact social groups, like clubs the person was affiliated with.
- Ask anyone you reach to spread the word to others affiliated with the deceased.
- If the person who died was a notable member of the community, contacting a local news organization would also be appropriate.
Determine funeral arrangements
Before making funeral arrangements, families should determine if there is a funeral preplan in place. This may include general instructions or prepaid final arrangement contracts. A prepaid contract is one that a person may have pre-arranged through a service provider or insurance company. These contracts outline funeral arrangements and have money in a trust or policy to pay for funeral expenses. They also define funeral preferences.
If the deceased has no preplan or written instructions, the planning is up to the discretion of family and friends. (That is why it is vital to have a conversation with your loved ones for yourself and others in the family so that final wishes can be honoured.)
Plan the funeral
Next, it is important to plan the funeral. Here are important choices to consider.
Service provider or family-led
First, you must choose how you would like to plan the arrangements. Many people opt to have services handled by a service provider such as a cremation services company or a funeral home. Funeral service providers, like Eirene, are great resources for families. They can help manage and guide you through virtually all aspects of funeral planning. This can make the process a little easier for families, especially if the death is sudden. However, providers are not your only option when it comes to planning. You can handle many funeral tasks yourself if you wish: See our post on family-led death care.
Final disposition and body preparations
Once you have decided who will be planning the funeral, you must also decide how the body will be handled. In general, there are two options for final disposition – burial or cremation. Some may also choose to donate their body to science.
If you choose burial, there is more complexity and cost. That's why a majority of people choose cremation these days. However, if burial is chosen, you may opt for a viewing, so the body will need to be embalmed. This chemical preservation allows time for a viewing. However, embalming is not mandatory, and refrigeration of remains can be an alternative method to preserve it temporarily. A funeral service provider usually handles other tasks such as washing and dressing the body. However, these tasks can also be taken on by family or friends.
If cremation is the preferred disposition method, then tasks become simpler and less expensive. Body preparations for cremation are minimal. Many people opt to hold a service or celebration of life after cremation.
Cremation is the process in which a dead body is reduced into "cremated remains" or "ashes." There are two ways that this can be accomplished – through flame cremation or aquamation.
Flame cremation is done by exposing the body to extremely high temperatures in a cremation chamber. Aquamation uses the chemical process of alkaline hydrolysis to cremate remains. In this process, a body is treated with a combination of water, alkali (a chemical called potassium hydroxide), heat, and pressure, which produces a reaction that speeds up the body's decomposition.
After either process, the ashes, which consist of a fine dust, are placed in a container or urn. Families can choose what to do with them afterward. Some common choices are burial in a cemetery, placement of the urn in a columbarium, or scattering the ashes. See many more options on what to do with ashes in this article.
Before any funeral services can begin, the death must be registered, and a burial permit must be obtained. This can be done by a licensed funeral provider or by a deceased's family member without a license if they are not being paid.
Death registration in Ontario involves the submission of two documents to the local municipal clerk's office:
- Medical Certificate of Death – a form completed by a doctor or coroner outlines the cause of death.
- Statement of Death – A form including information about the deceased such as the age of death, family history, and place of death. The form can be obtained from a local municipal clerk's office.
If families use a service provider, funeral directors will oversee the process of obtaining the burial permit. If the family is not using a service provider, the staff at the municipal office where the death is registered can help families complete the required paperwork and acquire the permit.
A burial permit is required even if burial arrangements take place outside of the province. If the death occurs outside of the province, but funeral arrangements will take place in Ontario, both a burial permit and transit or removal permit are necessary from the jurisdiction where the death occurred.
Celebration of life or memorial service
When it comes to a funeral ceremony or celebration of life, the options are virtually endless in ways to honour the deceased. They can range from a religious ceremony to a secular memorial event. Some people choose to plan a celebration of life that involves a big party to remember their loved one. Others keep such memorials small, private and within the family. Some families keep ashes in a place of honour in their home, some families split them between households and others scatter them.
Considerations and costs
As you can see, the checklist for the tasks you need to complete within seven days of a death is quite involved, so you may need to recruit family and friends to help get it all handled. It can be a stressful time and it can be difficult for a family that is grieving so do not hesitate to ask for help from those who are available and willing to step in.
Through all this, it is helpful to understand costs so you can budget accordingly based on available resources.
Cremation typically ranges from $2,000 to $10,000. Whereas burials and entombment will range from $4,000 to $12,000. This is due to expenses such as body preparation services, casket purchase, and purchase of a burial plot.
A burial may also require more planning and preparation. For example, you must decide if there will be a visitation and an opened or closed casket. You will need to select the type of casket, type of internment, and more. It may also be time-sensitive, especially if the body has not been embalmed.
For cremation, aquamation is generally a bit more expensive than flame cremation. However, the prices are often drastically different. The price for aquamation typically ranges from $2000 to $3000. Flame cremation can range anywhere from $800 to over $3000.
For tasks to do in the first 30 days, click here to see the checklist