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What to Do When Someone Dies

Whether you received a 2 a.m. phone call with news of an unexpected death or shared your loved one's final moments of a long illness, your initial reaction to the death was likely shock. It doesn't seem to matter how prepared we are - or aren't - a loved one's death often leaves us feeling numb and bewildered. If you're responsible for making the funeral arrangements or executing the will, shock and grief can be immobilizing. Even simple decisions can be overwhelming.

Making the first phone calls

What to do first depends on the circumstances of the death. When someone dies in a hospital or similar care facility, the staff will usually take care of some arrangements, such as contacting the funeral home you choose, and if necessary, arranging an autopsy. You will need to notify family, friends and clergy. It may be easier on you to make a few phone calls to other relatives or friends and ask each of them to make a phone call or two to specific people, so the burden of spreading the news isn't all on you. If you are alone, ask someone to keep you company while you make these calls and try to cope with the first hours after the death.

When someone dies at home or at work

If a person dies at home or at work, first call 911 or the emergency phone number in your area. According to Eva Shaw, author of "What to Do When a Loved One Dies," any death occurring without a physician or medical personnel in attendance must be reported to the police and an investigation held. After the coroner's examination, the body will either be transported to the morgue for autopsy or to the funeral home of your choice, depending on the circumstances of death.

If your loved one was under medical care, be sure to notify the doctor. If you don't know the doctor's name, look for prescription bottles or medical bills. If the person was under the care of a hospice program, call the hospice organization instead of 911.

Call the funeral director

Whatever the circumstances of death, one of your first calls should be to a licensed funeral director. We can help you:

  • transport the body
  • obtain a death certificate
  • select a casket, urn and/or grave marker
  • arrange the funeral, memorial and/or burial service
  • prepare the obituary
  • help you notify the deceased's employer, attorney, insurance company and banks
  • offer grief support or direct you to other resources

Call the employer

If your loved one was working, you'll need to call his or her employer immediately. Ask about the deceased's benefits and any pay due, including vacation or sick time, disability income, etc. Ask if you or other dependents are still eligible for benefit coverage through the company. Ask whether there is a life insurance policy through the employer, who the beneficiary is and how to file a claim.

Call the life insurance company

Look through the deceased's paperwork for the life policy. Call the agent or the company and ask how to file a claim. Usually the beneficiary (or the beneficiary's guardian, if a minor) must complete the claim forms and related paperwork. You'll need to submit the death certificate and a claimant's statement to establish proof of claim. Remember to ask about payment options. You may have a choice between receiving a lump sum or the having the insurance company place the money in an interest-bearing account from which you can write checks.

Call Social Security and other organizations

Notify Social Security of the death. If your loved one was covered, the spouse or dependents may be eligible for certain payments or benefits. Also call any unions, professional or service organizations your loved one belonged to. He or she may have had life insurance or other benefits through these organizations.

Gather important papers

Of course the first thing you may be looking for when someone dies is the will or trust. But remember to gather other important papers, such as deeds, business agreements, tax returns, bank accounts, earnings statements, birth and marriage certificates, military discharge papers, Social Security Number, vehicle registration, loan payment books, bills, and any other important papers pertaining to your loved one's affairs. You'll need these to file a final tax return and settle the estate; you may want to consult an accountant.

Executing the will

If you were named the executor of your loved one's will, you've got more work to do. First, you'll need to file a probate case with the court. Although an attorney isn't required in most states, you'll probably want to hire one who is experienced in probate. You may choose to hire the lawyer who prepared the will, but that isn't necessary.

Depending on the specifics of the estate, probate can be complicated and lengthy. As executor, you'll be responsible for carrying out your loved one's wishes according to the will, paying creditors and balancing the estate. There's no standard amount of time a probate lasts, but some states are initiating laws to expedite the process.

Dying intestate - without a will

If someone dies without a will - dying intestate - the court will appoint an administrator. If you are appointed administrator, your responsibilities will be similar to those of an executor: distributing assets, paying creditors and balancing the estate.

Accessing bank accounts

If you have a joint account with the deceased you may be able to conduct business as usual, depending upon how the account was opened. Otherwise, normally only the will's executor or administrator can access the account after providing the required paperwork to the bank. Call or visit the bank to find out what is required.

Finding help

Wrapping up your loved one's affairs can be tedious and stressful. Find guidance you can trust to help you work out the details, such as a funeral director, accountant, attorney, grief counselor and/or clergy to help you manage the legal, financial and emotional issues a death can bring.


"The Mourning Handbook: The Most Comprehensive Resource Offering Both Practical and Compassionate Advice on Coping with All Aspects of Death and Dying" by Helen Fitzgerald

"I Wasn't Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing after the Sudden Death of a Loved One" by Brook Noel and Pamela D. Blair

"How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies" by Therese A. Rando, Ph.D.

"What to Do When a Loved One Dies: a practical and compassionate guide to dealing with death on life's terms" by Eva Shaw (Dickens Press, 1994).

"Step by Step: Your Guide to Making Practical Decisions When a Loved One Dies" by Ellen Shaw, (Quality Life Resources, 2001).


Donating a Body to Science

Anatomical Need

The need is great for anatomical gifts in the majority of medical programs throughout the United States. The lack of anatomical subjects in many schools forces anatomy departments to request shared bodies from other schools or institutions. In many situations, five or more students have to share one donated body, which limits hands-on education.

In addition to basic anatomy as a foundation course, donated bodies are also used for teaching surgery, orthopedics, ophthalmology, cardiology, neurology, and other specialty fields Millions of lives have been saved, and countless individuals enjoy optimum health today because of anatomical study using donated human gifts.

Important Issues

Whether donating a body to medical science for altruistic or pragmatic reasons, donation of a human body is not complicated if you know all the rules and regulations for each medical program. The two most important things to remember in all whole body donation programs are:

No medical schools or state anatomical boards in the United States are permitted by law to purchase bodies from families or estates.

Physical condition of the body, and not age, is the important factor in body donation. There is usually no upper age limit in donation of a human body to medical science.

Organs and whole body donation are two separate programs, with different needs. A potential donor must make a decision to either donate his or her whole body or individual organ parts at death. With few exceptions, organ and tissue donations at death will prevent whole body donation for medical education. The exception would be the cornea of the eye, which can be donated without affecting whole body donation.

One of the most important things to be stressed here is that a potential body donor should not have a false sense of financial security concerning whole body donation. Many donated bodies are rejected at death for various reasons by medical schools. Be prepared with alternate burial or cremation plans for final disposition of the body.

Consider Family in Cremation

Those who say--whether seriously or in jest--"Just cremate me and throw me out!" don't realize the burden this places on family members. Direct disposal of cremated remains without funerals or memorialization of any kind can cause serious emotional problems for survivors.

An executive of the Forum for Death Education tells of one patient under therapy as a result of scattering the cremated remains of a loved one. She had no focal point for her grief until he suggested she obtain a niche at a local mausoleum and place some memento of the loved one within.

In day-to-day contact with bereaved families, many cemetarians have noticed signs of severe emotional stress among the survivors in instances of cremation without memorialization and without funerals.

In some cases, such problems may take the form of delayed reaction many months later and are more apt to come to the attention of the medical community or clinical psychologists than to the layman or the general public.

Many psychiatrists feel that the funeral serves a very real need for the survivors. One of them stated that the primary purpose of the funeral is to fulfill the need for grieving for the living and that this need goes unfulfilled for many in our culture.

The result, in many cases, is that months or years later people require psychiatric treatment for severe depression

In suffering a loss, the traditional rites of passage and memorialization can be beneficial in helping individuals pass through the stages of grief.

When the practice of cremation is accomplished with human dignity and recognition, it will:

  • help assuage grief
  • alleviate guilt
  • contribute to emotional stability
  • create peace of mind

Disposition Options with Cremation

With cremation, you actually have more choices for a final resting place than with a typical earth burial.


With interment, you can choose burial in the family plot, church garden, or other memorial site. You can also choose a columbarium, which is an arrangement of niches, indoor or outdoor, with memorial identity plaques. This is also sometimes referred to as an urn garden.

Graveside Services

You can choose to have memorial prayers and religious rites performed at the graveside with cremation, just as you can with a typical earth burial. You can also choose to have a marker or monument as a permanent testimony to the life and the history of the deceased, and as a place of pilgrimage for loved ones to visit.

With cremation, you also have other options that aren't available with a typical earth burial.

Scattering the Cremated Remains

Options with scattering remains include scattering within a memorial garden or cemetery; with the comfort of identifying marker, plaque, or memorial book entry to memorialize the loved one; or over water or in some other site loved by the deceased.

You can also do partial scattering, in which some of the cremated remains are scattered and the rest are retained in an urn for interment.

Multiple Urns

Cremated remains can also be placed in two or more urns. This offers the comfort of interment near more than one family member when families are divided by great distances.

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