What to Do When a Loved One Dies, Part 1

My mother died recently, so I know what to do when a loved one dies.  But she was 92 years old and had been in a nursing home for more than a year.  Two weeks before her death, she was put on hospice, so her death was no surprise.  And she lived a good long life.

My brother and I had everything ready.  We had prepaid for her cremation.  We knew what funeral home to call.  The stone for her monument had not only been paid for, it had been installed and was only waiting for her date of death to be inscribed.

A day or so before her death, hospice called to tell me that she was “actively dying” and could die at any moment.  When she died, hospice took care of everything – having her declared dead and calling the funeral home to retrieve her body.

But what if your loved one dies unexpectedly in your home?  And no arrangements or even thoughts about arrangements have been made?  What do you need to do?

The following is a checklist of what to do when a loved one dies unexpectedly.

Call 911.  Since your loved one died unexpectedly, you don’t have a doctor or hospice nurse who can declare your loved one dead.  You will need to call 911.

Organ donation.  Did your loved one indicate on his or her driver’s license that they wanted to be an organ donor?  If so, arrangements need to be made immediately for that to be done.

Funeral home. The funeral home will retrieve the body as soon as your loved one is declared dead, and any organ donation has been completed, so you need to decide which funeral home to call.

Cremation or traditional.  Who makes the decision?  Under Iowa law, a person can sign a form (Declaration of Designee for Final Disposition) saying who he or she wants to make the decision regarding disposition of the remains.  Since this was an unexpected situation, we are going to assume that wasn’t done.  Without that form, under the law, the spouse can decide.  If there is no spouse, under the law, a majority of the children can make the decision.  Some funeral homes require that all children must agree to cremation, in writing, even if that isn’t required under the law.

Write obituary.  The funeral home will give you direction on what to write in the obituary.  Then decide where, and how many days, the obituary is going to be published.

Plan funeral and memorial services.  This will depend on whether you are having a traditional funeral followed by burial or cremation.  Another option is to have a direct cremation with no funeral involved.  Then a memorial service at a later time.

Death Certificates.    How many are you going to need?  Basically, you need one original for each life insurance policy, annuity, and every asset that is payable on death or held jointly with another person.  Usually, the original will be sent back to you so you can use the originals more than once.  This is a difficult question if you weren’t expecting the death and have no idea what life insurance policies, annuities, etc. that your loved one had. 

This checklist deals with what you need to do immediately.  For my next article, I will have a second checklist which deals with what you need to do after the funeral.