What Do I Do When a Death Occurs? Start With These Twelve Essential Steps

checklist when a death occurs

What do I do when a death occurs? Despite your grief, some things must be attended to.

The loss of a loved one is usually filled with great sorrow and powerful emotions, making it harder to manage the many tasks that must be completed to settle their affairs and honor their life. For many people, the first time they consider these issues is when they are confronted with them. You may have wondered, “What do I do when a death occurs?

If you have just lost a loved one or are preparing for impending passage, the following checklist is intended to help you cope with practical tasks during highly emotional circumstances.


Immediately after the passing:


1. Get a legal pronouncement of death.

An official declaration of death is the first step to getting a death certificate. Without this crucial document, you can’t plan the funeral or handle the departed’s legal affairs. If your loved one passed in a hospital or nursing home where a doctor was present, the staff would take care of the death pronouncement. If your loved one died at home, especially if it was unexpected, you’d need to enlist a medical professional to make the declaration of death.


2. Arrange for the body to be transported.

The departed's body will need to be moved from the place of death to the designated after-care location. If no autopsy is required, it can be picked up by the funeral home, mortuary, or crematorium.


3. Make temporary arrangements for the care of pets. 

Find caretakers for your loved one’s pets until there’s a permanent plan for them. Send them to stay with a relative or friend who likes animals. The pets will be grieving, too, so be sure they’re with someone who knows them and can comfort them.


4. Notify friends and family.

Make individual phone calls to immediate family members and close friends to let them know of your loved one’s passing. You might send a group email or text to extended family and friends. Ask them to spread the word to others who should know about the death.


5. Contact their employer.

In addition to notifying your loved one’s employer about their passing, ask about any benefits you may be entitled to, such as life insurance or retirement funds. Be sure to inquire about any outstanding paychecks that may also be due.


6. Seek out existing funeral and burial plans.

You may have the opportunity to talk with your loved one about their wishes for a funeral or burial before they pass. If not, look for a letter of instruction in the deceased's papers. In addition, your loved one may have pre-arranged their funeral. Scour the paperwork to determine if there is a funeral plan in place and if it has already been paid. If the departed left no instructions or existing funeral plans, arrange a family meeting to have the initial conversation about funeral details. Use this time to discuss what your loved one would have wanted, what you can afford, and the desires of your immediate family members.


Within the first few days:


7. Make funeral, burial, or cremation arrangements.

If your loved one created an advance funeral plan, most of the arrangement details would already be outlined for you. If not, you’ll need to choose a funeral home and decide on specifics like where the service will be held, whether to cremate, where the body or ashes will be interred, and what type of tombstone or urn to order. If the departed was in the military, contact the Veterans Administration to determine what burial benefits you may be entitled to. Your funeral director can assist you in this effort.


8. Assemble funeral participants and helpers.

Line up relatives and friends to help plan the service, act as pallbearers, provide a eulogy, write thank you notes, and arrange the funeral reception, among other tasks. If you have a friend or relative who is a wordsmith, you might enlist their help to write the obituary. Alternatively, your funeral director has a great deal of experience in this area and can draft it for you.


9. Secure property and forward the mail if the departed lived alone.

Lock up your loved one’s home and vehicle. Ask a friend or relative to water the plants, get the mail, and throw out the food in the refrigerator. If valuables are in the home, store them in a safe, locked location. Go to the post office and have the mail forwarded to you or whoever is working with you on the immediate affairs of your departed loved one.


Within the first ten days:


10. Get copies of the death certificate. 

While you may receive one or two copies from the funeral home or mortuary, experts suggest getting 10–20 copies. A wide range of institutions, from financial institutions to credit card and insurance companies, may require a death certificate before they will discuss your loved one’s account with you or pay out death benefits.


11. Locate critical documents.

This includes:

  • The will
  • Records of accounts, such as from banks or credit unions, retirement accounts, and investments
  • Records of debts, including credit card, mortgage, auto loan, student loan, or any other kind of debt statements
  • Copies of all insurance policies, including life, health, disability, homeowners, auto, and any others
  • Identification documents
  • Marriage and birth certificates
  • Vehicle registration and title
  • Tax returns from the last two years


12. Notify essential institutions.

  • The Social Security Administration (SSA) must be notified to stop any benefit checks your loved one was receiving. There may also be a death benefit that your or other beneficiaries are entitled to. In addition, the departed’s Social Security number will be placed on the master death list to prevent identity theft.
  • Financial institutions where the departed had accounts
  • Insurance companies
  • Creditors, including credit card companies, so that accounts can be closed
  • Utility companies
  • The Department of Motor Vehicles must be notified to cancel the departed’s driver’s license or ID, license plates, and disabled placards. You will need to provide the vehicle registration and ownership documents to do so.


Funeral planning may seem overwhelming right now. You might be unsure about what to do first and have plenty of questions, too. The caring team at Evan W. Smith Funeral Services is here to act as your knowledgeable resource and provide a wellspring of valuable expertise. As Delaware's most trusted full-service funeral home, we’re proud to offer various affordable funeral and cremation services, personalized memorials and specialty services.


If you’re confused and wondering, “What do I do when a death occurs?” please know that we are here to help. Our compassionate professionals are always available to assist you. Please reach out to us anytime.


About Evan W. Smith Funeral Services: Since 2009, residents of Wilmington, Dover, and the surrounding Delaware community have relied on the caring staff at Evan W. Smith Funeral Services to help them through their darkest hours. Family-owned and operated, the company offers an array of elite funeral care services, including traditional funerals, cremations, memorials, pre-planning, grief counseling, and more. With decades of experience in caring for families from all cultural backgrounds and diverse walks of life, Evan W. Smith Funeral Services is committed to creating memorable, uplifting experiences that always exceed expectations. For more information, please visit www.ewsmithfs.com.

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