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Checklist: After a Death

From Calling 911 to Dismantling
the Home, Here's What Lies Ahead
By: CaregiverZone

When a loved one dies, your emotions can be completely overwhelming. And yet, so many responsibilities require your attention. The basic tasks to be done after a death are the same for all survivors, regardless of religion, education or income. Use this checklist to ease your way through this difficult time.

Take care of yourself
  • Eat and rest as well as possible. You may be alternately numb and emotionally exhausted.

  • Surround yourself with friends and family, and accept all offers of help.

  • Choose the tasks most meaningful for you and delegate the others.

  • Call people who've dealt with a death in the family. Our emotions cloud our ability to handle all the tasks at hand. Religious leaders, hospice workers, nurses and funeral directors can help guide you.

The first moments after death

Your priorities at this time may vary depending on several factors, but most survivors want:

  • The power to make sure your loved one's end-of-life wishes are met.

  • The opportunity to say goodbye to your loved one before the body is removed.

If your loved one dies at home:
  • Call the doctor or 911. If a living will or "Do Not Resuscitate" order is in place, it may sound odd, but make sure the person is dead before you call authorities. Emergency medical workers sometimes must attempt to revive a patient even if a living will or "Do Not Resuscitate" order tells them not to. If this is a concern in your situation, call the doctor for guidance before dialing 911. The bottom line: Advocate for what you want and need as a family. This is a personal choice. Stay as long with the body as you need to.

  • Once paramedics arrive and confirm the death, they may notify the local coroner or medical examiner. This often is required when a person dies outside a medical facility. A representative of one of those offices may visit the home; at that point, the body will be moved to either the morgue or a funeral home. Who moves the body will vary depending on the rules or customs of your area.

If you are present when your loved one dies in a hospital, nursing facility or hospice:

  • Notify a nurse of the death. The staff will arrange for the body to be moved to a morgue or funeral home.

  • You may have less control over the time you can spend with the body before it is moved, but be firm in requesting what you need.

Did the deceased pre-arrange the funeral or burial?

Find out before you go any further, because the answer to this question contains key information. Pre-arrangements may tell you:

  • If the person has already selected a funeral home or cemetery

  • If the person preferred burial, cremation or other options

  • What kind of funeral services the person wanted

  • Whether the arrangements are already paid for

Choosing a funeral home

Preparation of a body varies widely based on religious and ethnic customs, but the majority of deaths involve funeral homes. Whether the deceased will be cremated or buried, it is best to choose the funeral home in advance.

If a funeral home has not been chosen, seek referrals from friends, family, hospice workers or the National Funeral Directors Association at (800) 228-6332. Every state except Colorado licenses funeral homes and directors. To ask questions or check the status of the license, call the Department of Consumer Affairs in your county or state (in Colorado, start with the Colorado Funeral Services Board).

The first hours after death

If no instructions were given to the medical staff or funeral home in advance, the family will be asked to make decisions about:

  • Organ donation. If your loved one dies in a hospital, it is standard procedure for the staff to ask if organs will be donated. This is a difficult conversation. If organ donation was not discussed with the deceased, then the family must make the best choice for all involved.

  • Autopsy. If the cause of death is not obvious or death did not occur in a medical facility, the law may require the coroner to order an autopsy. In that case, the family cannot refuse. If an autopsy is optional, the family may request one but must pay for it. When a disease caused the death, the family sometimes requests an autopsy for the purpose of research.

The funeral home should be told of organ donation or optional autopsy because:

  • The facility performing the procedure may pick up the body, which could cause confusion if the funeral home prepares to take possession of the body and finds it missing.

  • The procedure may affect preparation or viewing of the body, which the family should know and discuss in advance.

Where the body goes

The agency that picks up the body and its delivery point vary depending on where you live. When a person dies in a medical or residential facility, the staff commonly will notify the funeral home, which will pick up the body. When a person dies at home, the family again typically calls the funeral home. The county morgue usually gets involved only if the death is not of natural causes or if the funeral home has not been chosen.

Several states require the funeral director to prepare and file the death certificate. In some areas, the morgue may begin the process. The funeral home will provide paperwork for the death certificate. Ask for at least 12 copies of the certificate because several agencies will need them to officially close files and accounts. You may be charged for the extra copies. It usually takes several weeks before the family receives the death certificate.

Planning the funeral

As much as a funeral is meant to recognize and celebrate your loved one's life, its chief purpose is to help survivors recognize the death. Funerals have become much more personalized and non-traditional in recent years. Be creative with music, family participation, readings and speakers. Also keep the loved one's preferences in mind.

What you give the funeral home

Be prepared to provide the funeral home with the documentation and items it will need, including:

  • The full name of the deceased (including middle and maiden names, if applicable) and last address

  • As much information about the person's life history and lifestyle as possible. Write down the person's accomplishments, memberships, hobbies and passions; this will help make the services and obituary meaningful, personal and individual.

  • Copies of the birth certificate and Social Security card of the deceased

  • Contact information for the family (designate contact persons and provide phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc.)

  • The clothing the deceased will wear at burial, if applicable

Funeral and burial: flat fees and price lists

Funeral homes offer a wide variety of plans, services and merchandise, some of which are included in a flat fee called a basic professional service charge. The charge includes staff expertise, the funeral home's overhead and such services as contacting religious leaders, pallbearers and musicians.

In addition to the basic charge, you will pay itemized expenses for services such as moving the body to the funeral home; embalming; conducting the visitation or funeral and providing the hearse and limousine, among many others.

The Federal Trade Commission requires funeral homes to give you three price lists. Ask for these lists before you plan the funeral and burial:

  • General Price List (itemizes costs of services not included in the basic fee)

  • Casket Price List

  • Outer Burial Container Price List (itemizes costs of vaults and grave liners)

The average cost of funeral services, excluding cemetery expenses, is $5,700. Cemetery or mausoleum arrangements often must be made with facilities that are not affiliated with your funeral home.

Paying funeral expenses

Explore these options to help pay for funerals and other death-related services:

  • Determine if the deceased prearranged services or burial. If so, as mentioned above, some payments already may have been made.

  • Check the insurance policies of the deceased for any death-related benefits.

  • Contact the Social Security Administration. The agency provides small lump-sum payments to help with funeral expenses.

  • Veterans are entitled to death-related benefits from the government. If the deceased was a veteran, contact the Department of Veteran Affairs.

  • If the deceased was employed or a member of a labor union at the time of death, contact the employer or union and ask if funds are available to help offset death-related expenses.

  • If the deceased was a member of any professional groups or fraternal orders, check if they offer financial assistance for burial.

Telling friends and family of the death

If you are unable to make the calls yourself, ask a friend to do it. You are going through enough without forcing yourself to conform to some social rule that says you need to talk to Aunt Alice even though you don't get along!

If you want to share the task with several people, ask each person you contact to call someone else, and form a telephone tree. Make sure you choose one person to coordinate all the calls so no one is called more than once or not at all.

Whether you make the calls yourself or as part of a group, be ready to provide basic information to the people you call. Here are common questions they may ask:

  • "When's the funeral?" Have the time, date and place ready, or tell them how to obtain this information when it's available.

  • "Where's the funeral?" Write down directions to give to out-of-towners who want to attend the service. It's also a good idea to give these directions to the funeral home. Some people may call the funeral home instead of you.

  • "How can I help?" Make a list of ways to accept these offers. Involving others will make you feel less alone in handling these duties, and it also helps others come to grips with their grief. Your list may include:

    • Making phone calls

    • Coordinating food and drinks for the grieving family or for an open house after the funeral

    • Researching a legal or financial issue or handling paperwork

    • Providing child care

    • Helping dismantle the home of the deceased by sorting items or preparing for a sale

    • Looking after a widowed spouse

    • Visiting you a month after the death, when the activity and attention begin to subside

  • "Can I make a donation in the name of the deceased?" Survivors often ask that mourners donate to a particular charity instead of sending flowers. If your loved one did not name a charity, you can choose one and obtain its address. Have it ready to provide to mourners so they don't send checks to you.

Notifying official persons and agencies

Contact the following agencies to inform them of the death. (Some funeral directors will make these calls for you.) Each agency probably will ask for the name and identification numbers of the deceased. The representative will walk you through the process. To prepare for these calls:

  • Get paperwork together for each institution before you dial.

  • Have several copies of the death certificate ready to send upon request.

  • Be ready for those irritating touch-tone menus, bad Muzak and loooooong waits. This is a good time for a cup of tea and a soap opera to reduce your stress level.

  • Remember, if you get a long period of silence on the line, don't hang up unless you're sure you've been disconnected. You may be in line for the next available operator.

Now you're ready to call:

  • The lawyer and executor of the estate: Notify your loved one's attorney of the death, along with the person designated by the deceased to act as executor of the will. They will take it from there.

  • Social Security Administration: (800) 772-1213. If monthly benefits were being paid via direct deposit, notify the bank or financial institution of the beneficiary's death. Any funds received for the month of death must be returned to Social Security. If benefits were paid by check, don't cash the checks for the month in which your loved one died. Return them to Social Security as soon as possible.

  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (if applicable): (800) 827-1000. Find out if your loved one qualifies for burial in a national cemetery, financial assistance for burial costs, an American flag, a VA headstone or grave marker, or a certificate signed by the president for next of kin. Forms must be submitted for all of these services.

  • Credit card companies: Look for phone numbers on recent bills or on the cards themselves. Companies often require a copy of the death certificate. Be sure to ask if your loved one had insurance on the account; if so, you may not be responsible for the bill.

  • Utilities: Get phone numbers from recent bills.

  • Banks and financial institutions: Close the accounts. Ask if any funds are direct-deposited into the account; if so, find out who deposits the funds and notify them of the death.

  • Local post office: Notify postal officials of the death and provide an address where mail for the deceased can be forwarded.

  • Other creditors: Find phone numbers on recent bills.

Dismantling the home

Wills usually give direction on how to dispose of major items such as cash, homes, jewelry and furniture. However, countless other items such as clothes, books and household items need disposal. Sorting through and dismantling the household will be painful, but it also may bring a flood of good memories. It may help to have loved ones nearby. These tips will help organize the job:

  • Use written or color-coded tags to identify items you want to give to family and friends, donate to charity or sell.

  • Contact charity organizations to coordinate pickup of donated items.

  • Coordinate a garage or estate sale, or designate a person to oversee the project. Choose an estate sale if items are valuable or numerous; a garage sale is appropriate if you want to sell fewer or less valuable items. An online auction site might be convenient, also.

  • If the task is too large for your family, consider hiring a move coordinator. Check with local real estate agents or consult the Yellow Pages to find one in your area.

© CaregiverZone