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When someone dies in hospital the doctors who treated them will follow a procedure. They follow these steps to give you the practical support you need leading up to the funeral arrangements.

This procedure following a death in hospital is to make sure:

  • Hospital staff tell family as soon as possible
  • The person who died is taken care of and their final wishes are respected
  • The doctor in charge of the patient issues a medical certificate so you can register the death

We’ve listed the steps the hospital staff follow below. That way, you know what to expect and what to do when someone dies in hospital.

What is the procedure after a death in a hospital?

Some hospitals may have bereavement staff that you can talk to about what happens next. If not, the ward staff will take you through the procedure after a death in the hospital. Here’s an idea of what you can expect.

Hospital staff will tell next of kin about the death

When a person dies in hospital the staff will contact the next of kin as soon as possible to let them know what’s happened. You or someone else close to the person may need to go to the hospital to identify the person.

If you’re with the person when they die in hospital the staff will arrange for you to spend some time at their bedside before they’re taken to the mortuary.

They may talk to you about organ donation

What if the person who died was an organ donor? The transplant coordinator at the hospital will speak to you soon after the person dies. If the person who died is registered as an organ donor and eligible to help someone else the staff will have to move quickly. But don’t worry. They’ll always respect your beliefs and your final decision.

What if your loved one wasn’t registered as an organ donor? If you know they’d want to donate their organs let the hospital staff know. They may still be able to help someone else even if the person who died isn’t registered as an organ donor. 

You can learn more about giving permission for organ donation on the NHS website.

The doctor will confirm cause of death

The doctor will confirm the cause of death if it’s known. They can then give you a medical certificate so that you can register the death. The doctor will give you the medical certificate in an envelope addressed to the local Registry Office or they’ll send it straight over to the Registry Office electronically. You’ll also be given more information on how to register the death.

Keep in mind that any forms that the doctor needs to fill out may take a little time. This is because it must only be done by the staff members that treated the patient. Most doctors and nurses work in shift patterns. So don’t worry if you don’t get all the documents you need immediately. The staff know that you’ll want to register the death and start funeral arrangements soon so they’ll always try to issue the medical certificate as soon as they can.

What if the cause of death is unclear?

If the cause of death isn't clear, the hospital staff may ask to carry out a post-mortem exam at the hospital. The next of kin needs to give permission for this. You can discuss what will happen with the staff before agreeing to it. It may help you to know that when the hospital staff carry out a post-mortem it can help them treat patients with similar injuries or conditions in the future.

If you agree to a post-mortem the report will be given to your GP within 6 weeks. And if you want to, you can talk about the findings with the doctor in charge of the patient, especially if you have any concerns.

Even if the cause of death is clear, if you're not happy with the way the person was cared for while they were in hospital, you have the right to report your concerns. The hospital may decide to investigate. You can speak to PALS (Patient Advice and Liaison Services) at the hospital to find out how to report your concerns.

What happens if a coroner is involved?

If the cause of death is sudden or unnatural a coroner may need to carry out a post-mortem or inquest. The coroner usually carries out the post-mortem 2 to 3 working days after the death. But the reports can take weeks, even months to be finished. Keep this in mind as it may delay registering the death. This is because you’ll only receive the documents you need to register the death once the coroner’s reports have been done.

In the meantime you can get an interim death certificate from the coroner’s office. This will allow you to contact banks, insurance companies and other organisations to let them know about the person’s death. If you need help with this you can contact the Coroner’s Courts Support Service for free advice.

The body will be kept safe

When someone dies in hospital they’ll usually be washed and kept in the hospital mortuary. They’ll be kept there until you arrange for them to be collected by a family member or funeral director. You may have to sign forms at the hospital for a funeral director to collect the body. Depending on the funeral arrangements the funeral director may take them to a chapel of rest or you may decide to take them home so that other family members can say goodbye before the funeral service.

Their personal belongings will be safely stored

Staff at the hospital will keep the person’s belongings safe until the person responsible for organising the estate collects them. Some hospitals will give you a receipt once you collect belongings. You could wait until the doctor issues the medical certificate so that you can collect their belongings and the certificate at the same time.

Check with the hospital to see if they have an appointment system. Book an appointment that works for you so that you can pick up the documents you need to register the death as well as any personal belongings.

Next steps: what to do when someone dies in hospital

  • Register the death. Once the medical certificate has been sent to your local register office you can register the death. You usually need to do this within 5 days of the death (8 days in Scotland). But this doesn’t apply if the coroner gets involved. If that happens, you’ll need to wait longer for the medical certificate.
  • Contact a funeral director. You may want to start contacting funeral directors. Make sure you contact a few different funeral homes to compare options and prices. Depending on which type of funeral you’re planning you may find that costs differ a lot from one funeral director to another. Use our funeral director finder to get started.
  • Start contacting other people and organisations who need to know that the person has died. You can use this list of who to contact when someone dies to help you.
  • Find support for you. When you’re busy making funeral arrangements remember to take some time for yourself too. There are many charities in the UK that offer free counselling services. You can find a list of UK bereavement charities here.

Photo by Olga Kononenko on Unsplash.