Immediately After Someone Dies

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This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Helen Low, QC and Nicco Bautista in January 2017.

When a loved one dies, it often catches us off guard, even if it was expected. During this difficult time, we deal with our grief along with some responsibilities.

Who to contact

Who to contact immediately after someone dies depends on whether the death was expected or not, and whether it happens at home or in the hospital.

If a loved one dies at home and their death was unexpected, call 911 immediately. You should also call your family doctor.

If a loved one dies at home and their death was expected, do not call 911, an ambulance or the police. Call family, friends and any spiritual advisor you would like to have present.

If a loved one dies in hospital, call family, friends and any spiritual advisor you would like to have present.

Say your goodbyes

Immediately after the death, you may choose to spend some time with your deceased loved one and participate in rituals that are in keeping with your spiritual beliefs.

If your loved one died in hospital, you can spend some time in the room with them. In general, the hospital will wait for family members to say their goodbyes.

The time spent with the body immediately after death can help people deal with the grief of a loved one’s passing.

Pronouncement of death

After someone has died, their death is “pronounced”. Pronouncing death means giving an opinion that life has ceased based on a physical assessment of the person. Under BC law, it is not required that a healthcare professional do this; a family member can do so by watching the person’s breathing and noting when breathing has stopped.

Even though not required under BC law, pronouncement of death by a healthcare professional is widely recognized as sound clinical and ethical practice for care providers. It can also provide assurance and support to family, and verify that this was an expected natural death.

As well, pronouncement of death by a healthcare professional is required before a funeral home will transport the body - unless the deceased’s doctor signed the form “Notification of Expected Death in the Home”.

If a healthcare professional is to pronounce the death, contact the family doctor, nurse practitioner or community nurse. You can take the time you need. If it is late at night, you may wait until morning before calling.

Organ and tissue donation

Your loved one may have made a decision to donate organs and tissue. They may have discussed those wishes with you. Or they may have left instructions in a will.

BC Transplant oversees all aspects of organ donation and transplantation in BC. They administer the BC Organ Donor Registry.

If your loved one died in hospital, the staff will look up whether they were registered as a donor in the Registry. If they were, the hospital staff will show you the deceased’s donation decision.

If your loved one was not registered, the hospital staff may ask the family if they wish to have the deceased’s organs and tissue donated. While not legally bound to do so, the family may wish to make this decision based on what their loved one would have wished.

If a donation takes place, the family has an opportunity to say their farewells before the organs are removed. A specialist trained in organ recovery will carefully remove organs and tissue. The body is then prepared for removal to the funeral home of choice.

Donation of organs and tissue should not cause a delay in the funeral arrangements and you will be able to have an open casket, if you wish.

Body donation

Your loved one may have donated his or her body for anatomical study and medical research. The Body Donation Program at the University of British Columbia medical school accepts bodies for teaching and research purposes.

If the deceased was registered in the program, their personal representative or a healthcare professional should contact the program as soon as possible after the death, by calling 604-822-2578. For more information see the Body Donation Program website.

Removal of the body

Whether the death took place at home or in hospital, arrangements must be made to remove the body. There are legal requirements as to who can remove the body, where it can be moved to, and who can authorize the removal.

Only licensed funeral homes or those issued a permit by Consumer Protection BC may move a body.

A body can be moved only to a place of cremation or burial, a place where a bereavement ceremony will be held, or a funeral home.

The removal must be authorized by a representative or relative of the deceased according to a priority order set out under BC law. The priority order begins with the personal representative named in the deceased’s will, followed by the deceased’s spouse, adult children (in age descending order), adult grandchildren and so on. If the person at the top of the priority order is unavailable or unwilling to give instructions, the right to give instructions passes to the person who is next in priority.

The authorization to remove the body can be made by telephone. However, the funeral home must not dispose of the body until it receives written authorization from the representative of the deceased.

Your loved one may have made arrangements

Your deceased loved one may have made arrangements with a funeral home, and may even have prepaid for services. They may have left instructions in a will.

If prior arrangements have not been made, contact a funeral home. For information on funeral homes in your area, contact the BC Funeral Association at or 1-800-665-3899.

If the death happened at home

If the death happened at home, call the funeral home when you are ready. It is not necessary to call immediately; take time to call the relatives and friends you want to be with you.

If the form "Notification of Expected Death in the Home" has been completed, authorizing the funeral home to transport the body without pronouncement of death by a healthcare professional, you need to wait at least one hour after the breathing has stopped before calling the funeral home to remove the body.

If the death happened in hospital

If the death happened in hospital, provide the hospital with the name of the funeral home that has been selected. The hospital may prefer to contact the funeral home, or ask that you call the funeral home. You may be asked to sign a form authorizing release of the body from the hospital.

Registering the death

When a person dies in British Columbia, the death must be registered with the BC Vital Statistics Agency. Registration creates a legal record of the death. It also results in the issuing of a death certificate, which survivors will need to apply for benefits and to settle the legal and business affairs of the deceased.

The funeral home typically handles the death registration, which consists of these steps:

  1. A medical certificate of death is completed. A doctor, nurse practitioner or coroner completes and signs a medical certificate of death within 48 hours after the death, and forwards it to the funeral home. The certificate states that the person has died and the cause of death. The funeral home will typically make arrangements to have the certificate completed.
  2. The funeral home obtains information about the deceased from a relative or friend. The information includes the deceased’s date and place of birth, date and place of death, name of spouse, full names and birthplaces of parents, the name of any personal representative named in their will, and the method of “disposition” of the body (burial or cremation).
  3. The funeral home registers the death. When the funeral home has the medical certificate of death and the necessary information about the deceased, the funeral home completes a death registration form with the Vital Statistics Agency.

After registering the death, the funeral home is provided with the requested number of original death certificates and a disposition permit.

The death certificate is a certified extract of the information provided on the death registration. The person looking after the estate of the deceased will need to produce the death certificate whenever they are required to provide proof of death - for example, to cancel a driver’s licence or to settle insurance policies. Some institutions will require the “original” death certificate or a notarized copy, while others will accept a regular copy. You may wish to order two originals, then have additional “certified true copies” prepared by a notary public or a lawyer if needed.

The disposition permit is a permit to dispose of human remains or cremated human remains. It is illegal in BC to bury or cremate a body unless you have a disposition permit.

Common questions

When might a coroner be involved?

If a loved one dies unexpectedly, whether at home or in hospital, a coroner may become involved. A coroner is an appointed official who investigates all unnatural, sudden or unexpected deaths in BC.

Anyone may report a death to the coroner, including doctors, hospitals, care homes, police, or funeral homes.

What does a coroner do?

The coroner will investigate to determine when, where, and how the death occurred.

The coroner’s investigation can end in one of three ways:

  • A determination of natural death: The coroner may conclude that the death was due to natural causes.
  • A coroner’s report: The results of the investigation may be released in a coroner’s report. This is a public document setting out the coroner’s findings, including a cause of death and whenever possible, recommendations to prevent future deaths.
  • A coroner’s inquest: The coroner may hold an inquest, which is a formal court proceeding with a jury, held to publicly review the circumstances of a death. The jury hears evidence from witnesses. The coroner helps the jury maintain a fact-finding role, not a fault-finding role. A written verdict is prepared, and includes recommendations to prevent future deaths.

How can you get a copy of a coroner’s report or an inquest verdict?

Coroner’s reports and inquest verdicts are public documents. For a copy of a coroner’s report, contact the regional coroner office in your area. For copies of jury findings and verdicts from coroner’ inquests, see the Coroners Service of BC website. See the “Where to Get Help” section for contact details.

What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is a thorough medical examination of a body after death. It may be done to find out how or why a person has died, or to learn about a disease or injury.

An autopsy is done by a doctor called a pathologist. This type of doctor is an expert in diagnosing diseases.

The autopsy is usually carried out within 48 hours of the death. Once it is completed, the body is released to the representative of the deceased. Funeral arrangements can then go ahead.

When is an autopsy done?

Family members may ask for an autopsy to be done after a loved one has died. This is called a requested autopsy.

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Sometimes an autopsy is required by law. This is called a required autopsy.

Family members may ask for an autopsy:

  • when the loved one died from a medical problem that had not been diagnosed before death
  • if there are questions about a sudden death that appears to be from natural causes
  • if there are concerns about genetic problems that family members may also be at risk for

Situations in which the law may require an autopsy include:

  • sudden or unexpected death, such as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • death caused by an injury, including suicide, murder, an accident, drug overdose, or poisoning
  • deaths that are suspicious

Does the family have to consent to an autopsy being done?

If an autopsy is required by law, a coroner or doctor can legally have it done without the consent of the person’s family or personal representative. But if the autopsy is not required by law, the family or personal representative must give their consent. Most often, a consent form must be signed in front of a witness.

Who pays for an autopsy?

If an autopsy is required by law, there is no charge to the family.

If the family is requesting an autopsy, they can ask that a hospital do an autopsy on a person who died there. In some hospitals, there is no charge for this service.

Most health plans do not pay for autopsies. Make sure you understand the charges ahead of time.

Can you get a copy of the autopsy report?

No. The written autopsy report is a private document containing personal information about the deceased.

How can you get information about the cause of death?

The medical certificate of death contains information about the cause of death. The death certificate does not contain this information. For a certified copy of the death registration — which includes the medical certificate of death — you can apply to the BC Vital Statistics Agency. There is a $50 fee. If less than 20 years have passed since the date of death, only immediate family members and selected others can apply for this document.

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