After a loved one has died, there’s so much that needs to be done. Having a checklist of things to do can help you get through it all.
The checklist below covers everything from the moment of death through the days and weeks after the funeral. It’s most helpful for a close survivor of the deceased, the person who’s likely to be handling the bulk of the arrangements and other duties. But it can also be useful for requesting some help from those family and friends who want to support you however they can.
It’s impossible to put items in exact chronological order of when they need to happen, because this can vary based on the circumstances. But we’ve arranged the list roughly with most immediate items at the beginning, and tasks that can wait a bit toward the end.
WHAT TO DO IMMEDIATELY
O Notify the authorities. When the death occurs, you will need to have your loved one officially pronounced dead. In order to do so, authorities must be notified. The procedure varies based on where and how the death occurs:
o If the death takes place in a hospital or nursing facility, inform a nurse of the death. They will begin the process that needs to take place.
o If the death occurs at home and the deceased has been under hospice care — that is, the death is expected — there’s no need to call 911. Contact the hospice nurse, who will begin the process of pronouncing the death.
o If the death is unexpected and happens anywhere other than the hospital, call 911.
O Locate your loved one’s essential paperwork as quickly as possible, such as a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order if one exists. This is especially important if you have called 911, as they may attempt to revive your loved one and this may be against their wishes. If you have a DNR in hand, you’ll be able to avoid this.
O Take a moment with your loved one’s body, if you wish. It’s your right to say goodbye, and you can make it clear to doctors and nurses that you need a minute before the body is moved.
O Arrange for organ donation if applicable. If your loved one was a registered organ donor, doctors will need to work quickly to prepare their organs for donation, so be aware of their donor status and inform doctors right away if need be.
O Contact the funeral home. The funeral home you choose to work with will be an invaluable ally as you go through the next few days, and you should contact them as soon as possible after the death. Their help begins with arranging transportation of your loved one’s body from your home, the hospital, or wherever else the death occurs. This may need to happen fairly quickly, so contact them first if you can. You’ll also work with the funeral home to plan and carry out the funeral service and burial, but this conversation doesn’t need to happen immediately after the death — it can wait until the next day or so. If you haven’t already chosen a funeral home, learn how to make this choice.
O Notify family and close friends. You’ll know who needs to be told of the death immediately, and you should begin the process of making calls or visits. It may be helpful to jot down a list, so you can keep track of who has been contacted and who hasn’t. If there are many people to call, you can ask for help — tell family members or friends which specific person or people they should call, so you can keep it all straight.
O Arrange care for any children, elderly survivors, and/or pets. If the deceased was the primary caregiver to a child, elderly person, or pet, arrangements will need to be made for their care immediately. If you’re unable to take them into your home, find someone who can.
O Notify the deceased’s employer. If your loved one was currently employed, you should notify their employer(s) as soon as possible so they are not expected at work. The employer can arrange for their work to be handled and for a final paycheck to come to the family or be direct-deposited.
O Make sure the deceased’s home is taken care of. If survivors will be remaining in the house, this may not be necessary, but if the deceased lived alone, you should take a few steps to make sure the home is secure and not an easy target for break-ins. The mail should be stopped at the post office, forwarded to a family member’s or friend’s address, or taken in by a loved one or neighbor. Make sure all doors are locked and windows are closed. If cars can be pulled into a garage, do so. A few lights can be placed on timers and set to turn on and off so the home doesn’t look unoccupied. You can contact the local police to arrange for an officer to drive by and check on things periodically.
O Locate any funeral pre-planning information. Your loved one may have made their wishes clear about what type of funeral services and body disposition (burial, cremation, etc.) they prefer. They may have even prepaid for funeral services or purchased a burial plot. Locate their body disposition form, if it exists, and any documents from the funeral home and/or cemetery that spell out what has been planned.
WHAT TO DO BEFORE THE FUNERAL
O Meet with the funeral director to plan funeral services. While you’re making plans, be sure to keep in mind whether family members will need to travel from long distances — in which case, you may want to wait a few days before beginning services. Your funeral director can help you arrange for visitation or a wake, a funeral or memorial service, and burial or other body disposition. They will have relationships with cemeteries and can help you navigate that choice if you don’t already have a plot purchased or a cemetery chosen. They may also be able to help in ways you didn’t expect, so if you have a question or a need, don’t be afraid to ask and see if they can assist.
O Contact clergy. The deceased’s spiritual leader(s), or your own clergy, can be another crucial resource for you in the days following a death. They should be informed as soon as possible so they can provide emotional support, prepare their remarks for the funeral if you wish to have them speak, and connect you with community resources you may find useful.
O Contact any military, service or fraternal organizations the deceased was involved in to arrange special services or benefits. If your loved one was a veteran or a member of a union, fraternal organization, service club, etc., there may be a special honor they can provide at the funeral. There may also be benefits provided to the families of deceased members. Reach out to find out how they can help.
O Make a plan for social media sharing. You may prefer to avoid having the news of the death going out on social media right away, or maybe you don’t want it mentioned on social media at all. You may have preferences about what people do and don’t share about the death. Give this some thought, because it’s likely that some friends and family members will want to talk about their loss on social media, and if you have specific wishes, be sure to communicate them and get everybody on board with your plan.
O Choose your loved one’s clothing for burial or cremation. You may want to spend some time considering what some of your loved one’s favorite clothing items were, to best represent them — especially if you’re planning to have an open casket at the visitation and/or funeral.
O Gather any personal items and photos you’d like to display at the funeral. Many visitations and funeral services include photo boards and areas to display other special mementos of the deceased’s life. You may wish to have family members gather with you to choose some personal items and photos as you remember your loved one together.
O Locate any life insurance policies. You’ll want to get started on the process of claiming any life insurance benefits, as they may be able to help you with funeral expenses. If you’re not sure how to find insurance policy information, check with the deceased’s employer or former employer.
O Choose a beneficiary for memorial donations. Many friends and family members will want to make a donation in memory of your loved one, and you can determine where their donations are best spent. You might choose a favorite charity, or you might request donations to the family, which can help cover funeral expenses, be forwarded on to a charity, or be split between both uses.
O Write an obituary. You can choose to write the obituary yourself or have the funeral home help or take care of the task altogether. Writing it yourself can be a loving experience for family members to work on together, and if you’re not sure just what to say, you can start with ObitWriter. Before you get started, make sure there isn’t already an obituary that was written in advance by the deceased or another family member — more and more people choose to write their own obituaries these days.
O Notify the landlord or the city. If your loved one lived in an apartment or rental home, you should notify their landlord of the death and determine the timeline for ending the lease. If they owned a home, you should contact the city to discuss transferring the tax bill to another name if necessary.
O Notify the broader network of friends and colleagues. Although you probably notified family and close friends very shortly after the death, there may be many more people who need the information, such as old schoolmates, former colleagues, friends from community organizations, and so on. In some cases, you can reach out to one well-connected member of a community, like a leader of an alumni organization, and ask them to spread the word to others.
O Get death certificates. You are going to need to present a death certificate to serve as proof of death in a variety of situations, from claiming insurance benefits to proving the reason for an absence for work to closing bank accounts and much more. It’s recommended that you obtain at least a dozen copies of the death certificate. To get a death certificate, contact the county or state records office where the death occurred. The funeral home may also be able to help you start the process of obtaining death certificates.
O Locate the deceased’s will & contact the executor. If you’re the executor, you’ll begin the process of executing the will by contacting a lawyer or trust attorney. If the deceased didn’t leave a will, you’ll need to start by filing probate proceedings in the court of the county where the deceased lived.
WHAT TO DO AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
O Make a plan to clear out your loved one’s belongings. The timeline for this can vary quite a bit depending on the circumstances. If your loved one lived in a nursing facility, you may need to clear their room fairly quickly. When there are surviving family members who lived with the deceased, many of their belongings are likely to remain in the home as others are still using them — but clothing and other personal items will need to be removed eventually. Finally, if the deceased lived alone, you’ll need to find a place for everything in the home before it can be sold or rented. Some items will be given to loved ones as keepsakes, while others may need to be sold or donated. Learn where you can donate your loved one’s belongings here.
O Cancel or transfer utilities as needed. If the deceased lived alone, there will be a number of utilities to cancel or transfer into another name. Electric, gas, and water may need to remain on if family members will be visiting to clear out belongings, but you should notify the companies of the death and transfer the billing into your or another family member’s name. Internet, home phone, and cell phone service should also be canceled or transferred if desired. If family members will continue living in the home, you may still need to cancel the deceased’s cell phone plan so charges don’t continue to be applied to their account.
O Notify financial & civic agencies. There are several agencies and companies that need to be informed of a death:
o Loan agencies. If the deceased held a car loan, a mortgage, or any other outstanding loans, you’ll need to notify the lenders of the death.
o Insurance companies. You’ve probably already contacted the life insurance company, but there are likely other insurance policies, like car insurance and homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Notify these companies so policies can be canceled or transferred. There may also be a death benefit involved with these insurance policies.
o Banks and credit card companies. Credit cards will need to be canceled and/or transferred. Bank accounts will most likely be frozen when you report the death, and transferring or liquidating them will be part of the probate process.
o Credit reporting agencies. Inform the big three credit reporting agencies of the death so they can mark your loved one as deceased in their records. This step is important to prevent identity fraud using your loved one’s name.
o State election board. Your loved one will need to be removed from the voter roll to prevent election fraud. Find contact information for your state’s election board here.
o Social Security Administration or pension agency. If your loved one received Social Security benefits or a pension, contact the agency to inform them of the death.
o Medi-Cal and Medicare. If your loved one was enrolled in Medi-Cal and/or Medicare, contact the agency to inform them of the death.
O Arrange for a headstone. If your loved one was buried, you’ll need to order a headstone. The funeral home may be able to assist you in getting this started.
O Have the house cleaned. Once your loved one’s belongings are cleared out of their home, or mostly gone, arrange for the house to be thoroughly cleaned if possible. This is especially important when the deceased lived alone and the home will need to be sold, but it may also be comforting even when survivors remain in the house.
O Delete social media accounts and email accounts, if desired. Some people prefer to leave their deceased’s social media accounts alone, which means friends can still post to their page and their name will still come up in friend lists. Others find it distressing to see the account remain online. If you think you’d prefer not to have your loved one’s social media accounts remain active, you’ll need to close each account individually. The same goes for email accounts, which should be canceled so you don’t have to keep monitoring them.
O Contact a tax preparer. Your loved one’s taxes will need to be filed one last time. A tax preparer can guide you in the process.
O Cancel your loved one’s driver’s license. Canceling the deceased’s driver’s license is an important part of preventing identity fraud, so make sure you do it within a reasonable period after the death.
O Cancel memberships. Your loved one may have been a member of a wide variety of organizations, including fitness centers, clubs, political parties, and so on. Some of these may be paid memberships, so it’s important to cancel them as soon as possible to avoid incurring unnecessary fees. Even unpaid memberships should be canceled when you’re able.
O Cancel magazine and newspaper subscriptions. If your loved one subscribed to magazines or newspapers, whether they are physical versions or online ones, you’ll want to cancel them to avoid fees building up, or transfer them to another name if you want to keep receiving them.
O Send thank-you notes. If people donated to your loved one’s memorial fund or were of assistance as you navigated the days and weeks after the death, it’s polite to send thank-you notes. If possible, try to send them within a few weeks of the funeral, though your family and friends will generally understand if thank-you notes take longer to complete. This is a task that you can always ask for help with — friends can address envelopes for you, for example.
Here’s where to start if you need help planning a funeral.