What To Do When Someone Dies At Home – An Essential Guide


If you are reading this then you are probably a little bit in shock, so don’t worry this guide will help you. I’m going to take you through all the things you need to know about responding to a sudden loss at home.

Dealing with an expected death at home will be relatively uncomplicated and peaceful, especially if things have been thought through beforehand.

However, if the death is unexpected or you are unprepared, things will probably feel overwhelming and emotional and there will also be stricter rules that you’ll have to abide by.

There are some things to consider when dealing with both expected and unexpected deaths in the home.

When a person dies at home, you will have to get official confirmation of the death in most cases. If an expected death, it’s important to know the wishes of the deceased in advance. Working with officials will ensure that the deceased is well taken care of. If death is unexpected, always call 911.

Expected death at home

If death is expected remember it is not an emergency, and you don’t have to contact the authorities right away. Similarly, if a loved one dies late at night and the death is expected, you do not need to contact anyone until the following morning, unless you want to.

You should, however, do the following:

  • Check for a pulse or any signs of breathing
  • Note whether the body is still warm.
  • Write down the time of death, or a time closest to this that you can confirm the death later.

Other than this, you can take your time, but you should verify this information according to the state where your loved one dies. State laws can differ and do change. Find your state laws here.

Saying your goodbyes

In most states, you may keep your loved one at home for a few hours or even overnight, as there are no legal reasons to have him or her removed immediately.

You will find that once you start to make calls regarding the death, things will get busy and you may not have time to collect your thoughts or to grieve properly.

Keeping the body for a while can give you the time you need to prepare yourself to face ‘the world’, and it will also give the family some time to grieve properly. This can be a private time for the family to be with the deceased.

If you are alone, you could consider calling a friend or a family member to be with you, you might find that some company will be of comfort at this time. Or perhaps there are other relatives or close friends that may too want a bit of time to sit quietly to say their goodbyes.

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If there are any cultural or religious customs or rituals that are important to you and the deceased, this too would be the time to do it or to call a spiritual or cultural leader.

It is important to add, if you are not the next of kin or a very close relative, you should contact the next of kin or the family immediately.

Should I do anything to preserve the body?

If you do decide to keep your loved one at home for a few hours, you should:

  1. Close their eyelids, to make them look as if they are sleeping. If you have children and they are going to see the body, this is especially important as a dead body with open eyes can be a frightening sight.
  2. You should also move the person onto their back because it may be difficult to change his or her position later, due to rigor mortis that can occur sometimes within two hours after death.

Verifying death

Legally you are not dead until someone declares you dead.

Generally, an expected death should be officially pronounced by someone in authority such as a doctor or a hospice nurse within 2 hours. Normally a doctor or a nurse will proclaim the death, but police officers, firefighters, and EMTs can do it too.

A form will need to be completed to certify the cause, time, and place of death. This will make it possible for you to get a death certificate later on.

When you want to verify the death, be cautious about calling 911. Paramedics may attempt to resuscitate a body if it is still warm (unless you have a DNR) and this could result in paramedics taking your loved one to the hospital so a doctor can pronounce the death. If you want to continue to keep the body at home this could be heartbreaking.

However, if you have planned it right and know who to phone and what to stay you can continue to keep the body at home if this is what you’d like.

If you have to call 911

  1. If you have to get a legal pronouncement of death through 911 remember, if you don’t want them to move the body, you need to tell the operator the deceased’s death was expected, and that there is no emergency.
  1. If the deceased has a DNR you should also have it on hand and give to the paramedics when they arrive. They will then make sure the person is dead and probably won’t take them to the hospital. (A DNR order means if your heart stops or you can’t breathe, medical staff will let you die naturally, instead of giving you cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to restart your heart and/or breathing.)  Whether a DNR a good idea or not is something you should discuss as early as possible with friends and family.
  1. If the body doesn’t go to the hospital the paramedics will help you contact a funeral home. If you want to keep the deceased’s body at home for a day or two longer, then speak to the funeral home about this. You may not need their services but they can help you with transporting the body later on.
  1. Be prepared. If there is no doctor or hospice to assist you, the death will be considered unattended and you will have to deal with law-enforcement people who will come to investigate.
  1. You should also have in your possession the deceased’s ‘end of life wishes’ for when the doctor arrives, this is important and will give you a leg to stand on if they insist on something you don’t want.

How long can I keep the body at home after death is verified?

The body can remain at home for up to five days after death, you do not have to place yourself in the hands of the experts at all.

There is no legal requirement in most states, to hire a funeral director, but if you choose to keep the body you will have to do all the hard work yourself. (Please make sure you’re aware of your state and local laws. )

You should also use dry ice or ice packs to preserve the body. You can also turn on the aircon if you have one. Both the ice packs and dry ice will need to be changed regularly and be careful not to let them touch the body directly. Please see my full article on how long you can keep a deceased loved-one at home for more details

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When should you call to have the body removed?

As mentioned above, in the case of expected death, you do not have to have the body removed if you choose to prepare and care for it before the funeral.

However, If you do want to use a funeral to help prepare the body for burial, arrangements should be made to pick up the body as soon as the family is ready and according to local laws. You will have to contact the funeral home directly or ask a friend to help you.

If you want to move the body Immediately

If you would prefer that your loved one be moved to a funeral home immediately after their death, you must first call their doctor or hospice nurse so they can pronounce the death and a funeral home can be contacted.

You should let the attending doctor or nurse know these wishes. Please check your state’s rules, however, as some states may require that you have to report the death with 911. Usually, however, if the death is expected and they died peacefully there are no requirements

Unexpected death at home

If someone dies unexpectedly at home you should call 911 immediately and not touch anything, unless it is a hazard. You will not have any time to wait and deal with things emotionally as it is considered an emergency.

EMTs will come and attempt resuscitation, and the police or sheriff’s deputies will come to investigate the death. Look for any written instructions or “Final Instructions” the deceased may have left and try to find the medications the deceased was taking ( if any).

If you do not have legal authority for the funeral decisions, call a member of the deceased person’s family immediately.

Additionally, you should look to see if anything is indicating the deceased was an organ donor. You will need to tell the medical team this if they were.

 Keep calm

Although death can be frightening if you haven’t experienced it before, keeping the body of a loved one at home can be very peaceful and not scary at all. Having uninterrupted time in your own home to remember your loved-one is rewarding and special as you get to cherish your goodbyes.

A family can sit quietly and remember the good time together and this helps the mourning process. It is reported that families find far better closure by having the body of their loved one at home, giving them time to mourn together.

However, this can also be emotionally taxing on a family, if the death is unexpected or you have not prepared yourself for the job and the responsibilities that will be expected of you. Not everyone can emotionally handle having the dead body of someone they love at home, so it is important to understand thoroughly what will be expected and how you can be prepared for it.

 How to verify the death

What to check:

  1. When someone has died, you will notice a slight drooping of the lower jaw and open staring eyes, if they are open.
  2. There will be no pulse.
  3. No heartbeat.
  4. There will be no evidence of any respiratory effort.
  5. Pupils will be dilated and not reactive to light.

If the death is unexpected, you should make an external examination of the deceased and their surroundings. Try to look for anything which may be relevant to their death (bleeding, vomit, wounds, weapons, alcohol, pills, notes, etc). It is important, however, not to touch anything.

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Very important – Getting a DNR (Do not resuscitate order).

An advance directive tells medical professionals what kind of medical care you want to have if you can’t tell them yourself. A do-not-resuscitate-order (DNR) is a part of this.

A DNR will state that the deceased does not want to be put on a respirator if they stop breathing and will also state their stand regarding organ donation.

Without a DNR families may have very little say regarding what happens immediately after a person’s death. Many emergency medical staff are obligated to begin resuscitation efforts unless you can show them these types of documents. If the deceased has A DNR, things will be far less stressful and easier to handle.

Keeping the deceased at home

Some people may want to wash and dress the body themselves but if you keep the body for more than 4 hours you will have to do so before rigor-mortis sets in.

Beware, as this is not a job for the faint-hearted. The body will also have to be laid flat on their back with their limbs outstretched. It is important to make sure you can handle it emotionally. A healthcare professional, such as a hospice nurse or a funeral home could do this for you too.

How to wash and dress a body:

  1. Washing a person’s body after death is very similar to bathing a person during their illness. Wash the face first, and gently close their eyes. If they do not stay closed, you can place a soft smooth cloth over them and a weight filled by filing a small plastic bag with uncooked rice, or any legumes. source
  1. Next, if the mouth is open close it before the body starts to stiffen. You can place a rolled-up towel or washcloth under the chin or tie a scarf under the chin to the top of the head.
  1. If you’d like you can also wash the hair or give a shave. You can also clean their teeth.
  1. Clean the body with a soft cloth, water, and a small amount of soap. Begin with the arms and legs and then move to the front and back of the trunk. You may need someone to help you roll the person to each side to wash the back. You can also add fragrant oil or flower petals to your rinse water. Dry the part of the body you are working on before moving to another.
  1. You can then dress the body in clean clothes.
  1. When you position the body make sure the legs are straight and the arms at their side.

Be aware that the body may release fluids so it is a good idea to put something absorbent around the body once you’ve washed it (or you could use an adult diaper). source,

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 Step by step guide

What to do the first hour, first day, the first week after someone died?

The first few hours:

1. Within the first few hours, get a legal pronouncement of death.

  • If no doctor is present, you’ll need to contact someone to do this such as a hospice nurse ( if the deceased died under hospice care), or their doctor.
  • Be aware that, some states require that any at-home death be reported to the authorities via a service such as 911, however, if the death was expected this is generally not the case. Although, If there isn’t anyone to call you will have to call 911. ( Ensure you have a DNR on hand)

2. Once the death is pronounced. You can arrange for transportation of the body if this is what you’d like, and if no autopsy is needed.

  • A funeral home will collect the body but ensure that they provide you with the price info before you arrange this.
  • Alternatively, you can choose to keep the body at home and care for it yourself.

3. Notify the person’s doctor of death.

4. Notify close family and friends. ( You may want to ask someone to help you make these calls.)

5. Arrange the care of any children, pets, or other dependents.

6. Call the person’s employer, if they were working.

  • Request info about benefits and any pay due.
  • Ask about life insurance policy, if there is any.

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A few days after the death

1. Create a fitting funeral ceremony, burial, or cremation.

2. Go through the person’s documents and find out about prepaid funeral plans.

3. Ask someone to look after the person’s home.

  • Collect mail
  • Get rid of the food.
  • Water their plants.

Within a week:

1. Obtain the death certificates and get multiple copies made.

Organ and tissue donors

Organ donation allows healthy organs from someone who has just died to be transplanted into someone living who needs them. Many people are organ donors, and it is important to establish this when you prepare for the death of a loved one.

Organ donation is time-sensitive, so this is one time where it’s important to act as quickly as possible. Doctors may ask you once death is pronounced and if the deceased is a donor a doctor should be contacted right away as some organs such as the hearts have to be transplanted right away.

Many states list organ donation on the driver’s license but if not, a family can also decide on this.  

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Caring for a body – the very worst that can happen.

If you are caring for a body yourself, the following will make it difficult to do for an extended period of time:

  1. Bedsores – open sores that can leak fluid.
  2. Oedema ( fluid-filled blisters).
  3. Obesity.
  4. Infections.
  5. Septicemia.
  6. Rapid decomposition.
  7. The presence of medication in the stomach.
  8. The duration of the dying process.

These factors can accelerate the rate of decomposition of the body. If the deceased has any of these you should seek medical advice. Sometimes decomposition can happen very fast. Understanding what can go wrong is a very important part of caring for a body.

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What to do when you discover someone has died at home alone.

If someone dies alone it is considered an unattended death and it is also a potential health hazard depending on how long they have been dead.

If you find someone dead in their home you must not touch anything and treat the scene as potentially hazardous to you.

  1. Call the police.
  2. Do not touch anything.
  3. Call a trauma and crime scene clean up service who will clean up and ensure the area is safe.
  4. Try to remain calm and call someone to be with you 

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What happens if someone dies abroad?

When a U.S. citizen dies abroad, once it is reported to the local officials, report it too, to the U.S. embassy or consulate.

1.Confirm the death, identity, and U.S. citizenship of the deceased. You’ll need to have as much information about the person who’s died (and yourself) to be able to show them.

  • Both of your full names
  • Their date of birth
  • Both of your passport numbers
  • The deceased’s next of kin (if that’s not you)

2. Attempt to locate and notify the next-of-kin.

3. Coordinate with the legal representative regarding the disposition of the remains and the personal items of the deceased.

4. Serve as provisional conservator of the estate if there is no legal representative in the country.

5. Prepare documents for the disposition of the remains by instructions from the next-of-kin or legal representative.

6. Oversee the performance of the disposition of the remains and the distribution of the effects of the deceased.

7. Send signed copies of the Consular Report of Death of a U.S. Citizen Abroad to the next-of-kin or legal representative for possible use in settling estate matters in the United States.

For more information about transporting a deceased person via plane, please read my full article here.

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What happens if someone dies in a hotel?

If someone dies in a hotel:

1. Call the police immediately and leave the scene.

2. Let the hotel know so they can close off the scene.

3. All guests’ belongings will be turned over to the police.

What to do if someone dies in a rented vacation home?

If a person dies on vacation within the United States, firstly call 911 and report the death. Once a report is completed the body will be sent to the morgue.

The best thing to do after this is to call a funeral home in their hometown that they would use. Work with the funeral home to get the body prepared and sent back home. Legally you cannot do this without the help of a professional

Often it is required by law to have a body embalmed before crossing over a border (see my article here for more details), so check out the laws in your area before you attempt to get the body home. If you get the help of a funeral home they will be able to advise you.

The death certificate will be issued by the county where the death occurred so it is a good idea to order more copies in case you need them later.

If no family contact info is available, authorities will wait and hope someone calls about the deceased. If no one calls, after some time the deceased will be buried in an unmarked grave.

Related questions

Who do you call when someone dies in their sleep?

If someone dies in their sleep but their death was expected due to terminal illness, call the hospice that was caring for the deceased or their doctor. If there are none, phone 911.

If you weren’t expecting the death, leave the area untouched and call 911 immediately. If the death was expected, you do not need to contact the doctor or hospice until the following morning unless you want to.

When a person dies can they still hear?

It is thought that hearing is the last sense to go in the dying process, so it is possible for a dead person to still hear you for a very short time. Talk to them if you like, even if they appear to be unconscious, you never know perhaps they can hear. At the very least it may help you with coming to terms with their death.

How long does it take the body to get cold after death?

It will take around 12 hours for a human body to be cool to the touch and 24 hours to cool to the core. Rigor mortis commences after two to three hours

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