Practical steps to take after a person dies
March 12, 2006 5:26 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone tell me about the legal, practical steps of dealing with a person who dies, their dead body? I live in NYC but imagine the steps must be pretty similar all over the US and Europe too.

I'm trying to know the step-by-step actions to take both for the event of my own death, to leave convenient instructions for my relatives/friends and also to know for myself because I've been lost about what to do practically when people I knew died.
posted by nickyskye to Law & Government (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I believe the most common "step" is to hand all the steps off to a local funeral home.

It is extremely likely that in event of your death, weeks or months will pass before your practical instructions will be read by your relatives, and in the meantime all the steps will have been handed off to a funeral home.

Certainly there are instructions one can leave. "Don't forget to withdraw the $1,000,000 in my numbered Swiss bank account that I never told you about" is a good one. But instructions on the immediate disposition of your mortal remains? Unnecessary.
posted by jellicle at 7:15 PM on March 12, 2006

Informing your loved ones about your burial/cremation preferences ahead of time is a good idea. If you would like to be considered as an organ donor or have already made some arrangements (e.g., prepaid for a plot or casket), this is particularly important. (Plus having a living will or power of attorney document or the like seems like a Good Idea).

Just leaving instructions is not enough, people have to know that they exist and where to look for them, but unless you have some specific requests, a lot of the procedural stuff can be choreographed by the funeral home.
posted by i love cheese at 7:29 PM on March 12, 2006

There are books which cover exactly this stuff, and it's probably worth owning one. (The linked book is just the only one I know of but there must be others)
posted by edd at 12:54 AM on March 13, 2006

If you are worried about making arrangements for yourself, you can do so ahead of time with a funeral home or cremation society, even up to the point of paying partially or fully in advance.

As for convenient instructions, type them up on the word processor--be very explicit and straightforward about what you want done--print off a number of copies and give them to trusted friends and family members. Tell them verbally too, and urge them to keep the documents in a safe but accessible place.

(To generate these instructions, you can also use a commercial product like Quicken WillMaker, which in addition to generating legally valid wills and trust documents for all 50 states, includes templates and "wizards" for creating "final instructions" documents; if you're not sure about what to include, something like this could be really helpful.)

My father died last fall. It wasn't unexpected, and because he and I had talked about all of this in advance and had made all the necessary arrangements, things went very smoothly after the actual event, even when nobody was thinking too clearly due to the emotional stress.

Because we had it planned out in advance, we didn't *have* to think, just implement our existing plan.
posted by enrevanche at 3:34 AM on March 13, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the book tip edd and the planning encouragement enrevanche.

Ok, so far it's have a will and power of attorney ready for anybody taking care of the body/estate. I found a free Last Will and Testament form for each state online here.

I was curious about things like if one calls the coroner or who one calls to issue a death certificate? If a person dies peacefully in their apartment is the first person to call the police to make a record of it? Do the police then call the coroner or does one do that oneself? If the person doesn't have arrangements with a funeral home is the body taken to the city morgue for keeping until funeral arrangements can be made? Typically does one only call the Salvation Army to remove possessions not wanted by the relatives?

I was a building super in NYC for 5 1/2 years, during which time 4 tenants died, one was hit by a car late at night, one by fire, one overdosed in his apartment and one died by stroke in the hospital. With the exception of the man who overdosed, they were all poor people. Only one had immediate relatives in NYC who took care of the death details. Fellow supers in my neighborhood also had situations like mine, for example two tenants died of AIDS, the third man in the apartment left the boxes of ashes and all possessions with no instructions.

None of these tenants prepared for their death with a will or arrangements with a funeral home. Each of their deaths was a chaotic time for me as I ended up taking care of many details, trying to find their relatives in other countries, look up co-workers' telephone numbers among their papers, dealing with the police who came to the apartment to look among their papers for bank account books and in the case of the man who overdosed, his body decomposed badly and I was the one who cleaned up that awful mess when the Special Forces police removed what remains they could. The elderly Moroccan man who was hit by a car ended up staying in the morgue for many months because noone knew what to do with his body.

Other friends of mine in NYC had their parents die in their apartment and also didn't know what were the correct steps to take. One flew in from Hong Kong when her mother died peacefully in a residential hotel and found the apartment sealed by the police.

I guess I wanted to know more about the step-by-step details, rather than just "call the funeral home".
posted by nickyskye at 6:49 AM on March 13, 2006


I am not a lawyer, but:

(1) A durable power of attorney may do someone a great deal of good while they're alive (as it will empower others to act for them if they become incapacitated or otherwise unable to act on their own behalf) but will do them no good whatsoever after their death; once someone dies, the power of attorney expires with them.

So: If you want to empower someone specifically to see to the details of your final disposition, make sure to name that person as the executor of your will.

(2) The reason we're all saying "call the funeral home, write instructions out, make sure you have a will, etc." is this: If someone dies without a will, without leaving instructions, or without a funeral home to run interference, things can get complicated.

We had *two* layers of competent people assisting us when my father passed on; Dad was under Hospice care, and Hospice was already aware of our arrangements with the cremation society. When Dad died, we called Hospice and they picked everything up and ran with it, so to speak.

The funeral home/cremation society dealt directly with the county, on our behalf, in getting certified copies of the death certificate ordered, and handled other details for us like getting an obituary in the local newspaper.

Many people don't like the idea of dealing with funeral homes, but a simple cremation or burial does not have to be an absurdly expensive affair, and these folks *do* know how to get things done efficiently (they do it many times a day, every day, all year round.)

By the way, you make an excellent point above, about trying to figure out who to call - part of the instructions should be a list of telephone numbers and both physical and e-mail addresses for people who need to be notified.
posted by enrevanche at 8:56 AM on March 13, 2006

all i know is that each culture and society deals with disposal of the human body differently. in japan all people are cremated after they die. in the united states it is usually up to the family to do what they want depending on their religion or beliefs etc. if there is no family or if the family doesnt have enough money to pay for the burial/cremation then the body is held in a morgue until they do. there is usually in a morgue in most cities. thats about all i know. it might be interesting for you to look into how jews deal with this issue-- we have numerous laws and traditions on the procedural aspects of death, including a community "burial society" made up of volunteers which coordinates everything and offers charity to poor families or individuals with no families. for jews, it is considered an honor to dig the grave of a righteous man.
posted by petsounds at 12:21 PM on March 13, 2006

Response by poster: enrevanche, great, practical info about the power of attorney. Thanks!

I'm glad you had decent support when your father died. That may not often be the case when people die alone in NYC or alone anywhere for that matter. It wasn't my experience as a building super or seeing other supers cope with tenants' deaths.

Ah, so Hospice made the arrangements with the cremation society.

I didn't know there were "cremation societies", didn't know the phrase. Just Googled it for NYC and found a very useful site called the Internet Cremation Society.

From that site I found a lot of the info I was looking for and as you can see there are a number of steps both in preparing for one's own death well and also in handling another's death:

"1. Contact the funeral home as soon as a death has occurred. (Flynn Funeral and Cremation Memorial Centers (800) 750-8021) A time will be set up with the funeral director to come in and make arrangements. The funeral home will help coordinate arrangements with the cemetery, church and clergy. You will need to be able to provide the following information to complete the State of New York vital statistic requirements.

Birth Date
Birthplace - City and County
Father's Name
Mother's Name (including maiden)
Social Security Number
Veteran's Discharge or Claim Number for Civil Service
Education Level
Marital Status

2. The funeral home will assist you in determining the number of copies of the death certificates you will need and we will get these for you.

3. Make a list of immediate family, close friends and employer or business colleagues. Notify each by phone.

4.Decide on appropriate memorial to which gifts may be made (church, hospice, library, charity or school) if desired.

5.Gather obituary information, including age, place of birth, occupation, college degrees, memberships held, military service , outstanding work , list of survivors in immediate family. Give time and place of services. The funeral home will normally write an article and submit to the local newspapers. You will be asked to proofread before submission to prevent any mistakes. Please be aware that our local newspaper (Times Herald Record) now charges for this service.

6.Prepare list of insurance companies, to include name of company and policy number. Flynn Funeral and Cremation Memorial Centers will notify all of death and gather needed forms for you and prepare them for your signature. The proceeds will be sent directly to you, unless you wish to do an insurance assignment for the funeral charges. We will also assist you in this if it is what you desire. Let us help you, it is our job and you have enough to do.

7.Flynn Funeral and Cremation Memorial Centers will notify Social Security for you. In a week or so, check with Social Security to see that number is retired. **The $255 dollar death benefit is payable ONLY if there is a surviving spouse, or a child under 18 or a disabled child.

8.If Social Security checks are automatic deposit, notify the bank of the death.

9.Arrange for members of family or close friends to take turns answering door or phone, keeping careful record of calls. Try not to leave the home unattended during this time, including during the services.

10.Consider special needs of the household, such as cleaning or shopping for items such as trash bags or paper goods, which might be done by friends.

11.Arrange for childcare, if necessary.

12.Arrange hospitality for visiting relatives and friends.

13.Select pallbearers and notify the funeral home. We will be glad to contact them for you.

14.Plan for disposition of flowers after funeral. We will deliver all potted plants to the home, and normally all cut flower arrangements are left at the graveside and the cards are delivered to the family.

15.Prepare list of distant persons to be notified by letter and/or printed notice, and decide which to send to each.

16.Send appropriate acknowledgments to those who sent flowers, brought food, or gave their time to be of service (can be written note, printed acknowledgments, or some of each). It is not necessary to send an acknowledgement card to every person who signed the register. You may if you wish, but people do not expect to be acknowledged for simply signing the registry. They don't want to cause an added burden.

17.Locate the will and notify lawyer and executor.

18.Check carefully all life and casualty insurance and death benefits, including Social Security, credit union, trade union, fraternal, and military. Check also on income for survivors from these sources.

19.Check promptly on all debts and installment payments, including credit cards. Some may carry insurance clauses that will cancel them. If there is to be a delay in meeting payments, consult with creditors and ask for more time before the payments are due.

20.If deceased was living alone, notify utilities and landlord and tell post office where to send mail."

That site said "The following charges for direct burial and direct cremation do not include additional items or services, merchandise, facility use, and livery that the customer may wish to select.

Direct Cremations: From $ 1,620.00 to: 1,595.00

Which includes the local transfer of remains to the funeral home, staff services, securing of necessary authorizations, basic local transportation to the crematory,an alternative container for cremation, and the return of remains to the funeral home.

The direct cremation prices do not include the crematory charge. (FTC)"

I wonder what the crematory charge is on top of the "$ 1,620.00 "?

In my own experience there are a lot of pieces of info I just don't know, like: do funeral homes have pre-paid plans one can pay in advance? I know that cemetaries have pre-death reservation plans. If one doesn't have immediate family nearby, who are the right people to leave one's death info with? Can non-relatives take care of disposing of a dead body with relatives living abroad or must a lawyer's advance permission be required for the non-relatives? Can one hire a lawyer in advance of one's death with instructions without having a large estate?

Thanks for getting the process of gathering information rolling enrevanche. Much appreciated, Nicky
posted by nickyskye at 12:49 PM on March 13, 2006

Response by poster: Based on the "cremation society" term (thanks again enrevanche) I had more of a handle on how to further Google the info, such as from New York Cremation Services:

"Let's recap this service so you know exactly what happens (and what doesn't) when you authorize City Funeral Service to perform a direct cremation: The remains are transferred to our funeral home where they are placed into an alternative container. After the necessary documents are prepared, signed, and approved by various agencies (the Health Department and Medical Examiner), the remains will be taken to the crematory at our convenience.

The cremated remains will be returned to you within 5-7 business days."

And a few other practical points as well:

"The Lump Sum Death Benefit of $255.00 offered by Social Security can NOT be assigned to anyone other than a surviving spouse or a dependent child who lives at home. Additionally, the child (or children) must meet certain eligibility requirements before this benefit will be paid.

Cremation and/or funeral expenses are NOT tax deductible."


"City Funeral Service
Identification Policy and Procedure
Neither the New York State Department of Health nor the New York City Department of Health have any rules, requirements, or policies regarding the identification of human remains prior to cremation, burial, entombment or shipment of the body out of the state.

As a consumer, you have the RIGHT to request an identification of the body prior to the cremation. City Funeral Service will gladly accomodate your request should you ask for one.

An identification can be made one of two ways:

We can take a digital photo of the decedent and forward it to you via e-mail;
Up to four (4) family members or friends can identify the body in our funeral establishment. We allow fifteen (15) minutes for this private identification."


"If you have no funds for burial or cremation and you reside in New York City, please call the New York City Human Resources Administration and they possibly can assist you. If you meet their strict eligibility requirements, they will refer you to a cremation provider who accepts HRA payments. You may wish to download this helpful manual if you have any additional questions."

This is the form for indigent people:
Volunteers of Legal Service
54 Greene St.
New York, NY 10013-2603
Phone: 212-966-4400
Fax: 212-249-2362
Contact: Sara Effron, Assistant Director

And more.

Then I Googled "New York" "burial society" (which term I learned from Mitheral on this thread in MetaFilter last night after posting this question) and came up with this useful site:
posted by nickyskye at 2:07 PM on March 13, 2006

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