Probate – What happens to the body after someone dies?

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Probate - what happens to the body after someone dies

What happens to the body after death will depend on a number of factors. 

Following death, what happens to our body will depend on a number of things including:

  • where we die
  • how died
  • was our passing ‘expected’

For the purposes of this guide we are looking at the death of UK residents who die in the UK.  Obviously, there is a whole additional protocol where bodies need to be repatriated (UK nationals dying abroad, or foreign nationals dying in the UK).

However or wherever we die, and whether expected or not, the ‘journey’ our body will always take is ultimately to a funeral and either cremation or burial.  And, to get there, it must be established how, where, and when we died.  Prior to the registration of a death, a medical practitioner will certify the cause of death (sometimes called the Medical Certificate) if rules around protocol and circumstance allows them to.  If this cant be done (see below), the Coroner’s Office will need to be involved to certify the place, cause, and date of death.

Where we die

Where we die may also point to whether our death was expected or not.  For example, if we die in a hospice, then there is a very high likelihood that the passing was expected, and that the deceased had been medically examined regularly in the run up to that passing.  So, likely places of death might include:

  • home
  • hospital
  • hospice
  • nursing home
  • unexpected venue

How we die

As above, this may well likely tie in with where we die.  But, it is a critical part of the registration of the death that a cause of death is recorded.

Was the death expected?

By definition, this may cause difficulties in establishing cause of death and make the involvement of the Coroner’s Office an immediate necessity.

Who can issue a Medical Certificate (cause of death)

This will be a doctor, and typically either the deceased’s GP, or a member of a medical team who had been treating the deceased (eg at hospital).  Some examples of where being able to certify death are ‘easy’ and ‘impossible’ may help to illustrate where the Coroner’s Office needs to be involved.

Someone that is young fit and well and hasn’t seen their GP in years that dies unexpectedly say out shopping, is someone who’s passing would need to be referred immediately to the Coroner’s Office.  This is not because there is necessarily anything sinister that as happened, simply that no doctor has had contact with that person who was seemingly otherwise fit and well in any event.

If however someone has been under immediate care for a life threatening situation and passes very obviously as part of that critical illness or injuries, then a treating doctor can issue the medical certificate/cause of death.  In those circumstances, the body can be taken into the care of a funeral director, the death registered, and the funeral arrangements made.

What does the Coroner’s Office do?

Where there is uncertainty about place, cause or date of death, then the Coroner’s Office will be involved.  In these circumstances, the police would be the first representative of the Coroners Office.  The body would usually be held at the mortuary of a local hospital.  The involvement of the police is merely protocol, and NOT any indication of something sinister having been at play.

What is an Autopsy?

An autopsy is a medical examination of the body. It will generally require the body to be opened up, and sometimes for tests to be taken (eg toxicology).

More often than not, an autopsy will provide the Coroner’s Office with the information that they need to issue the Medical Certificate.  That being so, the body would then be released to the care of a funeral director and arrangements can be made for funeral services, burial or cremation.

What if further tests are needed?

Sometimes further tests may be needed before a decision can be made.  This might be on tissue or organs, or toxicology.  If the results of those tests are inconclusive, the final step is a full Inquest.

The body will often be released by the Coroner’s Office after an autopsy (to the care of the funeral director) even if further tests are needed.

What is an Inquest?

Where autopsies and further tests prove inconclusive, a full Inquest may be required.  This is a full Court hearing that may or may not be before a Jury (dependent upon the circumstances surrounding the death).

Inquests will typically take many months to happen post date of death.

Funeral flowers on table

Once cause of death is established, the body will be taken into the care of a funeral director.

What happens to the body at the funeral directors?

So, whichever route it has taken, at some point, the body will rest in the care of the funeral director in readiness for the funeral/cremation/burial.

If someone dies other than that at hospital, then it is likely that the funeral directors will have collected the body.  It will then be held in the funeral directors own mortuary where bodies can be stored at appropriate temperatures to achieve longevity and reduce decay.

Families will sometimes wish to visit their love ones and funeral directors can accommodate this with special viewing/family areas for this to happen.

The funeral directors will prepare the body for the funeral arrangements including washing and dressing it.  Bodies will sometime be embalmed (see below).

What is the embalming of a body?

Embalming is where the blood and fluids of the body are removed and replaced with special liquids to aid longevity and also appearance of the deceased.  This isn’t always done, but likely will be done where the family wish to view the body, and or where there is to be an open coffin funeral.

Essentially, embalming will slow down the natural breakdown of the body.  So, if it is done, it will ordinarily be done soon after death.  And, it also follows that sometimes embalming is not an option (eg where the body is discovered some time post death and it has therefore already decayed significantly).

What is the ‘Green Form’ and why is it needed?

In between the body being taken into the care of the funeral directors, and the funeral, the family (or executors) will register the death with their local registrars.  They (the registrars) will issue 3 important documents:

  • death certificate (different to the medical certificate)
  • tell us once form (for the executors to notify the Govt agencies of the passing)
  • ‘Green Form’ (critical for the disposal of the body)

Without the green form, nobody has the legal authority to bury/cremate the body – hence it is essential!

Expert Probate Solicitors

We hope that you have found this (and our many other guides/articles) helpful.  Do please remember that it is not intended to be legal advice, nor should it (or any comments left) be taken as such.  If you have lost a loved one and have specific help you need – do reach out.  Our expert probate team can with anything and everything you may need around the subjects of estate administration, wills, executor appointment, beneficiary issues, claims against estates, and much much more!  You can leave a comment, email us, or call.

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