When someone dies many decisions and arrangements must be made, many of them difficult at a time of grief. If a person has died at home the first thing to do is to notify the GP. Then the death must be registered with the local registrar of births and deaths; in England and Wales within five days (eight days in Scotland). A relative usually registers the death but various other people can do it.
The person registering the death needs a medical certificate showing the cause of death, signed by a GP or hospital doctor. If a post-mortem isn’t required the registrar issues a certificate of registration of death. This is used for social security purposes if the person was on a state pension or benefits. People can buy one or more death certificates at this time. The registrar also gives the person registering the death a certificate for burial or cremation (called the 'green form'), giving permission for burial of the body or to apply for the body to be cremated.
Some people we interviewed had been bereaved through pancreatic cancer. They talked about the practical things that needed doing after their relative’s death and recalled their grief. After Anthony’s wife died in hospital he went to the hospital bereavement office, where he cried so much that he ‘used up half their box of tissues’.
Anthony is a retired education officer. He is now a part time hospital chaplain. He is a widower and has two grown up children. Ethnic background/Nationality: White British/South African.
After she died, yes. Yes, after she died, the way it works in the hospital is they give you a piece of paper which you’re to take to the bereavement office, and when you leave the room [where the person died] they bring a special kind of guard, and it goes in front of the room and you can see that it says, “Absolutely no entry.” And the nurse explained to me, the mortuary, the people from mortuary will be coming up shortly with a special trolley, and in great dignity her body will be taken down to the mortuary. So you knew that the room would be held sacred while her body was still there. And that was a comfort to me that they took such care to make sure that you know, that the dead person’s body was respected.
It was the next morning I went to the bereavement office and said, “Here’s the piece of paper”. And I think they knew straightaway [what had happened] because as I said, that was where I was in such tears and used up half their box of tissues. But they went through and explained the next step after that, because the certificate had been signed by a doctor that it was a natural cause of death, that there was no need for any post-mortem or anything, and that they could release the body.
So then I went down from the office in the hospital to the office which is in the local council buildings. And there you have to fill in some more forms and then go and see somebody. And it’s quite formal, you have to say, “I am the person reporting the death, this is my relationship with the person, this is where they died, and I affirm it’s true.” And you have to say that very formally.
Then you have to pay them some money, and then they say, “Go outside and wait and I’ll fill in the certificates”, because you need a number of certificates. And certainly people have said to me, and it’s advice I’ve passed on, don’t just get one death certificate you need six or seven because if there’s any insurance policies or anything to do with the transfer of the mortgage, or all those sort of practical things…. Get a death certificate to send, an original death certificate. Because then each one you buy is an original. You know there’s not just one original. But these companies don’t want photocopies, they want originals. And so to actually have originals on the buff paper, signed, is actually quite important.
Is that the registrar of deaths?
That’s right, yes. Yes that’s right. There’s the registrar, the local council registrar of deaths.
So they sign the formal certificates. And you can buy as many as you like of the, you know they cost six or seven pounds each I think. But it’s worth it, because very often you know each time you send them off, if you send a photocopy they’d say we have to have an original before we can activate anything on the financial front so you do need a number of those.
And they [people at the register office] are very supportive too; they do know how difficult it is. Admittedly it’s one of those places, it’s like some of the wards, it’s both entry and exit because it’s also the place of registering births.
Seeing her death certificate was ‘a moment of great pain’ for Anthony. He burst into tears because it was additional proof that his wife was dead. He pointed out that it is important to buy a number of death certificates because many organisations, such as the insurance company, need an original death certificate. The executor (of the person’s estate) will also need one when sorting out the person's affairs.
David (Interview 30) talked about the pain of losing his wife and said that at that time he ‘stepped back’, letting other people do the practical things. John (Interview 21) also found someone else to get the death certificates.
Theadora and her father went to the register office for her mother’s death certificate. It was a strange experience because the people waiting in the register office were there for quite different reasons.
Theadora is a senior civil servant. She has a partner and is co-habiting. Nationality/Ethnic background: White Jewish.
Were there practical things you then had to do?
Yes. We obviously had to go and register the death and I went with my father to do that at the nearest registry. That was, and that’s bizarre, because you’re sitting with people who are registering births. And that’s a, in some ways it’s lovely, in some ways it’s lovely because you are sitting with people who are celebrating, I can remember sitting next to a man who was celebrating the birth of twins, and he was in a complete state of shock. And it was also in a place where there were people who were migrant, immigrant populate, who were coming in to get various other paperwork around that. And you’re all sitting together in a waiting area, very squashed up and it was very hot as I said, a very hot summer. And you’re registering a death. At one level there was something quite nice because as you know in death, there’s life. Things go on. Life happens. So, I wasn’t appalled by it, but it was a very strange thing to be in that mixture of a place. But the actual, then going in and registering it and doing that was dignified. I couldn’t say that it wasn’t. And then we had to get her buried. Jewish people get buried very quickly. So we needed to sort that out.
Simon’s wife died at home. Her GP arrived soon afterwards to certify the cause of death. A few days later Simon went to register the death. The experience distressed him because he and his wife had got married in the same office and the staff’s attitude and behaviour upset him.
Simon is a teacher. He is a widower and has two children. Ethnic background/nationality: White British.
Yes, I mean the nurses were there so they, they did that for me and then I think they phoned the GP straight away. And at some point she must have come round to officially declare Karen as dead and to fill in I think a bit of paperwork at that time. Not that I had to be involved in any of that but she needed to come in and sort of ascertain that she was dead. And which I didn’t mind, I knew that they’d have to do that.
And then did you have to go and register her death the next day or, did you have to go somewhere?
Well, you’re given a time period of maybe two weeks. That was pretty awful I must admit because, well there’s a whole, that’s a whole new story, because it’s at the same registry office down the road that we registered our marriage in.
And the woman dealing with me, I went in with my sister, and the woman dealing with me just was socially inept and she was just utterly clueless. I had a certificate with me signed by the doctor, the original certificate and the woman said that she would need to take that. And I wanted to keep it. Because it was symbolic, this was my wife’s death.
And she said, “Well, you’ll get a copy blah blah blah,” and I, you know, and I was saying, “Well no, I don’t want, I want, you know I’d like this one.” And she’d already just been very officious; I mean the whole thing was just very officious. You know considering I was registering my wife’s death, there was less than, well I don’t know it was only days previously, their attitude was, you know the same as when you register your marriage, they were very officious about this being a very legal thing and just inhuman. I mean I was gobsmacked. And it started to upset and annoy me, you know being a bloke, being upset actually made me frustrated.
So I think I was already feeling, very sort of just awful about the whole thing. And then she started arguing with me about whether I could keep this thing, and I was saying, “Well could you do a photocopy for me?” And the way that she dealt with it was just very abrupt, and very defensive. I mean she, you know, I don’t want to get too psychological but she was so defensive that she got aggressive with me, about, “This isn’t your property,” and blah, blah, blah. And it was the most awful, awful exchange I’ve ever had, given the circumstances and we didn’t have a sort of stand up row, I was just sort of being assertive, but it was just very, very disappointing. So, they did send me, I never filled it in but I wish I had, they sent a questionnaire a few weeks later about, “How was your experience?”
And, I really, if I’d had more time I really could, would have liked to have spelt out to them how they need to do some training. You know. But anyway…
The only legal requirement in the UK regarding funerals is that the death is certified and registered and the body properly taken care of, by either burial or cremation. Funeral ceremonies in the UK take many forms. They differ according to a preference for burial or cremation, and in line with any religious beliefs or affiliation. People can organise it with or without the help of a funeral director. The Natural Death Centre is a charitable project which gives independent funeral advice with information on all types of funeral. It is particularly helpful for those who wish to have an inexpensive, family-organised, and environmentally friendly funeral. Some people described what happened at their relative’s funeral.
I think there was part of Mum that quite enjoyed having cancer. She was always very, she was one of those women who loved medical dramas all her life, you know, that’s what she liked best on the telly.
And she didn’t like anything cheerful. She said in terms of drama, she said, “I only like sad, darling”. So she was virtually born to have a terminal disease. And she was very classy with it, and quite funny. She was always terrified that we were going to have too good a time at her funeral. She said, “I don’t want to have anyone having any fun”. And she insisted on very, very sad music. She kept gripping my wrist in the last couple of days and ordering more and more really tragic Bach.
Did she help you plan her funeral or did she…?
Yes, well as I say, she was planning the music and, but I disobeyed her in the end. I mean I did have the Bach for her, but I also, she used to play the piano and she used to work with, a sort of default thing she would always play on the piano was tunes from that 1950’s musical Salad Days, which had actually been her first date with my dad.
And so I had the organist, at the end, the very end of the funeral, play all this very sad Bach and everything, play these very upbeat crazily cheerful tunes from Salad Days, and that’s, I mean that’s what made everyone cry.
Was the funeral as you wanted it?
Yes, I think it was, as far as a funeral can be, a success. I mean it was very well, you know, there was a huge turn out. Yes, my Mum was quite loved.
Age at interview:
Age at diagnosis:
Theadora is a senior civil servant. She has a partner and is co-habiting. Nationality/Ethnic background: White Jewish.
Well she died on a Saturday, and in fact there was some medical, it wasn’t a complete post mortem, but something they needed; they wanted to look at and do. And she got buried on the Tuesday, so very quick, but not as quick as you can have in Jewish [funerals], you can do it the next day virtually.
And we, so we just needed to set that up really and get that in train to make sure that, you know, everybody knew and, what was going to happen, where it was. She knew a lot of people, and she had been, you know we had talked about how she wanted her funeral. And it’s a, it’s a standard, obviously standard service, but if there was anything particular she wanted read or talked about, and there were a couple of bit’s and pieces. And then my family had asked me to write, I suppose you’d call it a eulogy, but an address. Which I’d done, which I needed to do, but I needed to write something that they all agreed with. You know writing things by committee is always, always interesting. So we did that.
And then in the Jewish faith you have prayers in the home, after the service every night, for a period of nights. And people come to the house and you have prayers and also people sit and drink tea, and eat cake. And they bring you food as well. So we had a lot of food.
Was the funeral as you hoped it would be?
Yes. Yes it was, about 300 people, she was a very socially active woman who knew a lot of people in a lot of different spheres, and people came at very short notice obviously. And then we had the prayers in the home for three nights, and lots and lots of people came. And it’s how she would have wanted I think people to, to come and demonstrate the affection that they had for her.
How did you let everybody know so quickly?
Oh, we phoned them.
Yes, that’s a lot of people.
We phoned them. We phoned them and they told other people. We’d phone people and say, “Tell everybody in the group,” or “Tell everybody,” you know she was a school governor, she, so we’d say, “Tell the school,” you know she taught in various places, we say, “Oh tell people.” So people told people. And we told key people in networks.
Did you actually see her again after she’d been taken away by the porters?
No. No, no we didn’t.
And then the funeral directors brought her to the, the …..
Yes, they bring her in the coffin to the sort of chapel. And then there was the service there and then they, it was taken out into the grounds. So,
Was she buried or cremated?
She was buried.
She was buried, for traditional Jews, they don’t get cremated. So she wouldn’t have been.
People from different cultural backgrounds and with differing beliefs will have their own ideas about where a person should be buried or the remains scattered. In medieval Christian Europe people thought that it mattered for the destiny of the soul to bury people in consecrated ground, as close as possible to the altar of a church. Some people still believe this, others don’t.
People often plan some sort of memorial for a person who has died. It sometimes takes many months to decide whether and how to mark a grave or special place. It can take time for people to be sure what they want written on any permanent memorial. People are often advised to wait a year before buying a headstone because the ground tends to drop after a burial.
A bit of advice I’d give, if you live in a big city like London you do need to book, and if you want to be buried and not cremated you do need to book a space early. It was really hard to find her, we couldn’t, I mean the Church she’d been going to all her life and we couldn’t get into the churchyard.
She wanted to be buried?
She wanted to be buried, yes.
So did, where did she…
…So she, well she ended up in a municipal graveyard, which actually in a way was quite appropriate because it was right opposite the state school where she had done a lot of teaching.
Did you have a memorial stone made for her?
My father had a memorial stone made for her, a very nice classy one. Yes, and I don’t know. I mean graveyards are, I don’t do a lot of visiting. I don’t think Mum’s there, you know. I think if you honour the dead you do it better by doing things that they would have approved of rather than standing in a windswept municipal cemetery on a November evening.
After the funeral or commemoration people usually have some gathering or wake. David’s (Interview 30) wife had her funeral in the local church and was buried in the local cemetery. A wake in the village hall followed.
David is a hydrologist (senior consultant). He is a widower and has two children. Ethnic background/Nationality: White British.
And was she buried?
She was buried in a local cemetery. The boys were there as well. It was a very large number of people there. So it was really split into three bits. You had the, the church bit, you had the burial bit and then there was a gathering, some people might call it a wake. Not quite sure what I’d call it, but we had the village hall and in terms of the day, well probably, I think Fiona probably thought more about many of those aspects than the kind of ceremonial aspects.
Did she plan that as well?
Yes, I think she’d kind of thought about that and she certainly had a flavour and it wasn’t to be sad.
Did you have a memorial stone or something like that?
As a, like a gravestone, yes. But that comes all a bit later in the process.
I was just trying to muster up kind of the right words to describe the, the kind of like the wake. Lots of flowers, lots of great food, lots of people and it was, went I think from Fiona’s view as much a social thing as a standing round glum-looking thing. And it went really well.
And there were quite a few children. And there were children dashing around having fun [crying] …. And that was all the way it needed to be.
After someone dies other practical matters need attention – cards and letters to answer and the dead person’s ‘estate’ to sort out. A person’s ‘estate’ is their money, property and belongings at death. Before people start dealing with someone’s property, they need to find out whether or not they left a valid will. Hugh thought that after his mother died his father got much satisfaction from clearing things out and sorting his mother’s belongings.
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