Practical advice after a deathSee all parts of this guide Hide guide parts
Immediately after a death
Immediately after someone has died can be a very difficult time. Not only are you bereaved and in mourning but there are a number of practical issues that need to be dealt with including getting the medical certificate of cause of death (MCCD) from the doctor, registering the death, arranging the funeral and looking into the will.
Medical certificate of cause of death
The doctor will normally issue the medical certificate of cause of death (MCCD) just after the death or the next day. The certificate will be written by the doctor who was looking after the person who has died. On occasion, it may take longer than a few days for the MCCD to be completed, for example if the doctor needs to find out more about why someone died.
The MCCD will include information about the person who has died, including what caused their death. You should read the MCCD and ask the doctor to explain anything you don’t understand. The doctor who fills in the MCCD will use technical and medical terms and they should explain these to you if you're not familiar with the terms used. It's best to read this before you go to the registrar’s office.
As of the 13th May 2015, the Scottish Government have introduced changes to the way in which deaths are certified and registered in Scotland. Find out more on the Healthcare Improvement Scotland website.
If the person died in hospital and you'd like to go back to see them, you can ask the ward staff to arrange this for you.
You can ask a funeral director to arrange for you to see the person at the funeral home. A funeral director can usually arrange for the person who has died to be at home before the funeral, if this is what you wish.
You should tell the doctor or hospital staff if the person wished to donate their organs or tissue. You will need to explain that you know this because the person:
- told you about this
- included their wishes in a will, or
- had a donor card or signed the Organ Donor Register
It may be possible to use tissue for transplant, but this must be done within 48 hours of the death.
A hospital post-mortem (sometimes called an autopsy) is the medical examination of a person who has died.
Sometimes the doctor will ask for a hospital post-mortem to find out more about why someone died.
If they decide this is necessary, the doctor will always discuss it with you first. A hospital post-mortem can only be carried out if the person gave their consent before they died, or if their nearest relative agrees to it.
Reporting a death to the procurator fiscal
When a death is sudden, unexplained, or caused by an industrial illness it must be reported to the procurator fiscal.
Doctors, registrars or the police usually report such deaths, but anyone who is concerned about a death can contact the procurator fiscal.
If the procurator fiscal decides to investigate a death, the police will often speak to the doctor or relatives of the person who has died. This is to gather information that'll help the procurator fiscal reach a decision.
The procurator fiscal:
- may also order a post-mortem to confirm the cause of death
- will try to answer any questions you may have
- will complete their investigations as quickly as possible
To find out more about this, visit the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service website.
Sudden or unexplained deaths
When death comes suddenly and without warning, it is often difficult to believe what has happened. In this section we offer guidance on some of the legal and practical matters which follow this kind of death, as well as some thoughts on coping with the strong emotions which follow such a death.
Many deaths may appear to be sudden, either because the person wasn't aware how ill they were, or because the relatives or friends didn't think the person was dying. If we're not prepared for the death then the death will appear to be sudden to us.
This lack of preparation means that the news of the death comes as a surprise, and the feeling of shock can be very deep. Sometimes it feels impossible to take in the reality of what's happened, and we may feel numb or find ourselves denying that the person has died. These feelings will pass as we begin to accept what we're being told.
However some deaths can be very sudden and unexpected particularly if the death resulted from an accident, or from a violent attack.
Because of the nature of sudden deaths, they may occur anywhere, on the street, at work, in the midst of a leisure activity or on holiday. Deaths such as these are also really hard to come to terms with and can create very strong emotions including anger and disbelief.
When it's difficult to accept the reality of a sudden death, it can be helpful to take time to talk with other family members about the person before the event that led to their death.
When a death is sudden, or unexpected, there are certain rules which apply in order that the cause of death can be clearly ascertained. This will involve a report being sent to the procurator fiscal, who has responsibility for investigating all sudden or unexplained deaths in Scotland. Sometimes the fiscal may be able to accept that the death was normal, but on other occasions he may require a fuller investigation, which may include ordering a post-mortem examination, or asking the police to make enquiries, or both.
You can read more about the role of the procurator fiscal at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service website. If the death has been reported to the fiscal you can telephone their enquiry point where staff will try to assist you. Phone 0844 561 3000 (from landlines) and 01389 739557 (from mobiles).
When a person takes their own life, then the grief of family and friends is frequently intense and may be complicated by the suddenness of the death and the lack of any clear reason as to why the person made the decision.
The involvement of the police in investigating the circumstances surrounding the death, and the fact that society may still attach some stigma to deaths by suicide may also make the grieving more difficult.
Registering a death
You must register the death within 8 days. You can do this at any registrar’s office in Scotland.
You should phone the registrar’s office before you go there. Sometimes you will need to make an appointment to register a death. You can find the contact details of local registrars' offices on the National Records of Scotland website.
On the 13th of May 2015 arrangements for death certification and registration in Scotland changed. One of the main changes is the establishment of the Death Certification Review Service which is run by Healthcare Improvement Scotland. The review service checks on the accuracy of a sample of medical certificates of cause of death (MCCDs).
The registrar will be able to let you know if the MCCD has been selected for review when you attend to register the death. Further information on the review process is available on the Healthcare Improvement Scotland website.
Those eligible to register a death
The death should normally be registered by a close relative, partner, an executor, someone who was present at the death, or the occupier of the property where the person died.
However, anyone can register the death as long as they have the information that is needed. So if you feel too upset, you can ask someone else to do this.
What will I need?
To register the death, you'll need the medical certificate of cause of death (MCCD).
What will the registrar give me?
When you register the death, the registrar will give you:
- a certificate of registration of death (form 14) – you should give this to the funeral director
- a green social security registration or notification of death certificate (form 334/S1) – you'll need this if the person who died received a state pension or any social security benefits
- a shortened version of the death certificate
You can also buy copies of the full death certificate. Some organisations may ask for this (for example, insurance companies or banks).
For more information, go to the National Records of Scotland website or ask someone at the local registrar’s office.
If the death certificate (medical certificate of cause of death or MCCD) has been selected for review by the Death Certification Review Service, the registrar will give you more information about the review process. If any changes are made to the death certificate as a result of the review, the registrar will provide details of how to contact the review service for further information.
Who else needs to know about the death?
When someone dies, you may need to tell a number of other national organisations and services – for example the UK Passport Service and the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency).
There may also be local services which you should tell. This can prevent unwelcome correspondence – for example from local authority departments.
In some parts of Scotland a service called Tell Us Once can help you tell government agencies about a death. The registrar will tell you if this is available in your area.
If the person who died owned a car, then you should check with the insurance company if the insurance is still valid for other drivers.
After someone dies you will need to begin making funeral arrangements. You don't have to wait until the death has been registered and can speak to a funeral director as soon as you feel ready. Don't feel you have to rush this process, taking your time may make planning the funeral easier.
On the 13th of May 2015 the way deaths are registered in Scotland changed, meaning that all deaths must be registered before a burial or cremation takes place. Although considerations can be made in special circumstances. Find out more about the changes on the Healthcare Improvement Scotland website.
You can find the contact details of local funeral directors in the phone book or online. You don't have to use a funeral director, although most people find this helpful.
If you wish to make some of the arrangements yourself, the Natural Death Centre can provide support and information.
Professional associations of funeral directors
Planning the funeral
It might help you to think about the following questions:
- Did the person who died make any requests or leave instructions for their funeral?
- Who should be involved in planning the funeral? You could speak to family and friends about this
- Will it be a burial or cremation? Where will it take place?
- Who will conduct the ceremony? If the person died in hospital, the spiritual care team can give you advice and support, or put you in touch with representatives of religious and non-religious organisations. Ward staff can contact the spiritual care team for you
- Will you put a death notice in any newspaper? What would you like it to say?
You can ask a funeral director for advice and information.
Paying for the funeral
Funeral costs can vary and you may wish to ask several funeral directors about the service they provide. Funeral directors should explain their costs fully and give you a written estimate of their costs.
Before meeting the funeral director, you should try to think about how to pay for the funeral.
Find out if the person who died:
- made arrangements to pay for their funeral – for example with a life assurance policy or a prepaid funeral plan
- left enough money to pay for their funeral.
If you get certain benefits or tax credits and need help towards the costs of a funeral, you may be able to apply for a Funeral Support Payment from Social Security Scotland. You should:
- find out more and apply at: mygov.scot or phone Social Security Scotland on: 0800 182 2222
- tell the funeral director as soon as possible if you intend to apply
If your wife, husband or civil partner has died, you may be able to apply for a benefit called a bereavement payment.
You should ask someone at your local Jobcentre Plus if you qualify for this, or you can call the Department of Work and Pensions on 0845 606 0265.
You can find out more about this benefit on the bereavement payment section of the Gov.uk site.
The funeral payment and bereavement payment are subject to conditions, and you should not assume you are eligible.
If no one is able to arrange and pay for the funeral, the local council may do so.
21 February 2023
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