If your loved one dies at home

5 min read

The first steps to take when someone you love has died at home

  • The highest priorities are to notify authorities about your loved one’s death and make arrangements for their body to be transported.

  • Hospitals and treatment facilities typically perform these tasks.When your loved one dies at home, they are your responsibility.

  • Another thing to consider is your loved one’s faith; some religions include ritual practices for those who have recently passed.

  • Once you have chosen a funeral home or crematorium, they can transport your loved one’s body.

  • If the home is now empty, make sure to secure the property and any valuables.

Most Americans say that they would prefer to die in their homes, and it seems like a comforting way to leave this world. However, it does require that different steps be taken—many of them immediately—than if your loved one were to die in a hospital or a treatment facility.

Contact a medical professional

Although your instincts may be to call other loved ones first, when someone dies at home, the priority is to get a legal pronouncement of death. This declaration can only be made by a medical professional and is necessary in order to proceed with funeral arrangements and legal obligations.

If your loved one’s death was expected, do not call 911 or any emergency services. If they were in hospice care at home, contact the hospice provider, and they will send a member of your loved one’s care team or an on-call medical professional. In cases where your loved one was elderly or ill but not in hospice, get in touch with their primary care doctor; should you not have any information about their doctor, you can call the local department of health.

Do call 911 if your loved one’s death was sudden or unexpected. They will send emergency services who can assess if there was anything amiss in the way they passed, and will call in the appropriate authorities, including a medical professional to do the legal pronouncement, if they cannot. While waiting for medical or law enforcement authorities to arrive, it is important not to touch your loved one or disturb their body in any way.

Invite clergy

Some religions, such as Judaism and Islam, have ritual practices involving the bodies of the recently passed that are traditionally performed in their home before they are transported elsewhere.

Your loved one may have communicated their wishes regarding these rituals and left you contact information for their clergy. If not, but you believe they would want to adhere to these traditions, contact their house of worship, or a local house of worship for the religion that they practiced. If you are using a local funeral home, they should be able to help you find the appropriate clergyperson.

Arrange for transportation

After the pronouncement of death, the next step is to arrange for your loved one’s body to be moved, whether to a funeral home, a crematorium, or elsewhere. Most families choose to let a funeral home make these arrangements; if your loved one expressed a preference, or if there is a funeral home your family or community tends to use, you can contact them and they will take care of the rest.

You can also wait and compare funeral homes to find the right one, but be aware that there is a limit to how long you can delay; most states require removal of a body within a set time frame, and there may be other practical considerations depending on factors like how warm it is.

Be aware that there is a limit to how long you can delay; most states require removal of a body within a set time frame.

If your family has decided on a cremation or another option that does not make use of a funeral home, the crematorium or other organization should be able to arrange for transport. In rarer cases, you may have to contact a transport service.

In most cases in which a death is not expected and 911 is called, your loved one will be taken to the local coroner’s office. If the circumstances of the death are suspicious, there may be an autopsy and the body may be held there until they can determine what happened. In some states, there may be an autopsy any time a person dies unexpectedly at home. Once the body is released, a funeral home or other organization can retrieve it from the coroner.

Secure the home and valuables

If your loved one lived alone and their house is now vacant, it is important to make sure that the home is secured and any valuables in it kept safe. Lock all doors and accessible windows and set the alarm system if there is one.

It is also advisable to take steps to make sure the house does not look vacant, such as leaving at least one exterior light on and one inside the house. Potential thieves can target homes that look like nobody is there. Make sure someone comes by every few days to collect the mail to avoid it piling up.

If your loved one had pets, they will need to be cared for. If it is possible for someone in the family to remain in the house with the animal for a little while to ease the transition, that is a good idea. Otherwise, try to find a friend or family member who can bring them into their home for the time being.

Consider removing any items of particular value such as jewelry and storing them in a safe space, such as a safe in your own home or a secure storage facility. Items of less value can stay in the locked home. Keep in mind, however, that if your loved one rented their living space, all items may need to be moved before too long.

If you know any of your loved one’s neighbors, ring their doorbell, let them know what has happened, and ask them to keep an eye out for any suspicious activity at the house. It may be a good idea to notify local law enforcement as well.

Finally, remember that you do not have to take care of all of these steps alone. When we’re grieving, we don’t always act as rationally and as clearheaded as we normally would. So having a small group of family and friends working together to make sure your loved one and their belongings are handled appropriately will be a relief not just to you, but to everyone emotionally invested in the loss.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.