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The first call to make when a loved one dies

5 min read

What to do first when someone passes away


  • Your first call will depend on how and where your loved one died.

  • Ideally the first call is to your spouse or another family member, to give you space to express your bewilderment and sadness—and make the loss seem real.

  • However, in some situations, your first call should be 911, if your loved one died at home—especially if it was unexpected.

  • If your loved one died out of town, you will want to contact your local funeral home as soon as possible to arrange to have them returned home.


When someone passes away, there’s always a first call to make. But amid the confusion and the initial shock, deciding what to do first can be difficult. The death of someone you love, even if it’s expected after a long illness, is world-shattering. Thinking clearly isn’t always possible. And that’s OK.

Because your first call will depend on the situation and circumstances under which your loved one has passed away, it can feel confusing as to what person or place is the right call to make.

While instinct may have you calling someone close to you for emotional support, once you do that, you’ll need to make the call that will start the process of preparing your loved one for their funeral services.

It”s not an easy phone call to make, but it needs to be done. The legal processes that follows someone’s death are often long and arduous, and they can’t get started without that first call being made.

When someone passes away at home

If your loved one passes away at home, especially if it is unexpected, the first call should be 911. The reason for this is that a medical professional or coroner will have to confirm the death and sign a death certificate.

After you call 911, your loved one will be brought to the emergency room to be examined. There, the death will be declared and, when you have a chosen a funeral home or crematorium, your loved one will be moved there.  

If your loved one passes away at home, especially if it is unexpected, the first call should be 911.

If the death was expected and your loved one passes away at home, your first call should be to the hospice nurse or whomever was in charge of their care in their final days.

Hospice has the legal right to declare a death and sign a death certificate. If your loved one didn’t have hospice care, but their passing was still expected, the first call should be to their doctor, who can advise as to the next steps take.

If your loved one passes away at home while no one is there, your first call will be to the police or 911. The responding officers will contact a medical examiner or a local funeral home.

If the death looks suspicious, call 911 and—as hard as it may be—stay away from your loved one and their surroundings before the police arrive. Officers may need to photograph the scene and collect evidence.

When someone passes away at the hospital

If your loved one passes away at a hospital or in an assisted living facility, a doctor on staff will make the official call as to the time of death and sign the death certificate.

What this means for you is that your first call, after receiving the news, may be to a close family member or friend for emotional support. 

Your first call in this case may be to a close family member or friend for emotional support. 

While calling the funeral home will be among the first handful of calls, in the moment following the news, it’s about family and trying to process the shock together.

You’ll find yourself calling your spouse, your parents, your kids, your siblings, or close friends. Letting others know about the loss will be difficult. So take a deep breath and compose your thoughts as best you can, then pick up the phone to make the call.

When someone passes away while traveling

If your loved one passes away while they were traveling, once you receive the news, your first call will be to your local funeral home.

Funeral directors are trained in taking care of these things and will work with the professionals wherever the death occurred to make sure everything is done correctly and the body is brought home.

Funeral directors are trained in taking care of these things and will work with the professionals wherever the death occurred.

The funeral director will also take care of any transportation needs and required documentation for that transportation—this is particularly important if the death occurred in another country.

Because losing someone while they’re traveling is usually quite unexpected, emotions of shock and denial are what you’re likely to feel first. Quickly deciding on what local funeral home to use will give you a chance to digest the news while the funeral director takes care of the details. 

In the moments after realizing you’ve lost a loved one, there’s a lot to sort out. It’s not just about that first call you need to make, but about your emotional and mental state at that moment.

That’s why it’s OK if your first call is to someone for emotional support during this difficult time. While having someone you trust and love by your side when you do make the official first call won’t silence the pain, it will give you comfort. Sometimes a bit of comfort is all it takes to make things feel a little less heavy