For many of us, we know that death is a part of life, but we have no idea about the processes involved. So we’ve produced this guide to death processes.
What happens when someone dies?
You can be thrown into managing the administrative aspects only when someone close to you has died and find yourself lost in a sea of tasks you don’t understand. Tasks that are only made more confusing and harder to understand through the haze of grief. Who knew there were so many death processes?
Taking some time to build some knowledge about death and some of the processes that might be involved can help to make a difficult time easier. It’s also helpful to be prepared, because frequently the steps around death are time critical – you often won’t have time to stop and think before taking action.
The formal documents and the differences between them
When someone dies, a registered medical professional will complete a Verification of Death at the time or as soon as possible after. This involves going through a set process which includes things like:
• No heart sounds were heard for a minimum of three minutes
• No breath sounds were heard for a minimum of three minutes.
The medical professional involved may also issue a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death. But neither of these things are a Death Certificate.
A Death Certificate is issued when you register the death with Births, Deaths and Marriages, and is necessary to prove someone is deceased for administrative tasks like closing bank accounts and accessing benefits. Usually, a funeral director will complete the required forms to lodge with Births, Deaths and Marriages.
Dying doesn’t need to be treated like an illness
If someone is in the final stages of their life and very unwell, you don’t need to accept unwanted medical interventions. We’re not talking about euthanasia – an entirely separate and important topic – but about when there is the case to withdraw life-sustaining treatments.
Doctors can do a lot of things to keep someone alive. Things like feeding tubes, ventilators and CPR. But it’s not always the right choice. If you are dying and given CPR, you could sustain broken ribs. So you’ll be alive but in pain.
Thinking about the interventions you will and won’t accept is important and should be clearly documented while you are in the position to do so. This is called an advanced care directive and clearly outlines the treatments you will accept, the life quality profile you want, and who can make decisions on your behalf.
If a death is sudden or unexpected, the coroner will almost always be involved. This can be intimidating for people because our first thought is that it means a crime has occurred. That’s not the case. Sometimes the coroner needs to be involved, to close the process and make sure nothing has been overlooked.
Reportable deaths that require a coroner to investigate include:
• Violent or unnatural deaths
• Sudden deaths where the cause is unknown
• Deaths in unusual or suspicious circumstances
• Deaths that are not considered a reasonably expected potential outcome of a health procedure
• Deaths of patients in psychiatric hospitals, including those temporarily absent.
While it can be distressing to have a loved one’s death be subject to a coronial enquiry, it’s important to remember that most of the time it is a straightforward exercise designed to give you peace of mind.
What happens to the body?
When someone dies, the body needs to be kept cold. Not freezing, but very cold. Not all aged care premises and hospitals are able to hold a body for more than a couple of hours, especially in warm weather.
Typically, the body will be transferred to the care of a funeral director who will either have their own storage and mortuary facilities, or access to them. If your funeral director operates from a small office, for example in a suburban shopping strip, the body will be stored in a different location. This means it can be convenient for planning the funeral, but you may not be able to see the body there if that is important to you.
Many people also find it a comfort to spend time with the body, to help digest the fact that they are gone. If someone you love has suffered during the last part of their life, seeing them at rest can be a powerful way of healing. You should be able to take your time and spend a few hours with the body, if that’s what you want.
Some useful links to help understand death processes:
Flamingo Life website – providing tools for people to be organised for end of life including digital Advance Care Directives – https://flamingolife.com.au/
Karen Callaghan article on Carer’s Circle Advance Care Directive – the document that conveys your end of life wishes when you can’t –
Carer’s Circle article on Learning to talk about death – intro –
Carer’s Circle article on Talking about funerals, burials and final wishes –
Carer’s Circle article on A real death: what can you expect during a loved one’s final hours? –
Photo credit: Old woman laying flowers on a grave on Rawpixel
A version of this article “Need2Know: A guide to death processes” originally appeared on Karen Callaghan Flamingo Life website. Reproduced with permission.