What to Do When Someone Dies at Home: Basic Steps

Published November 20, 2020
senior woman looking worried

Wondering what to do when someone dies at home? The one acting as a caregiver for an elderly or ill relative understands the possibility of the loved one's death. Even a mental awareness of the moment cannot eliminate the stress and emotional pain that can result from experiencing a death so close. Here are some things to remember to do if you are at home when a loved one passes away at home.

The First Step: The Circumstance Dictates

The circumstances which provide the context for the death dictate the first steps or immediate actions which need to be taken. Having a plan in place sets some of the stress aside and eliminates a great deal of uncertainty and confusion. Allow loved ones to help with the details of the procedures.

What to Do When Someone Dies at Home Under Hospice Care

If hospice was involved in the caregiving, follow the guidelines and procedures that have been established by the hospice organization. They have been given the authority to make decisions and see that the family's wishes are carried out. Under most circumstances, CPR is not needed and there is no need to call 911 for emergency care. If 911 is called, make sure that all of the paperwork from hospice is available. If there is a valid "Do Not Resuscitate" (DNR) order, the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) individuals will need to see it upon arrival.

What to Do if the Death Was Expected

If the death of the loved one was expected and witnessed, or believed to have been very recent, someone should start CPR procedures while another person calls 911. If the person is alone, offer CPR procedures for 2 minutes, then make a phone call.

Who Do You Call When Someone Dies at Home?

The specific call to make may depend upon your state and its laws. It is always wise to be sure of the laws in your state before a death occurs. Some states require that any death occurring at home be reported to proper authorities.

  • Call the doctor. If the death was expected, a death certificate must be issued. Usually the person to issue the death certificate is the physician of the deceased. If the death occurs at night, call the doctor's office and leave a message.
  • Call the funeral home. Sometimes the funeral home will have someone who can issue the death certificate. Regardless, they will have the professionals available to begin the proper procedures. They will also be able to make arrangements for transportation of the body.

If the Death Was Expected and 911 Is Called

Some states require that 911 is called if hospice is not involved and the death occurs at home. If the 911 emergency team is called, there is information that needs to be ready.

  • Make the 911 call, but if the death was expected, tell the operator that the death was expected and that no emergency is present.
  • Did the deceased have a DNR order or other forms dictating behavior out of the hospital? If not, or if they are not available, the EMT team will try to resuscitate a body that is still warm, even if there are no signs of breathing or no noticeable pulse.
  • Have contact information for the physician of the deceased.
  • Have the information about the funeral home to be used, or the cremation service that will need to be called.
  • Gather the prescription medication containers of the deceased or make a list of the medications that were used.
  • Prepare the room for the arrival of the EMT team.
  • Be prepared to speak with law enforcement officers. Even if the death was expected, the death is considered unattended unless the physician or hospice was present. The police or sheriff will come to investigate.
woman looking distraught

If the Death Was Not Expected

The procedures for unexpected deaths or for a person deemed to be "too young" or not known to have a terminal illness or condition is quite different. Here are the steps necessary:

  • The first call should be immediately to 911. Until proven otherwise, the death scene becomes a crime investigation.
  • Care should be given to not disturb anything present. If the body is warm and CPR procedures are needed, they should begin. If not, the body should be left alone.
  • If you do not have legal authority to make funeral decisions, call a member of the family who has been given the rights.

The Second Step: Gather Documents

Even in the middle of the stress and grief of the death of a loved one, there are pieces of paperwork that will be needed by the professionals involved. There are many lists which give help in accumulating these documents. Prepare ahead of time by keeping them together in a safe place. Gather them for use as the professionals begin to arrive. Some of the items needed include:

  • DNR or related documents
  • Funeral wishes, wills, and other pre-planned documentation
  • Organ or tissue donation wishes

The Third Step: Clothing for the Deceased

If there was a favorite dress or suit that will be used for the funeral, have them out of the closet and ready for the arrival of the representatives of the funeral home. Again, if these selections have been made in advance, it takes the pressure and stress of these decisions away from an already stressful moment in time.

Finally: Be Kind to Yourself

The death of a loved one is an emotional experience, filled with a variety of feelings which are all immersed in grief. Thinking through the process in advance, knowing what to do when someone dies at home, can make the moments less painful. Allow yourself to grieve without the unrealistic expectations of perfection.

What to Do When Someone Dies at Home: Basic Steps