Frequently Asked Questions
When a death occurs
How do I know if death has occurred?
When a person is close to death you may notice something called Cheyne-Stokes breathing. This is an irregular breathing pattern which means there can be at first an increased breathing pattern and then long gaps between breaths. There can be a period of apnea when breating stops altogether, leading you to think the person has died, only for them to take another breath.
If you want to be really certain: Look for movement in the chest. Can you feel a pulse in their wrist or neck? Does a mirror mist over if held to the mouth or nose? Does the person respond to a physical stimulus? These are reliable indicators if you are with someone at the end of their life, perhaps at home.
Keeping the person's body at home
A person’s body may be safely kept at home in cool conditions for a couple of days – more in colder conditions. You may want reassurance or advice from a funeral director, but you can close the person’s eyes, put a small towel rolled under the chin, or a scarf around the chin and head for a few hours to keep the mouth closed (teeth in!) Turn off radiators, keep the room shaded (curtains closed) and as cool as possible. You can use a fan if you wish. About five frozen camping blocks, each wrapped in a tea towel, will help cool the body quicker and keep it cool, so the person can stay at home for longer. Rotate the blocks every few hours as needed. Lavender oil in a burner helps too. The Natural Death Centre has great advice on how to care for a body at home.
Where is the body kept once it has been moved by the funeral director?
The body will be kept in a cold store refrigerated to 2–6 degrees to help preserve the body. This is where it will remain until the funeral. You can generally to arrange to visit the person by arrangement with the funeral director.
Registration and Death Certificates
You will need to collect the ‘Medical Certificate of Cause of Death’ that the GP has signed from the doctors’ surgery or hospital bereavement office.
When you have it (or know that you will have it), call the registrars’ office in the area where the death occurred and make an appointment to register the death; make sure you take this Medical Certificate with you.
If you are unable to visit the registrar in the area where the death occurred, ask for a registration ‘By Declaration’. This relies on the Royal Mail or courier so allow extra time for this to take place.
The Registrar will issue Death Certificates, which cost £11 each. You might need 3-5 copies to send to the bank, solicitors etc., depending on the complexity of the estate.
Here is a handy document to refer to when registering a death: Registration information
How long do I have to register?
Deaths in England, Wales and Northern Ireland should be registered within five days. If this is not possible, for example you were out of the country when your loved one died, you must at least have made the appointment and informed the Registrar.
What if the death is referred to the Coroner?
Deaths are referred to the coroner by the GP or emergency services if the death is sudden, or the cause of death cannot be readily established by the GP. In 2018 this figure was a startling 41%, with 39% resulting in a post mortem – down slightly from 2017.
This can simply be because the person has not been seen by the doctor within the last 14 days, or because the person may have died from something other than that which the doctor was treating. Occasionally the family can prevail on the doctor not to refer to the coroner, or the doctor can speak to the coroner to try and avoid a post mortem if the cause of death is not really in question. If in doubt, the coroner will always proceed with a post mortem.
What is a post mortem?
A post mortem is an intensive examination of the person’s body, and is needed in order to establish the cause of death, when the doctor cannot establish this. If after making all necessary enquiries, and the cause of death is established as Natural Causes, there is no post mortem. In this case, and if the person is to be buried, the family need to register the death in the normal way. In the case of cremation, the coroner will inform the Registrar, which then allows the funeral to proceed; however, in this case, the family will need to visit the registrar to get Death Certificates.
What is an inquest?
An inquest is called if circumstances surrounding the death need further investigation – perhaps following concern over nursing or medical care, use of alcohol or drugs while in care, sudden unexplained death, suspected foul play, or possibly to ‘learn the lessons’ for future such cases.
If an inquest is called, it is immediately adjourned to allow for the facts to be gathered, and need not delay the funeral.
How soon can the funeral take place?
It is best to allow seven to ten days for a cremation; five days does not allow for unforeseen delays, but can be done. In particular circumstances – as required by certain religious faiths, burial can take place within 24 hours of death.
Before the Funeral
What is a chapel of rest?
A chapel of rest, as it’s known, is simply a dedicated space at the funeral directors which allows families to privately visit and spend time with the person’s body. The person may be in their coffin, unless the visit is soon following the death, when the person will be laid out on a flat surface – which we soften with fabrics and flowers.
Should I visit the person’s body?
You should always visit if you feel that you want to. If in two minds – visit! If the funeral director is very strongly against if for hygienic/stability reasons, press for detail. Even in the case of a disfiguring accident, you can perceive the outline of their body under a sheet, and this can help. Visiting your person in their coffin is also an option that suits some people who find themselves undecided.
What will the body look like?
Obviously it depends on the length of time following death; but it is often said that the person ‘looks very peaceful’. We will have washed and dressed the person in clothes you will have provided. Indeed, if wished, this is something you can yourself be involved in.
Often this visit is recalled as an important part of the process of finding some peace in accepting that a person has actually died, is here in physical form, but is no longer ‘here’.
Can I assist with the washing and dressing?
Yes, of course. We will provide warm water, towels, essential oils, and a quiet space. We can help, advise or let the family/friends present do it on their own.
Am I able to put personal items into the coffin?
Yes. However, due to cremation regulations, no metal, glass, plastic, or PVC items. For these reasons we recommend leaving off most shoes.
Do you routinely embalm?
Routinely, no, we do not. We will only embalm someone for a very good reason, and will always let you know the reason, and ask your permission.
Embalming is a temporary preservation technique that replaces the natural bodily fluids with a 16% formaldehyde chemical preservative solution through the vascular system.
The process is invasive but in some cases can be very useful, for example if a body is to be kept refrigerated for more than three or four weeks, or if the coffin is to remain open during the service. In the case of repatriation it is a legal requirement.
Burial and Cremation
Burial or Cremation?
In the UK almost three-quarters of funerals involve cremation.
Cremation is generally cheaper than burial, as it does not involve a headstone.
Cremations are carried out one at a time and the ashes (sometimes called ‘cremated remains’ or ‘cremains’ and are crushed, carbonised bone fragments) are carefully and completely collected before the next coffin is introduced into the cremator. You can be certain they are indeed ‘your’ – and only ‘your’ – ashes!
Pros and Cons: It is your choice and people seem to have a strong aversion to, or preference for, one over the other. In terms of sustainability, cremation uses more energy; burial uses more land.
Natural or ‘green’ burials do not use embalming fluids, coffins are made of environmentally friendly and biodegradable materials, and there are no imported marble headstones. Nor is the area regularly mown to within an inch of its life; all of which helps.
Is the coffin cremated with the deceased?
Once the coffin has left the funeral director the deceased cannot be removed from it. And, yes, the handles stay on too – contrary to a popular myth.
Are they ‘my’ ashes? Crematoria know this is a widespread concern, so the staff and crematorium authorities take great care to ensure that every individual cremation is kept completely separate.
You can always arrange to visit a local crematorium to see exactly what they do ‘behind the scenes’.
What about the ashes?
Ashes remain the strangest part of a cremation – this person’s body transformed into a box of grey dust and grit, and this is what we are given when the final bill is paid.
It is said that as a newborn we weigh 7lb; and that we leave as 7lb of cremated remains.
An adult’s ashes might fill a 240cc container, depending on their body weight. Babies leave no ashes, as their bones are not developed or hardened.
Any crematorium needs a minimum of four hours to complete the process before the ashes can be collected; they will require advance notice if you want the ashes back the same day. Generally, the funeral director collects the ‘urn’ and most crematoria now supply them in a nice-looking cardboard box. You can of course collect the ashes yourself, by arrangement.
Cremated remains can be scattered in the Garden of Remembrance, buried loose or in an urn or casket in a grave at the crematorium, or in a churchyard or cemetery. Legally, ashes can only be freely scattered elsewhere with the landowner’s permission.
Are the ashes toxic?
No, the ashes are inert. They contain dry calcium phosphates with some minor minerals, such as salts of sodium and potassium; a relatively small amount of carbon may remain as carbonate.
If concentrated amounts are placed on the land, they can cause a ‘burning’, a similar effect of putting on too much fertiliser. They need spreading out or digging in. Once spread out they will take on some of the properties of a limestone soil.
Large amounts in sensitive ecosystems may alter the natural ecology – so don’t choose the mountain top!
Ashes Containers: ashes generally come from the crematorium in a perfectly nice coloured cardboard box. What you decide to transfer them into instead of this depends what you are planning to do with the ashes – i.e scatter, versus keeping them on the mantelpiece. There is a vast array of urns in all conceivable materials to choose from.
What can I do with the ashes?
Bury them loose, or in the box or a casket. If you scatter them, check the wind direction first! N.B. you need the landowner’s permission to scatter ashes; the Coastguard is the landlord of the sea and its shorelines.
What else can you do? Use them as a starter block for a coral reef; scatter them in space; put them into a firework/fireworks. Get them made into a glass ornament, a ‘diamond’, jewellery, a bird bath, a vinyl record – and one I regret not doing from my mother – an egg timer. Mix them with tattoo ink, paint with them mixed into pigment or shoot them from a canon mixed with ribbons and confetti.
Can I use a local church if I am not religious?
Can I use a local church if I am not religious?
While providing a beautiful and convenient venue, a service in a church is a religious one, and is led by a minister. If a minister other than ‘the incumbent’ is wanted, permission must be granted by the current minister. Sometimes a ‘multi-faith’ minister will be allowed to hold the service – or part of the service – in the church. Some ministers are understanding of the fact that your family might prefer a service that is ‘light’ on religion – but prayers and liturgical content will be part of the service.
Can I use any church for the funeral?
Permission will be needed from the minister in charge of the church that you are hoping to use if it is not your local church – and there would need to be a good reason, such as family connections.
If not in a church, where can we hold the service?
While many funerals in the UK still follow traditional religious practices in a local church, increasing numbers of families prefer a less formal – possibly civil – ceremony, usually in the crematorium chapel. But there are village halls, scout huts, hotels, country houses, Masons’ Halls and Quaker Friends’ meeting rooms that can be hired for a funeral service.
We have held funeral services entirely at the graveside, in the garden, the house, in the woods, the barn, the pub, or the garage of the house. Natural Burial Grounds usually have a shelter or indoor space.
Find out more about funeral options
Who leads the service?
Minister: in a church, the minister leads the service. It is important to arrange a special meeting with the minister to plan the service and make sure they understand your family, and how you want it to go. Anyone else can speak, offer a reading, a poem, sing or play a musical tribute.
Celebrant: a secular or civil ceremony can be led by a member of the family or an independent ‘celebrant’ – whether strictly ‘Humanist’ or as your spokesperson. They will always want to come to the house to meet you to understand more about your family and the person who has died, and will spend a considerable time creating a unique service that reflects what you have told them. They can write and deliver a eulogy (a spoken portrait of the person who has died), based on their life and the stories you have told them. They can call to speak with other friends and family members who were not at the initial meeting to get input from a wider circle.
There are plenty of celebrants now practising; some are very good. Unless you know one personally, we can advise.
How long is the service?
A service in Gloucester Crematorium allows 20 minutes in the chapel. In addition, they estimate five minutes to enter and get everyone seated, and five minutes for all to leave the chapel. If you expect lots of people, or you feel more time is needed, a ‘double’ slot may be booked, which will give 50 minutes in the chapel. Both Cheltenham and Westerleigh allow 35 minutes service time as part of a 45-minute slot.
Church services are usually no more than 35 -40 minutes – though in exceptional cases they can go for an hour. As above, Ministers are required to include the liturgy of their particular faith in addition to anything else you might want.
Who carries the coffin?
Hired funeral men in black? Or family members, grandchildren, colleagues, mates; women as well as men, of course. N.B. It is generally considered an honour to be asked to carry the coffin as a last act of service to the person who has died.
This decision as to who carries the coffin depends on the tone of the funeral – and the availability of willing and able-bodied family members and friends. If the latter, we would give a clear briefing beforehand to ensure that the ‘bearers’ are well prepared, and we would be on hand to help all the way.
How much will the funeral cost?
See our Funeral Costs page for more detail on current Family Tree prices.
Otherwise, generally speaking, there are several factors that influence the cost of a funeral – particularly the choice of coffin, whether you have a newspaper announcement, requirements for flowers, limousines, etc.
We will always discuss costs with you, and provide an itemised estimate in advance of the funeral. We ask for the ‘disbursements’ – those costs we pay on your behalf, and about half of the final total – to be paid in advance. A final invoice is sent the week after the funeral – for the balance to be settled within two weeks of the date of this final invoice.
How do I pay for the funeral?
You can pay by bank transfer, cheque, or cash by arrangement.
The bank will freeze a person’s account after their death. Any costs associated with the funeral can be paid from the deceased’s current or savings account on submission of an invoice by the executor/next of kin. This can include expenses that your family have incurred such as travel, accommodation, additional flowers, catering etc. If you tell us what these are we will add them to the final invoice and reimburse you as soon as the bank have settled with us.
Can I get help paying?
If you are having trouble paying for a funeral, it is very important to discuss this with us in advance: we will try and work out some payment plan with you.
In addition: you may be able to get a Funeral Expenses Payment from the Government:
You (or your partner) must be getting one or more of the following:
- Income Support
- Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
- Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
- Pension Credit
- Housing Benefit
- the disability or severe disability element of Working Tax Credit
- Child Tax Credit
- Universal Credit
You might also be eligible if you’re getting a Support for Mortgage Interest loan.
You can still claim a Funeral Expenses Payment if you’ve applied for these benefits and you’re waiting to hear about your claim.
If you were responsible for a deceased child but you’re not their parent, the non-resident parent must get one or more of these benefits.
If there’s a close relative of the deceased who is not getting one of these benefits, you might not be able to claim a Funeral Expenses Payment.
To be eligible for a Funeral Expenses Payment, you must be
- the partner of the deceased when they died
- a close relative or close friend of the deceased
- the parent of a baby stillborn after 24 weeks of pregnancy
- the parent or person responsible for a deceased child who was under 16 (or under 20 and in approved education or training)
You might not get a Funeral Expenses Payment if another close relative of the deceased (such as a sibling or parent) is in work.
A Funeral Expenses Payment can help to pay for some of the costs of the following:
- burial fees for a particular plot
- cremation fees, including the cost of the doctor’s certificate
- travel to arrange or go to the funeral
- the cost of moving the body within the UK, if it’s being moved more than 50 miles
- death certificates or other documents
You can also get up to £700 for any other funeral expenses, such as funeral director’s fees, flowers or the coffin.
The payment will not usually cover all of the costs of the funeral.
How much you get depends on your circumstances. This includes any other money that’s available to cover the costs, for example from an insurance policy or the deceased person’s estate.
Check the claim form notes for full details of what is covered by the Funeral Expenses Payment.
If the deceased had a pre-paid funeral plan, you can only get up to £120 to help pay for items not covered by their plan.
More detail here can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/funeral-payments
What is a direct cremation?
A direct cremation is a funeral where the person who died is collected and cared for and cremated with no family or minister present. It is a perfectly respectable choice (David Bowie, Albert Einstein, Amy Winehouse, Alfred Hitchcock, John Lennon et al), and is sometimes known as an ‘Unattended’ funeral. It is cheaper, complete and unfussy.
Families often have a memorial gathering of some kind at some future date.
Is it worth paying for my funeral in advance?
Funeral costs have increased by almost two thirds over the last ten years. They are projected to rise by almost 20% during the next five (Sun Life ‘Cost of Dying’ 2018); this despite a drive by the government to reduce this inflationary rate of expansion.
If you have a life expectancy of more than two or three years, if you have the savings, and if you feel you can tackle the job (or get someone else to), it makes sense to plan and pay for your funeral in advance. You can of course put money aside in an investment or savings account, but unless it’s in Amazon shares, it’s unlikely to keep pace with the rise in funeral costs.
For more information, go to the Pre-Paid Funerals page on our website
You decide the kind of funeral you would like. We cost it up at today’s rates. The rates paid hold good until the funeral – whenever it happens, although there may be a small top up if the costs of the ‘disbursements’ increase by more than the Retail Price Index.
A great advantage of Family Tree’s funeral plan supplier (Open Prepaid Funerals) is that they will allow for a completely personal and ‘bespoke’ funeral plan, rather than your needing to buy into the ‘Westminster’, the ‘Salisbury’, the ‘Windsor’, or even ‘The Highgrove’-type packaged plans on offer by other providers.
We are also very happy to come and talk with you in advance of the need for a funeral, if you do not want to pay in advance but just wish to have your funeral preferences discussed and written down.
Preparing for End of Life
How do I best prepare for the inevitable end of my life?
- Lasting Powers of Attorney (LPAs) for Health & Welfare and for Property & Finance
- Advance Decision to Refuse Treatment (or ADRT, formerly known as a Living Will)
- Advance Statement (in support of your ADRT)
- DNACPR (Do Not Attempt Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation)
- Funeral Plan (general funeral preferences and/or a formal pre-paid funeral plan)
- Digital assets (e.g. social media accounts, online photos, other aspects of your ‘digital footprint’)
- Other important information about how your house/life work