When the person has died in hospital
Many hospitals have a department called the Bereavement Office. In some places the office is called Patient Affairs. The ward staff will give you information about how to contact the Bereavement Office or what the arrangements will be if the hospital does not have a bereavement service.
The Bereavement Office exists to ensure all the correct legal processes are followed after the death by hospital staff and to care for bereaved families. This involves some or all of the following as exactly what service is provided varies between hospitals:
- Issuing the doctor’s certificate of cause of death to the family if the coroner is not investigating the death
- Sometimes issuing a ‘release’ form which you give to a funeral director authorising them to act on your behalf
- Explaining all the necessary paperwork and what needs to be done with it
- Ensuring bereaved people understand the involvement of the coroner if applicable
- Assisting making appointments with the registrar of deaths or coroner’s officer if appropriate
- Returning the deceased patient’s property to the bereaved family if this has not already been done by ward staff
- Assisting medical staff to explain post-mortem examinations and the choices available to families if appropriate
- Arranging visits to the mortuary viewing room and supporting bereaved families while they visit (may be done by mortuary staff in some hospitals)
- Providing non-biased information about local funeral directors
- Giving information on any bereavement follow-up services provided by the hospital
- Providing information about national and local bereavement support services
- Providing information about how to pursue any concerns or complaints the family may have about the care given to the deceased patient or themselves (some services actively support families in this process).
Most hospitals provide written information, often in a booklet, that will confirm what you are told about where to register or about contact with the coroner’s officer. There will often be other useful local information and information about the experience of bereavement and how to get more support.
This will only be possible if the doctor who needs to sign their certificate is available. The deceased person cannot be released before this document has been signed as until then, it will not be known by other staff whether the death has to be referred to the coroner. You will not be able to remove the deceased person if their death has been referred to the coroner, as the hospital will then keep the deceased person safe on behalf of the coroner.
You will also need suitable transport and enough people to be able to safely carry the person who has died unless you instruct a funeral director to work on your behalf.
Once the doctor has signed their certificate, you can arrange for the deceased person to be removed from the hospital. You will almost certainly be asked to sign a release form naming the person/company who you are authorising to carry out the removal. This release form may also include an indemnity clause. This means that you are taking responsibility for the deceased person legally once it has been taken from the hospital and will ensure that the person is correctly buried or cremated.
Some hospitals ask for proof that the death has been registered before agreeing to release the deceased person. The balance of legal opinion is that they cannot insist on this, but we believe this still occurs in quite a number of hospitals. Bear in mind as well that some mortuaries also have limited opening hours.
A hospital does have to keep legal records of people who die in their care and the key record is the mortuary register. It is for this reason and to maintain the dignity of the patient that people who have died are transferred to the mortuary in the special hospital concealment trolley. It can also be difficult for other patients and their families to see a funeral director coming to a hospital ward.
Advice : The exception to not directly removing someone who has died from a ward is for babies and children who are small enough to be carried in the arms of an adult. Some hospitals have a procedure to help parents take babies and children home after they have died. However the same restrictions about the doctor (or midwife) completing the necessary forms applies in case there is a possibility that the death must be referred to the coroner.
Please bear in mind that if you plan to arrange a cremation for the person who has died, there is an additional form that needs to be filled in addition to the certificate completed by the doctor who looked after the patient. These are usually completed within working hours and must be done by a senior doctor who was not connected with the care of your relative or friend. This doctor has to inspect the deceased patient as part of this legal procedure. Arranging for the deceased person to be removed from the hospital before the additional form has been completed may cause delays in making the funeral arrangements and may mean you are required to pay extra to the funeral director.
Hospital staff will understand if you have to make arrangements for registering and a funeral very quickly, perhaps because of the beliefs of the person who has died or perhaps because a relative has visited from overseas and must return home soon. However if the death has been referred to the coroner for any reason, the timings depend on the coroner and not the hospital. Usually a coroner only begins investigation at a weekend or bank holiday if the death is suspicious.
You must also register the death or at least obtain authority for a burial at the weekend from the registrar. Most hospitals and registrars have ‘out of hours’ procedures for families who need to make urgent arrangements but the registrars may only be available for a few hours. Contact the council switchboard if the person who has given you the doctor’s certificate does not know the details of what service is available.
A doctor’s certificate can only be issued by a doctor who was caring for the person when they were alive. In a hospital it is possible that the death was verified (confirmed) by a doctor who did not know the patient and they are not allowed, in law, to write the certificate and you will then have to wait until an appropriate doctor is back on duty.
If the person who has died has to be flown overseas (repatriated) the coroner has to give permission even if a doctor has been able to issue their certificate. The coroner may be available to give his or her permission in some parts of the country but not everywhere. Talk to your funeral director about this and they will probably be able to find out and deal with the paperwork.
If the hospital has a bereavement office or equivalent, they can usually arrange for you to visit the person who has died in a viewing room attached to the mortuary. Most hospital viewing rooms are tastefully and simply furnished and you can ask for any religious symbols to be removed if these are inappropriate for the person who has died. In most cases you will be allowed to be on your own with your relative or friend but hospital staff will be nearby to give you support if needed.
ADVICE: If you are not the closest relative or the person named as next of kin by the patient to the hospital, you will not be able to visit the person who has died without their permission. It is usually easier to wait until the deceased person has been transferred to the premises of the funeral director. However you will still need permission from the closest relative or the person arranging the funeral.