by Amy L. Silva Rigtrup

Logistics. There are many logistics involved when a loved one dies. We are in a culture of research, meaning, for situations like preparing for the birth of a child, planning a wedding, even starting the process of buying a house - we all do research. What are the steps? What options are available? Where do I start? What do I need to do? Who can help? These questions and many more flood the brain when a loved one dies and we've never dealt with this before. 

Since everything surrounding death is not easily talked about, most find themselves at a loss when it happens. I hope to explain and share some of the logistics involved. A resource of sorts.

First and most importantly, is Next of Kin. The legal Next of Kin is a person's closest relation. The person who has custody of a deceased loved one and the authorization to handle legalities that may arise - like release of the body or giving permission for a cremation, etc. There is a strict protocol that decides who the Next of Kin is, based on a list of importance of familial relations. Here is the list. Starting with #1, if such a relation does not exist, the Next of Kin will be the next numbered relation and so on:

  1. Spouse
  2. Children (starting with eldest - over age 18, if younger than 18, the legal guardian of the child can represent him/her)
  3. Parents
  4. Siblings
  5. Grandchildren
  6. Grandparents
  7. Nieces/Nephews
  8. Aunts/Uncles
  9. Great Grandchildren
  10. Great Grandparents
  11. Great Nieces/Great Nephews
  12. First Cousins

***The list continues through more distant branches of family members

The place where a person dies also sets differing situations and protocols:

  • Hospital (following trauma/accident) - in these situations, the hospital must alert the state medical examiner of the death. The medical examiner can then decide to take jurisdiction and bring the body into their custody for testing, viewing and/or an autopsy to determine the cause of death. If the medical examiner waives jurisdiction, the certifying physician can decide the cause of death and allow for possible organ donation (choice to proceed is up to the Next of Kin) or for the funeral home to pick up the body.
  • Hospital (Inpatient/Outpatient/Non-Trauma) - Family calls the funeral home and the funeral home follows up with the hospital to find out when the body will be ready. If organ donation is a possibility, the choice is given to the Next of Kin and the hospital alerts the funeral home when the procedure is completed.
  • Nursing Home - Upon entering a loved one into a nursing home, the family is usually asked which funeral home they would like to use. If pre-arrangements are made with the named funeral home, then the funeral home will have the authority to pick up your loved one once the Nursing Home calls to report the death. If, however, a funeral home is mentioned where  the loved one does not have pre-arrangements, the funeral home will not have authorization to pick up your loved one until the Next of Kin contacts the funeral home.
  • Home (Hospice) - If a loved one dies at home under the care of hospice, the hospice nurse can call the funeral home to report the death and will also notify the doctor and provide the paperwork needed for the funeral home to come out to the house when the family is ready.
  • Home (Non-Hospice/Unexpected/Trauma) - When someone dies at home unexpectedly or not under the care of hospice, the family needs to call the police first. The police come to the house, assess the situation and notify the medical examiner. The medical examiner, based on the situation, can either take jurisdiction and decide to view/test/autopsy or waive jurisdiction. If jurisdiction is waived, then the officer will call the family's funeral home of choice to notify them of the death.

If your loved one is taken into the custody of the Medical Examiner, you can certainly notify the funeral home and start making arrangements. However, planning the timing of the services should wait until the medical examiner releases the body - which could take a few days or more. Before any funeral home can pick up your loved one, the medical examiner requires a release form, signed by the legal Next of Kin along with some of the deceased's vital information (social security number, date of birth, address, etc.).

Depending on the circumstance, sometimes the medical examiner releases a loved one with a death certificate that says, "pending" as cause of death. This is because rather than holding someone for the amount of time it would take for all test/lab results to come in, they aim to allow the family to carry on with intended services as quickly as possible.

When a certificate is issued as "pending", it may take a while to obtain a completed certificate - essential for most insurance claims, etc. In my experience, I have seen it take anywhere from a few weeks to about six months. Most times, the funeral home receives a courtesy letter from the medical examiner notifying us that the certificate has been "un-pended" and the family is free to obtain a completed certificate at the town or city clerk where their loved one died. Once in a while, that letter does not come to us. My advice for families is to call the town/city clerk where the death occurred once a month to ask them if the certificate has been un-pended. Usually you only need to give the clerk the deceased's name, date of death and date of birth to help them locate the information.

After these initial steps are taken, the family will then make an appointment with the funeral home to arrange the services. In an upcoming episode, I will be focusing on the arrangement process: what you need to bring, questions to ask, concerns to share and more.

Please feel free to comment here with any questions or email me privately at amy@thesilvalining.org

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