The passing of a loved one is a somber and sometimes difficult occasion. However, certain tasks must be accomplished in a short window after death. These tasks may include organ or body donation, certification of death, an autopsy, burial or cremation, and a funeral or memorial service. The decedent’s closest family members are entitled to make decisions related to these important matters. However, if the decedent did not have close relatives or had authorized a health care agent, the decedent’s health care agent or another individual, such as the executor named in the decedent’s will, may be responsible for making some decisions.
Organ or Body Donation
The decedent may have indicated that they would like to donate their organs, tissue, or body for medical research or transplants. They may have expressed their wishes with an organ donor card, their driver’s license, a will or living will, or an advance directive. Some states also provide organ donor registries. The decedent may have detailed the exact organs or tissues that they would like to donate or the manner in which the donation should occur. Otherwise, a decedent’s family, agent, or guardian may be able to give consent. A family member or health care agent should initiate this process with the doctor who last oversaw the decedent’s care as soon as possible, since organ or body donation is generally only possible for a short time after death.
Donation and Consent Laws
Many hospitals will not accept a donation without the family’s permission, even if the decedent signed a donor card. However, most state laws prevent another individual from changing, amending, or revoking a gift (or refusal) made by the decedent.
If the decedent chose to donate their body to a medical institution for research, a family member, a health care agent, or another responsible person should contact the institution immediately. It is often not possible to donate a body for research if organs have already been removed. Medical institutions cannot pay for a body, but they often cover the costs of transporting the body and disposing of the remains after use. A decedent may have a donation agreement with the institution, providing that their body will be returned to their family for burial or cremation at a later date.
The Death Certificate
Within a few days of the death, a doctor must sign a certification of death. If the decedent died in a hospital, a hospital doctor will certify the death. If the decedent died at home, their primary care physician or a medical examiner, coroner, or other medical professional can certify the death. The funeral home or entity handling cremation will then prepare a death certificate with information about the decedent and their death. The certificate must be signed by the medical professional and filed with the county before the body may be buried or cremated, but this is often handled by a mortuary or another establishment handling the burial or cremation.
An autopsy is an examination of the body performed by a medical professional to determine the cause of death. State law may require an autopsy if the death appears to have resulted from an accident or violence. Sometimes, an autopsy is required if the decedent had not seen a doctor in some time. An autopsy required by state law may be performed by the county medical examiner within a few days of death. A family may also elect to have an autopsy done. A decedent’s cause of death may give family members helpful information about their own health or may be necessary to collect certain benefits, like life insurance proceeds.
Funerals and Burials
Once any donations or autopsies have been completed, and the death certificate has been filed, loved ones may begin the process of burial or cremation. The decedent may have left instructions specifying their preferences, or family members may need to decide whether the decedent will be buried in a casket or cremated. If the decedent will be buried, loved ones should contact a mortuary to begin the process. If the decedent will be cremated, a mortuary or a crematory will handle the cremation.
Loved ones may also want to organize a funeral or memorial service for the decedent. Sometimes, a mortuary will help coordinate with a funeral home, church, cemetery, or other establishment involved with the funeral or memorial. Certain organizations, such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), may provide funeral and burial benefits.
Plans for Payment
A decedent may have arranged for the payment of after-death expenses, such as funeral costs. A family member or the executor should review the decedent’s will or other estate planning documents to determine whether funds have been allocated.