Your step by step guide on what to do following the passing of a loved one, from directly after their death to following the funeral
Would you rather download this? Download here
Experiencing the loss of a loved one is incredibly difficult. Dealing with grief can be tiring and overwhelming. To also have to think about the various administrative tasks that will come, such as planning a funeral, can be daunting. We have tried to design this pamphlet in a way that it can be used after the passing of a loved one, but it could also be used in preparation for that process. Being familiar with the choices you might have to make and the processes involved can remove a small amount of the stress when the time comes, and can also be a tool to prompt an often difficult-to-have conversation with a friend or family member about what they want to happen.
Every life is different and there are unique circumstances to every death, so it’s impossible to cover every single possible outcome in one document, but we’ve tried to include thorough information for the circumstances we come across most, as well as some information for less common situations.
It’s important to note that you can contact a funeral director at almost any point in this process and ask for help - be it simply for advice or to complete tasks on your behalf. A funeral director is not just someone who plans a funeral, and it’s not uncommon for people who decide they don’t want a funeral to still contact a funeral director to help with paperwork and things like arranging the transport of a loved one’s body. It is normal to find the death of someone close to you overwhelming. For most of us, making arrangements for someone who has died is not something we will have to do very often, and some of the legal necessities can be especially difficult. A funeral director can help with what you’re unsure about, but you will always have the final say, and can choose to do as much or as little as you want - or feel able - to do.
It’s also important to note that most of this information is based on the laws and practices in New South Wales, and while most states around the country will be similar there are often legal differences between the various states and territories, as well as overseas. Organising things like transportation for someone who has died interstate or overseas can add an extra layer of complexity to the process, but most funeral directors will be trained in the necessary requirements of different jurisdictions.
As well as talking to funeral directors or friends and family, you can access a number of free, confidential, counselling services 24/7, including:
- Lifeline Australia on 131 114
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
The Griefline (1300 845 745) is another good service that is available 7 days a week, but only from 6am to Midnight
Table of contents
- Immediately afterwards
- Deciding on a funeral, memorial or something else
1. Immediately afterwards
A few things need to happen relatively quickly after someone has died:
- The death must be legally confirmed
- Family may need to give consent for organ donation
- People need to be notified
- If a person had a will and/or funeral plan it needs to be found
1a. Legal requirements
In Australia the majority of deaths occur in hospitals, homes and nursing homes. Legally a doctor must confirm a death and issue a Medical Certificate Cause of Death (some people will call this a Death Certificate but that is actually issued later, see below). If a death is not unexpected then this process is usually relatively straightforward.
If a doctor is unable to confirm the cause of death, or the death is unexpected, sudden or violent then the doctor must inform the police who will then begin a coronial investigation. If a death is referred to the coroner for investigation, the body of your loved one may not be available until the investigation is complete. There is no set time period an investigation will take, but a funeral director can liaise with the coroner to work out when a funeral can be conducted. Some families may choose to proceed with a service prior to the coroner releasing the person’s body.
The Death Certificate is issued when the death is registered with the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. This is usually taken care of by a Funeral Director, but relatives or the executor of a will can also do this.
1b. Organ Donation
Less than 2% of deaths in Australia occur in circumstances that make organ donation a possibility, but if it is possible the next of kin will be asked to give permission in a relatively short time frame.
1c. Find if they had a will and/or funeral plan
If a person has a will it will name an executor, and this person will be the one responsible for planning the funeral, as well as dealing with some other aspects of dividing the deceased’s estate. A will may specify the person’s desires for a funeral (or may even specify they don’t want one), or this information could be in a separate document called a funeral plan. If the person did not make a will or funeral plan before they died this responsibility will generally fall to the next of kin.
1d. Notifying friends and family and providing care
While there is no legal requirement to notify friends or family of someone dying it is common practice. You may want to ask some people to communicate it to others, for example you might choose to contact one colleague and ask them to notify other workmates. You could also choose to place a notice in a newspaper or online - this is something you can ask a funeral director to do too.
If the deceased has any dependents or pets, someone will need to arrange for them to be cared for in both the short and long term.
2. Deciding on a funeral, memorial or something else
There is no legal requirement to host a funeral or memorial, but most people from most cultures choose to have one. One of the main reasons is because holding a funeral can help people deal with loss and process the grief. Sharing a difficult time gathered with friends and family can be beneficial for all involved; it can provide an opportunity to help one another and share stories about your loved one.
Every person is unique, and there’s no rules about how a funeral or memorial has to take place, but there are several factors almost everyone must consider.
2a. Do you want to view the body?
Viewing is a personal decision, and there are many different reasons why people may choose to do it. Often there are religious or cultural factors that encourage a viewing as part of a funeral service (known as an open-casket funeral), and experts do suggest that viewing the body can help those grieving confront the reality of the situation.
Some people may choose to have a small viewing with only members of the family or a small group of people which can take place in the funeral home at any time, in the days before the funeral or even on the day of the funeral.
If you want to view the body, either separately or as part of a funeral service then most funeral homes will suggest this happens within two or three days. If you want to view a body after this timeframe - for example you want an open-casket funeral but the service needs to be held a week or more later - then it is recommended that the body be embalmed.
2b. Is embalming required?
Embalming is a process of disinfecting the body and adding special fluids to help preserve it. Embalming is necessary if the body has to be transported long distances, it is going to be viewed more than a few days after death or if it is going to be buried above ground in a mausoleum or crypt.
2c. Deciding on a burial or cremation
The choice between burial and cremation largely comes down to personal choice, and is often influenced by cultural factors such as religion.
For most funeral services a coffin is chosen and is displayed at the funeral then transported immediately afterwards to a burial plot or a crematorium. However, this is not always the case. For example, for some services a cremation will have already taken place, and the ashes of the deceased may be present for the ceremony. Some people choose to have no service at all, and simply choose a direct cremation. A funeral director can still arrange the transport of a body to a crematorium even if there’s no funeral.
When a body is cremated the coffin and remains will be burned and turned to ash. The ashes can be kept in an urn, spread at a special location or buried - this can even be in a burial plot with a family member who was not cremated if desired. One of the reasons cremation is often chosen is that it allows flexibility, families that move often are able to take an urn filled with a loved one’s ashes wherever they may relocate.
Traditionally cremation takes place shortly after a funeral service, but it can take place before, especially in situations where people want or need a longer period of time between the death and the funeral service. In such situations ashes could be present in an urn or even scattered during the ceremony. Often people choose to wait quite a while to scatter ashes, see the afterwards section for a checklist for scattering.
For some the cremation may be part of the funeral service - it is common for family to witness the cremation in some cultures, such as Hinduism. This needs to be arranged in advance and is only possible with some crematoriums. They generally can’t accomodate large numbers of people so attendance is quite limited.
Burial generally involves the coffin being placed in the ground and covered, then marked by a headstone or monument. It is also the term usually used to refer to a coffin interred in a mausoleum or crypt.
In Sydney choosing a burial will generally cost more than a cremation, because of the need to purchase a plot and a headstone or marker, however it is not always the case. You can discuss all the options with your funeral director to get a better idea of the costs and what else is involved.
2d. Service details
Deciding on a date can be difficult, you need to not only consider things like viewings and cremations or burials, but whether people need to travel long distances, from interstate or internationally, as well as whether the type of venue you want is available.
Do you want a religious or secular service?
Should you choose a religious service a member of the clergy for that particular religion will need to be consulted, and this may affect your choice of venue and date. Alternatively you may want to decide on an MC (Master of Ceremonies), or someone to host the service and introduce any speakers and the texts they are reading - it could be their own tributes or particular poems or pieces of scripture. You may also decide whether you want to move a coffin in a ceremonial way, and therefore need pallbearers.
A funeral can involve one venue or multiple depending on the style. For example, you may have a service at a church followed by a burial at a cemetery then a wake. This would necessitate the booking of all three venues, as well as transportation of the body. Others might choose to hold a ceremony in a public place, for example a beach that the person was fond of, in which case you may need council permission.
Notices, invitations and other printing
When a time and date are settled you might want to send out electronic or paper invitations, as well as posting a notice in the newspaper. You may want other things printed for the day including order of service or church booklets, hymn books or memorial cards.
2e. Coffin or Casket
Whether you opt for cremation or burial, most services will involve a coffin or a casket. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably but technically a casket is a squarer, more box-shaped vessel, whereas a coffin is wider at the shoulders and tapered at the bottom
You may want the deceased to be dressed in their favourite outfit, or something of special significance. You can decide whether they are wearing jewellery, and whether it is returned or not before burial or cremation.
2g. Flowers and decoration
Many people decorate the service with bunches of their loved one’s favourite flowers, or bring mementos to display such as flags, photos, medals or trophies.
2h. Music or media
There are many options for what you can include throughout a funeral, you may want a powerpoint presentation with slides and photographs, to screen a video or have a performance from a group -such as a choir - that your loved one was involved in. You might want a live rendition of a song, for example the ‘Last Post’ is often played at the funerals of those who served in the military, or you could make a playlist of songs that remind you of that person or some of their favourites. You might also want to schedule some time for quiet reflection, prayer, or meditation.
You can also arrange to have the service live-streamed or broadcast online so that those unable to make it can watch on.
As with most aspects of a funeral service, whether or not to hold a wake is largely a personal choice. A wake has different meanings to different people, but in Australia a wake is generally a social gathering held after a funeral. In some countries and cultures it resembles what we call a viewing in Australia, although it is often held at someone’s home rather than a funeral home or during the funeral ceremony as is more common for viewings here.
A wake is usually held in a separate building to the funeral, although it is not uncommon for it to be in the same complex. It can be an opportunity to catch up with people who attended the funeral, and share stories in a less formal setting. It is usually catered with finger food and drinks so people are able to move around and speak to one another, but with tables and chairs available for those who want or need to sit down.
Not all cultures or religions choose to hold wakes, and some specifically don’t allow them for various reasons, including believing that mourning should be done privately or in a more formal way.
As you can see the range of options for funerals is enormous. Every family is different, and everyone will have their own different wants and needs for their funeral so the cost is quite variable. When you first consult with a funeral director they will talk you through the cost of the different options, and will provide you with an itemised breakdown of the cost for each aspect of the funeral.
For an accurate estimate for your funeral service we have an online tool that can help you work out how much it will cost you.
5a. Non-urgent notifications
There are many organisations you will have to contact at some point after the death of someone close to you. It can be upsetting to receive phone calls asking for a loved one who is no longer around, or shocking to receive bills with extra late fees for a service that hasn’t been used in months. So, while it can be tedious, notifying the relevant organisations of a death is an important thing to do.
There is a long list of organisations you’ll need to contact in the longer term, including:Government agencies
- the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). They have a deceased estate checklist here
- Services Australia (formerly Centrelink)
- RMS or Service NSW (formerly the RTA) to cancel licenses and transfer vehicle registrations
- credit card and savings accounts
- life insurers
- checking if there were any insurances as part of superannuation
- social workers
- other health services
- power and water suppliers
- local council
- phone and internet providers
- meals-on-wheels or other home-service providers
- RSL clubs
- social clubs and service clubs (such as Rotary Clubs)
- AFL or NRL clubs or other sporting team memberships
- any charities that took regular donations
- Facebook (who do provide an option for memorialisation of a page, so it is not deactivated and it doesn’t disappear)
- Email accounts
- Subscription viewing such as Netflix, Stan, Amazon or Foxtel
When contacting these organisations you may want to use this template from Law Access NSW
5b. Scattering Ashes
Often people will keep ashes in their home or another special place for a long period after a funeral or ceremony, until they feel comfortable scattering them. If you decide to scatter ashes you may have to seek some legal permission depending on where you choose to do so.
On private land you may have to have permission from the land owners or the Trust of Parks and Reserves. In public places such as parks, beaches or sporting fields you will usually have to make a request of the local council and they will usually set a time or place where scattering can be undertaken.
If you want to scatter ashes at sea you can charter vehicles specifically for this purpose, and you will always need to get permission from the ship’s master before scattering ashes. It’s also wise to consider the wind direction, and depending on the urn or container you may want to pre-loosen the lid.
There are also fairly strict regulations if you want to scatter ashes in an overseas location. Firstly you’ll have to contact the consulate for the country the ashes are being taken to in order to comply with local requirements. When transporting them they’ll need to be kept as hand luggage in a sealed container. They also need to be accompanied by a copy of the death certificate and a copy of a statement from the crematorium providing details about the person and cremation.