In Loving Memory

Funeral Flowers

What to do when a person dies

There are many resources on the web about end-of-life care, after-death care, and ways to conduct ceremonies which honour everyone involved with a person's death. If you are contemplating holding a funeral at home I strongly recommend that you watch any or all of the excellent educational videos produced by AHFA.

It might pay to note at the outset that if there are problems within the family - disputes or significant disagreements about what should happen next, or if the death was unexpected or particularly shocking, then the DIY funeral option may not be feasible. If the family have not talked and planned ahead then confusion and disagreement may mean that a funeral director will need to be engaged. However, if the family is cooperative and reasonably well prepared, then it will usually be possible for all the arrangements to be handled without one. It is the law in NZ that any person can act as a funeral directior.

Take your time

Firstly, when someone dies, unless there are suspicious circumstances, or the death is completely unexpected, it is not an emergency. There is no need to call an ambulance or the police. The police or coroner do not need to be involved in cases of natural and expected death, for instance of an aged parent or a friend or sibling with a terminal disease. In such ordinary and foreseeable cases, the steps that need to be taken are relatively straightforward.

Secondly, there is no rush. When a person dies there is no need to call a doctor or ambulance, or to let anyone else know immediately. Anyone who is there can just be present, sit with the person, put the jug on, relax and reminisce and generally take the time to adjust to this new and unalterable fact of life. When someone dies in the middle of the night, the practical steps can all wait until the morning. If the death occurred in a rest home or hospital there will still be the opportunity to sit with the dead person until the morning, and what happens after that can usually be negotiated. I have heard many stories of people dying when whoever has been sitting with them steps out of the room for a moment. This can be upsetting for the family but in many cases it seems to be something that the dying person needs in order to let go. It is all part of the mystery and sacredness of death.

When does a coroner need to be involved?

A coroner is called in if a doctor has been unable to determine the cause of death, or if a doctor cannot be found who can certify the death. This may happen if the person has not been seen by a medical practitioner within the last 6 months. All deaths occurring in violent or unnatural circumstances, during medical procedures or while a person is in the care or custody of the state are reported to the coroner, as well as any death that occurred during birth, or as a result of being pregnant or giving birth. Coroners are appointed by the Governor-General and have the legal duty to enquire into all deaths reported to them. They make enquiries, investigate the circumstances of a death and sometimes carry out inquests.

In general, if a death has been referred to the Coroner the funeral planning can be started but a burial or cremation cannot proceed until the coroner releases the body. For more information about coronial services, click here.

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The practicalities

Where will the body be kept?

If a person has died in hospital then they will be taken to the mortuary, where they will be refrigerated and body decomposition will be slowed. The person can normally stay in the mortuary free of charge for up to two weeks, but they can be taken home by the family as long as it is in a receptacle of a type which would usually be used by a funeral director (i.e. a coffin, casket or shroud bearer).

If a person dies in a rest home they may or may not need to be taken away that day. Some rest homes may allow the body to stay there another night. You will have to make arrangements either to have the person collected by a funeral director or to bring them home yourself. In that case you will still need a casket of some kind, but the body can be transported in any type of vehicle as long as it is secured, covered, and the body is not visible.

Transporting a body

The mortuary will give you a Transfer of charge of body form to fill out and sign, which is simply to protect them from releasing the body to just anyone by mistake. You will need to prove your connection with the dead person with some form of ID (eg a driver's licence), and you will be required to view the body to identify that you are picking up the correct one. For more information on transporting a body, click here.

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After-death care: keeping the body cool

It is perfectly safe and legal to keep a body at home in NZ. There is nothing "unsanitary" or "unsafe" about a corpse - in fact a dead body is normally of less risk of transferring infection of any kind than a live person because it is not breathing and disease-causing bacteria and viruses usually die themselves within a few hours of death. The notion of having to embalm a body in order to protect public health or shield others from contagion or contamination is just nonsense, unless the person has died of a "communicable disease".

When someone has died of a "communicable disease" Regulation 36 of the Health (Burial) Regulations 1946 applies, and the certifying doctor can require the body to be transported in a sealed, closed casket, and buried or cremated within 48 hours. In this (unusual) situation open coffin viewing is not permitted. But even in these unusual cases, although some specific handling procedures are required, they are reasonably straightforward, and you do not need a funeral director to carry them out.

In more usual cases, once the dead person is at home, or if they died at home, then you do need to keep the body cool until it can be cremated or buried, which may mean a delay of several days. All bodies are different, and the process of decomposition takes place at different rates from the moment of death. Certain kinds of cancers, or a very large gut, can cause decomposition to progress more quickly. However in most cases using frozen hot water bottles, techni-ice sheets or even ordinary ice in bags from the supermarket, wrapped in towels to catch the condensation, will be more than sufficient to allow the body to be kept at home for several days. The body temperature ideally needs to be kept between 1 and 5 degrees.

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