Where Do I Start?

After a death has occurred, there are myriad steps to take and questions to ask.

Who To Call First

Whether you received a 2am phone call with news of an unexpected death or shared your loved one's final moments of a long illness, your initial reaction to the death is shock. It doesn't seem to matter how prepared we are. a loved one's death often leaves us feeling numb and bewildered. If you're responsible for making the funeral arrangements or executing the will, shock and grief can be immobilizing. Even simple decisions can be overwhelming.

Making the first phone calls

What to do first depends on the circumstances of the death. When someone dies in a hospital or similar care facility, the staff will usually take care of some arrangements, such as contacting the funeral home you choose, and if necessary, arranging an autopsy. You will need to notify family, friends and clergy. It may be easier on you to make a few phone calls to other relatives or friends and ask each of them to make a phone call or two to specific people, so the burden of spreading the news isn't all on you. If you are alone, ask someone to keep you company while you make these calls and try to cope with the first hours after the death.

Call a funeral director

Whatever the circumstances of death, one of your first calls should be to a licensed funeral director. Cole Funeral Services can help you with arranging:

  • transportation of the body
  • obtaining a death certificate
  • selecting a casket, urn and/or grave marker
  • arranging the funeral, memorial and/or burial service
  • preparing the obituary
  • helping you notify the deceased's employer, attorney, insurance company and banks
  • offering grief support or direct you to other resources


Call the employer

If your loved one was working, you'll need to call his or her employer immediately. Ask about the deceased's benefits and any pay due, including vacation or sick time, disability income, etc. Ask if you or other dependents are still eligible for benefit coverage through the company. Ask whether there is a life insurance policy through the employer, who the beneficiary is and how to file a claim.

Call the life insurance company

Look through the deceased's paperwork for the life policy. Call the agent or the company and ask how to file a claim. Usually the beneficiary (or the beneficiary's guardian, if a minor) must complete the claim forms and related paperwork. You'll need to submit the death certificate and a claimant's statement to establish proof of claim. Remember to ask about payment options. You may have a choice between receiving a lump sum or the having the insurance company place the money in an interest-bearing account upon which you may draw.

First Steps After Death

Nothing adequately prepares us for the initial shock of losing a loved one to death. Feelings of panic and helplessness may be overwhelming, but it's important to know that you are not alone. Start by taking care of yourself and surrounding yourself with family, friends and professionals upon whom you can rely for support.

Notify family and friends. Call immediate family members first, parents, children, siblings and grandparents of the deceased, no matter what time of day. Grief researchers say those close to the deceased feel left out if they aren't told about death immediately.

Use your close network to help in this task. It not only helps others through the grieving process to have some responsibility, but also allows you to carry on with other matters. Although it may be difficult, telling others of a death is therapeutic. Saying aloud that a loved one has died, the death is confirmed in your mind - an important step in the grief process.

Call a funeral director. The emotional impact of death understandably makes it difficult to focus on the details that go into organizing a funeral. A funeral director and staff can ease the burden by guiding you through every step and decision.  

Here are a few answers to commonly asked questions.

Q: When death occurs at home, what should we do?

If the death has been expected, the physician caring for the deceased will be able to pronounce the death. This is the person you should first contact. You can then call the funeral home of your choice to remove the body and follow the personal wishes of the deceased.

If the death is unexpected, the police should be notified. They will in turn dispatch an officer and contact a local coroner or medical examiner who will then decide the level of investigation necessary to determine the cause of death. They will arrange to have the body transferred to the either a hospital or examination centre if an autopsy is required (at their cost). You may suggest to the coroner or medical examiner the funeral home of your choice to make this transfer, however if you do not or they wish to use their own personnel, you are under no obligation to use the funeral home they choose. Once the body has been transferred and the examination complete you have the right to choose the funeral home you wish to carry out the deceased's final wishes. If after a preliminary examination and investigation it is determined no further inquiry is necessary, you may then call the funeral home of your choice to remove the body and carry out the deceased's final wishes.


Q: If we are on vacation, and a death occurs what should we do?

Call Cole Funeral Services. We will take care of making the necessary contact with a reputable firm in the area that the death occurred.

This will avoid any possibility of becoming involved with a funeral home outside of your residential area that may care little about matters because they feel they will not ever deal with the family again. When calling Cole Funeral Services, we can act as your agent, monitoring and avoiding any possibility of excessive, unnecessary or double-billing possibilities.

Next, contact your local police department to dispatch an officer to your location immediately so you will not be alone.  If the death was sudden and unexplained, your local police authorities will make the necessary call to the local coroner to attend to the place of death. A county medical examiner or coroner may be called.

If you have not called your funeral director, you will have to consider doing so as the body will have to be removed by them or an authorized agent. Regrettably, there have been circumstances where police and or coroners have called a funeral home of their choice. While we will not speculate on the motives, often families find themselves being pressured by a funeral home that was called to the scene.


Q: A loved one has died at the hospital, where do we turn?

Whether or not you are present when the death occurs. a health care professional will contact you and ask a few questions.

1. Which funeral service provider will you be releasing the body to, for transfer from the hospital?

2. Would you like an autopsy performed?

Unless the deceased has died unexpectedly, you will have the choice. An autopsy is the thorough examination of the deceased body, to understand and determine the cause of death or any factors that may have contributed towards the cause of death. The information resulting from an autopsy can help researchers in developing cures and medications to assist in the preventions of such diseases. Autopsies are generally performed quickly, as to not interfere with the funeral process, however you may experience some short delays and should check with the health care professional as to when you can expect the autopsy to be completed if a delay could be of concern to you.


Q: A loved one has died in the nursing home, what should we do first?

If you have not called your funeral director, you will have to consider doing so as the body will have to be removed by them or an authorized agent.

Organ and Tissue Donations

In practice, donations cannot be carried out without the consent of next-of-kin. Advance discussion of donation with family members is just as important as signing a card. In a time of extreme stress and grief, a signed donor card and knowledge of the individual's wishes will help families make their decision about donation. Here are a few answers to commonly asked questions.


Q: Who can become a donor?

Anyone who is 18 or older and of sound mind may become a donor when he or she dies. Minors may become donors with a parent's or guardian's consent.


Q: Will my decision interfere with my own health care?

No. Medical personnel must follow strict guidelines before they can pronounce death and remove the donor's organs and tissues. Organ and tissue donors receive the same health care as non-donors


Q: How will medical personnel know that I am a donor?

Medical personnel will know by your carrying of a donor card, as part of your driver’s license. You should distribute copies to your family, doctors, funeral home that holds your pre-arranged services and attorney.


Q: Who pays for the donation procedure?

The organ donation programs, funded through health care, pay for all costs involved in the organ donation and recovery.


Q: How are the organs and tissues distributed?

The distribution of organs is handled by regional organ banks which are linked to a national computer network that allows them to speed the process of matching organ donors and recipients. Tissue distribution is coordinated by various tissue banks throughout the country.


Q: Does my age or medical history matter?

Although most programs do have age restrictions for organs, it should not influence your decision to become a donor. The transplant team will decide at the time of donation whether the organs or tissues are useful for donation. If the organs or tissues can't be transplanted, it is possible that the organs or tissues may be helpful in medical research.


Q: Will I have to change my funeral arrangements?

Within reason, organ donation does not delay funeral arrangements or disfigure the body, so no changes will be needed in your funeral plans. If you plan to donate your body for medical research, you should be sure to arrange all of the details with your local anatomical board.


Q: Can I change my mind about becoming a donor?

Absolutely, simply tear up your donor card. Anyone that you have told about your donation request should be notified of this change. Tell family members, doctors, funeral home, and if you have made arrangements to have your status indicated on your driver's license be sure to contact the driver's license office to have your status changed.

How to Write An Obituary or Death Notice

What is an obituary?
More than a 'good-bye' to the deceased, an obituary is a farewell which can, in chronological order, detail the life of the deceased. An obituary also serves as notification that an individual has passed away and details of the services that are to take place. An obituary's length may be somewhat dictated by the space available in the newspaper it is to appear in, although many newspapers offer expanded online space. It is best to check how much room you have before you begin your composition. Remember that the obituary needs to appear in print a few days prior to the memorial service. There are some cases where this may not be possible, therefore give some consideration to the guidelines below when composing the obituary.

What do I include?
Naturally, it is vital that the full name, along with the location and date of passing is included so that there is no confusion over whom has died. You may wish to consider placing a photograph (which can appear as black and white or in color depending on the newspaper's layout) with the text. There are usually extra charges applied if you are thinking of using a photograph. If you wish, mention where the deceased resided. This will normally only include the street, city and province/county. The street number is not normally included for reasons of security.

In a concise manner, write about the significant events in the life of the deceased. This may include the schools he or she attended and any degrees attained; you may also include your loved one’s vocations or interests.

It is common to include a list of those who have survived the deceased. The list should include (where applicable):

  • Parents
  • Spouse and children
  • Adopted children
  • Half & step children
  • Siblings
  • Half & step siblings
  • Grandparents

The surviving relatives listed above may be listed by name. Other relatives will not be mentioned by name but may be included in terms of their relationship to the deceased. In other words, the obituary may mention that the deceased had five grandchildren and so on. Exceptions to the above rule can be made if the deceased only had one grandchild or a nephew who was the only person living in the newspaper's distribution area. These exceptions are obviously made based on each individual case.

Additional information such as where the body will be laid to rest and any pallbearer's names or names of honorary pallbearer's may be mentioned. Include the time and location of any services for the deceased, such as the funeral, burial, wake and memorial service.

Some Do's & Don'ts
Read other obituaries to gain an idea of how personal and touching an obituary may be.

Note the proper terminology. It is correct to say “visitation will be from" or "friends may call from", whereas the phrase "lie in state” only applies to a head of state such as the prime minister or president.
Should memorial donations be requested rather than flowers, use the terms "memorial donations may be made to…"

If you wish to send the obituary to newspapers in other cities such as a town where the deceased may have resided previously, obtain copies of the obituary to send to distant relatives and friends.

Final Considerations
Any and all information to be included in the obituary should be verified with another family member. A newspaper will have to verify with the funeral home being utilized that the deceased is in fact being taken care of by that funeral home.

Since most newspapers charge by the word when placing an obituary, it may not always be feasible to mention everything stated in our guidelines. Use your own discretion and do not put yourself under any financial hardship. Your loved one would understand.

How to Write a Eulogy

Writing and delivering a eulogy is a noble gesture that is worthy of thought and effort. It is an opportunity to make a contribution to a memorial service a contribution that your friends and family will remember for a long time.

Writing in general a eulogy, a tribute, a letter, or keeping a journal presents another equally valuable opportunity for you. The ability to use the writing process as a therapeutic tool to help you deal with your grief. The power of writing is undeniable and there is no better time than now for you to discover and take advantage of this.

What should I include?
People commonly believe that a eulogy should be an objective summation of the deceased's life or speak for everyone who is present at the memorial service. Both of these assumptions are unrealistic.

A eulogy is much simpler. It should convey the feelings and experiences of the person giving the eulogy. The most touching and meaningful eulogies are written from a subjective point of view and from the heart. Don't feel compelled to write your loved one's life story. Instead, tell your story.

Clearly, the burden of the eulogy does not have to be yours alone. If you have the time, ask friends or relatives for their recollections and stories. In a eulogy, it is perfectly acceptable to share humorous or touching stories that illustrate your relationship to the loved one.

Honesty is very important. In most cases, there will be a lot of positive qualities to talk about. Once in a while, however, there is someone with more negative traits than positive qualities. If that is the case, remember, you don't have to say everything. Focus on the positive qualities, the legacy your loved one left behind and the lessons you may have learned from their life.

How do I deliver a eulogy?
A eulogy may be the most rewarding thing you’ve ever written, but delivering it may also be the most challenging thing you’ve done.

Take your time. Prepare yourself by reading through your words until you are very familiar with them. When you are about to deliver it, breathe deeply and focus on the task at hand. You may become overwhelmed with emotion: pause, breathe deeply again and realize that you are sharing a special moment with people who also care.

If you can, make the eulogy easy to read. On a computer, print out the eulogy in a large type size. If you are using a typewriter, put extra carriage returns between the lines. If you are writing it by hand, print the final version in large letters and give the words room to breathe by writing on every second or third line.

Before the service, consider getting a small cup of water. Keep it with you during the service. When you go to the podium to deliver the eulogy, take the water with you in case you need it. Sipping water before you start and during the speech will help relax you.

This may be an emotionally challenging moment, so it is acceptable to read the eulogy without making eye contact with the audience, if that would be easier for you. Take your time. Do the best you can. No one expects you to have the delivery of a great orator or the stage presence of an actor. Just be you.

Wake and Funeral Etiquette

Even though common sense and good discretion are always the best guides to proper funeral etiquette, a few principles still apply.

Condolence visits
It is a common gesture for close friends of the bereaving family to visit the family's home to offer sympathy and assistance. This is sometimes referred to as a condolence visit. With the bereaving family making the arrangements, close friends may lend a hand with food preparation and childcare. The visit can take place any time within the first few weeks of death, and may be followed with one or more additional visits, depending on the circumstances and your relationship with the family.

Share your stories
Expressing sympathy is important, but so too is sharing fond memories or listening to them being told. Family members may simply want you to be a good listener to their expressions of grief or memories of the deceased. In most circumstances, it is not appropriate to inquire as to the cause of death.

Attending the wake
If you attend a wake, you should approach the family and express your sympathy. As with the condolence visit, it is appropriate to relate your memories of the deceased. If you were only acquainted with the deceased (and not the family) you should introduce yourself.

It is customary to show your respects by viewing the deceased if the body is present and the casket is open. You may wish to say a silent prayer for, or meditate about, the loved one at this time. In some cases, the family may escort you to the casket.

The length of your visit at the wake is a matter of discretion. After seeing the family, you can visit with others in attendance. Normally there is a register for visitors to sign.

As with other aspects of modern day society, funeral dress codes have relaxed somewhat. Unless following specific cultural norms, black dress is no longer required. Instead, subdued or darker hues should be selected. After the funeral, the family often receives invited visitors to their home for pleasant conversation and refreshments.

You can send flowers to the funeral home prior to the funeral, or to the family residence at any time. Flowers may also be sent to Protestant churches. Flowers generally are not sent to Jewish synagogues and Catholic churches.) If you are uncertain, ask your florist.

Gifts in memory of the deceased are often made, particularly when the family has requested gifts in lieu of flowers. The family is notified of the gifts by personal note from the donor or through the donee, if the donee is a charity or other organization. In the latter case the donor provides the family's name and address to the charity at the time the gift is made.  Even if you don't make a gift, a note or card to the deceased's family expressing your thoughts of the deceased is a welcome gesture, especially if you weren't able to attend the funeral.


FUNERAL ETIQUETTE

The funeral is a ceremony of proven worth and value for those who mourn. It provides an opportunity for the survivors and others who share in the loss to express their love, respect, grief and appreciation for a life that has been lived. It permits facing openly and realistically the crisis the death presents. Through the funeral the bereaved take that first step toward emotional adjustment to their loss. This information has been prepared as a convenient reference for modern funeral practices and customs.

Funeral services
The family specifies the type of service conducted for the deceased. Funeral directors are trained to assist families in arranging whatever type of service they desire. The service held either at a place of worship or at the funeral home with the deceased present, varies in ritual according to denomination. The presence of friends at this time is an acknowledgement of friendship and support. It is helpful to friends and the community to have an obituary notice published announcing the death and type of service to be held.

Private services
This service is by invitation only and may be held at a place of worship, a funeral home or a family home. Usually, selected relatives and a few close friends attend the funeral service. Often public visitation is held, condolences are sent, and the body is viewed.

Memorial services
A memorial service is a service without the body present and can vary in ceremony and procedures according to the community and religious affiliations. Some families prefer public visitations followed by a private or graveside service with a memorial service later at the church or funeral home.

Pallbearers
Friends, relatives, church members or business associates may be asked to serve as pallbearers. The funeral director will secure pallbearers if requested to do so by the family.


Honorary pallbearers
When the deceased has been active in political, business, church or civic circles, it may be appropriate for the family to request close associates of the deceased to serve as honorary pallbearers. They do not actively carry the casket.

Eulogy
A member of the family, clergy, a close personal friend or a business associate of the deceased, may give a eulogy. The eulogy is not to be lengthy, but should offer praise and commendation and reflect the life of the person who has died.

Dress code
Wearing colorful clothing is no longer inappropriate for relatives and friends. Persons attending a funeral should be dressed in good taste so as to show dignity and respect for the family and the occasion.

Funeral process/cortege
When the funeral ceremony and the burial are both held within the local area, friends and relatives might accompany the family to the cemetery. The procession is formed at the funeral home or place of worship. The funeral director can advise you of the traffic regulations and procedures to follow while driving in a funeral procession.

Condolences
The time of death is a very confusing time for family members. No matter what your means of expressing your sympathy, it is important to clearly identify yourself to the family.

Flowers
Sending a floral tribute is a very appropriate way of expressing sympathy to the family of the deceased. Flowers express a feeling of life and beauty and offer much comfort to the family. A floral tribute can either be sent to the funeral home or the residence. If sent to the residence, usually a planter or a small vase of flowers indicating a person's continued sympathy for the family is suggested. The florist places an identification card on the floral tribute. At the funeral home the cards are removed from the floral tributes and given to the family so they may acknowledge the tributes sent.

Mass cards
Mass cards can be sent either by Catholic or non-Catholic friends. The offering of prayers is a valued expression of sympathy to a Catholic family. A card indicating that a Mass for the deceased has been arranged may be obtained from any Catholic parish. In some areas, it is possible to obtain Mass cards at the funeral home. The Mass offering card or envelope is given to the family as an indication of understanding, faith and compassion. Make sure that your name and address is legible and that you list your postal code. This will make it easier for the family to acknowledge your gift.

Memorial donations
A memorial contribution, to a specific cause or charity, can be appreciated as flowers. A large number of memorial funds are available, however the family may have expressed a preference. Memorial donations provide financial support for various projects. If recognized as a charitable institution, some gifts may be deductible for tax purposes. Your funeral director is familiar with them and can explain each option, as well as furnish the donor with "In Memoriam" cards, which are given to the family.

Sympathy cards and notes
Sending a card of sympathy, even if you are only an acquaintance, is appropriate. It means so much to the family members to know they are in good thoughts. The card should be in good taste and in keeping with your relationship to the family of the deceased.  Express yourself openly and sincerely. An expression such as "I'm sorry to learn of your personal loss" is welcomed by the family and can be kept with other messages.

Whilst it is convenient and easy to send an email, the formality and effort of a hand written note reflects more sincerely your feeling for the gravity of the moment.

Telephone call
Speaking to a family member gives you an opportunity to offer your services and make them feel you really care. If they wish to discuss their recent loss, don't hesitate to talk to the person about the deceased. Be a good listener.

Visitation
Your presence at the visitation demonstrates that although someone has died, friends still remain. Your presence is an eloquent statement that you care.

Visitation provides a time and place for friends to offer their expression of sorrow and sympathy, rather than awkwardly approaching the subject at the office, supermarket or social activities. The obituary/death notice will designate the hours of visitation when the family will be present and will also designate the times when special services such as lodge services or prayer services may be held. Persons may call at the funeral home at any time during suggested hours of the day or evening to pay respects, even though the family is not present. Friends and relatives are requested to sign the register book. A person's full name should be listed. If the person is a business associate, it is proper to list their affiliation, as the family may not be familiar with their relationship to the deceased.

Friends should use their own judgment on how long they should remain at the funeral home or place of visitation. If they feel their presence is needed, they should offer to stay.

When the funeral service is over, the survivors often feel very alone in dealing with their feelings. It is important that they know you are still there. Keep in touch.

Sympathy Expressions
When a person calls at the funeral home, clasping hands, an embrace, or a simple statement of condolence can express sympathy, such as:

  • "I'm sorry."
  • "My sympathy to you."
  • "It was good to know John."
  • "John was a fine person and a friend of mine. He will be missed."
  • "My sympathy to your mother."

The family member in return may say:

  • "Thanks for coming."
  • "John talked about you often."
  • "I didn't realize so many people cared."
  • "Come see me when you can."

 Encourage the bereaved to express their feelings and thoughts, but don't overwhelm them.

Acknowledgements
The family should acknowledge the flowers and messages sent by relatives and friends. When food and personal services are donated, these thoughtful acts also should be acknowledged, as should the services of the pallbearers. The funeral director may have available printed acknowledgement cards that can be used by the family. When the sender is well known to the family, a short personal note should be written on the acknowledgment card expressing appreciation for a contribution or personal service received. The note can be short, such as:

  • "Thank you for the beautiful roses. The arrangement was lovely.
  • "The food you sent was so enjoyed by our family. Your kindness is deeply appreciated."

 In some communities it is a practice to insert a public thank you in the newspaper. The funeral director can assist you with this.

Children at funerals
At a very early age, children have an awareness of and a response to death. Children should be given the option to attend visitation and the funeral service. The funeral director can advise you on how to assist children at the time of a funeral and can provide you with additional information and literature. For more information, refer to our section on “Helping Children Understand Death”.

Grief recovery
It is healthy to recognize death and discuss it realistically with friends and relatives. When a person dies, there is grief that needs to be shared. Expressions of sympathy and the offering of yourself to help others following the funeral are welcomed. It is important that we share our grief with one another. Your local funeral director can help family and friends locate available resources and grief recovery programs in your area.