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Death in hospital: What to expect


If your next of kin dies in hospital or a care home, here are the procedures you can expect to undergo.

doctor patient

The majority of deaths in the UK occur in hospitals or nursing homes

Trained staff will be on hand to provide you with emotional support, and help guide you through the administrative procedures.

If you're the named next of kin, you'll be informed by staff, and asked to formally identify the deceased.

If the cause of death has yet to be confirmed, the hospital may request a post-mortem examination, which requires your permission.

You have the right to refuse, but be aware that if a post-mortem examination is later ordered by a coroner, it won't require your consent.

The body will be laid out in the hospital mortuary, from where it can be collected by whoever you choose. This will usually be the funeral directors, but could also be the family or other close acquaintances.

If the person had any belongings, you may be asked to sign documents so that they may be transferred to you.

Medical certificate


A hospital doctor will need to issue you with a medical certificate, which confirms the cause of death. This is required before a death can be formally registered.

It'll be handed to you in a sealed envelope, which is addressed to the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. How to register the death will be explained to you by a member of staff.

If the body is to be cremated, it has to be examined separately by two doctors.

The doctor who attended to the person in the first instance must sign a medical form, and a registered practitioner who's neither a partner nor related to the first doctor signs a confirmatory medical certificate.

Referrals to the coroner

hospital ward

In some instances, the doctor or hospital staff may not be able to issue a medical certificate stating the cause of death.

This can happen for a number of reasons, including where the death is unexpected or the cause isn't immediately obvious. In these cases, the death may be referred to the coroner.

The coroner’s officer will keep you informed about when you can register the death.

A post-mortem examination may be ordered by the coroner.

This doesn't require your consent, although you should inform staff if you have any strong objection otherwise, such as religious reasons.

If the examination shows that the death was due to natural causes, a notification will be issued so that it can be registered.

This notification will usually be sent to the registrar, but it may also be given to you in order to register the death.

Organ donation or medical research

heart with medical sign on it

The desire to donate organs or the whole body to medical science may have been expressed by the deceased. If so, hospital or care home staff should be informed as soon as possible.

In the case of organ donation, the deceased’s wishes can be confirmed if they appear on the NHS Organ Donor Register, are carrying a donor card, or plans for donation have previously been discussed with family.

Hospitals and care homes will have different policies for dealing with donation. Some hospital staff may even request organ donation if no desire had been expressed by the deceased, if they feel others may be saved this way.

Nonetheless, relatives will still be asked for consent before donation – regardless of whether the deceased expressed a desire to donate or not. You're perfectly within your rights to decline.

In the case of donation of the entire body for medical research, in England and Wales the Human Tissue Authority should be contacted, who'll advise as to the next steps.

The body may not be suitable. But if it is, then the burial or cremation will be organised by the medical school following the research.

If you’ve never really given this issue much thought, but feel you should, read the NHS’s organ and tissue donation page.


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