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What to Do When a Loved One Dies

This checklist could help you cope with practical tasks during an emotional time

"Ultimately, people need to follow their heart, mind and gut about making these decisions," says Patrick Lynch, past president of the National Funeral Directors Association and co-owner of Lynch and Sons Funeral Directors in Michigan. "You have to know what will make your heart heal as best as it can."

Choose a funeral home. Most people want a funeral home to transport the body from the morgue to its facility. The deceased may have identified which home to use — and even prepaid for funeral services. If there's been no conversation about arrangements, the choice will be up to the family. "Do some research," Lynch says. "Check with people who have had an experience with one."

Notify close friends and extended family. Make a list of as many people as you can. Find contacts through email accounts and personal telephone books. Contact an employer and organizations the deceased belonged to, if necessary.

Secure property. Lock up the person's home and vehicle. Is the car parked in a secure and legal area? Will the home be vacant? If so, you may want to notify the police (dial a non-emergency number), landlord or property manager. Have someone care for pets until a permanent arrangement is made.

Notify the post office. Use the forward mail option. This will prevent accumulating mail from attracting attention. It can also inform you about subscriptions, creditors and other accounts that need to be canceled. "That mail that comes in will be very valuable in tracking down what you may not have thought of. It can be a treasure trove of information," Hurme says.

To Do Before the Funeral

Meet with the director handling the funeral or memorial arrangements. Use instructions your loved one might have left and the earlier family discussion to guide the many decisions to be made.

  • Will the body be embalmed or cremated?
  • Will there be a casket, and if so, will it be open or closed?
  • If body will be cremated, will the ashes be scattered? If the ashes are deposited in an urn, will it be placed in a mausoleum?
  • Where is the burial site?
  • Do religious traditions need to be respected?
  • Will there be contributions to charities in lieu of flowers?

For a veteran, inquire about special arrangements. A range of benefits can help tailor a veteran's service. You may be able to get assistance with the funeral, burial plot or other benefits. You can find many details about options at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website (pdf). Or call Veterans Affairs at 1-800-827-1000 or your local veterans agency, often included in local government listings. You can also inquire about veteran's survivor benefits.

Next: Enlist help for the funeral. »

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