What to do When the Death Occurs at Home


First Things First

If your loved one has died at home under hospice care, which is becoming more and more common today, they will often help give you support during the initial death process. It is always important to talk to your hospice representatives ahead of time so that you know what to expect once the death has occurred and to help make it easier for them as well. Also, please be aware that the immediate removal of the body is not an emergency.

We highly encourage you to take your time with the body before proceeding to the next step, and assure you that you are in no immediate danger from it. Unless it is an exceedingly hot summer day (which, let's be honest, does happen) simply keeping the air conditioner on for the first 24 hours should suffice.

If you feel like it's necessary (or it makes you feel more comfortable), dry ice in VENTILATED bags/pillowcase placed near the head and torso will help slow down decomposition. Change the dry ice as needed. However, keep in mind that the easiest way to facilitate this is to know where you can pick this up ahead of time. Ice packs can always be substituted while obtaining the dry ice.

Paperwork. Paperwork. Paperwork.

Once you establish that the body is in a safe place you can begin to gather the information necessary for filling out paperwork.

The first thing you will need to complete to start the process is the Death Certificate (DC). Click here to see a sample DC. By law you must complete this within eight days. It will be divided into two parts; personal information and medical information. The attending doctor or another medical personnel must provide information about the death, including the date, time, and cause of death. The doctor/medical personnel must provide a valid medical license number on the death certificate and sign it.

Today the most common way to fill out a DC is via our Electronic Death Registration (EDRS). This is only accessible by hospitals or other health institutions, and funeral directors. Therefore assistance will be required from the Office of Vital Records in order to utilize it. Some offices will still provide paper-based documents, however be prepared for them to be adamant about only accepting the DC through EDRS. (If you are trying to do this without the assistance of a funeral home you may run into issues, talk to your hospice workers about whether or not this is something they can help you with.) Also, keep in mind that while filling out the DC they will ask for the name of the mortuary, but the name of the family member who will be directing the arrangements (if you choose not to use a funeral home) may be supplied instead. California Heath and Safety Code, Section 102875(a)(6) specifies that for disposition of the remains the "name of the funeral director, or person acting as such" be provided on the death certificate.

While filing out the DC keep in mind that you will more than likely need to order Certified Copies ($21 each) to close out bank accounts or apply for social security. Once the DC has been approved you can then ask for an Application for Disposition of Human Remains ($12), more commonly referred to as a Burial Permit. You will need to provide this to the crematory or funeral home you plan on working with, and it must be obtained before a burial or cremation is legally allowed to take place. Typically the funeral home you choose to work with will help facilitate this for you but if you plan on trying to do it yourself then it is important to know what is needed.

It is highly recommended that you check out Donna Belk's Home Funeral Checklist for more information on a home funeral in it's entirety plus the information needed to fill out the Death Certificate.

Choosing a Final Disposition

If the decedent had not made any prior wishes to their preference of disposition. It is our hope that taking the first 24 hours to be with the body undisturbed can provide you some clarity and time to think about what you would like to do. Feeling empowered and confident about this time can remove some of the pressure that people often feel to pick the first home they call because they think that time is pressing.

Don't forget, embalming is not required by law in the state of California. There is no pressure to feel that this is a service you have to use. However, it is important to note that certain funeral home may require it in order to hold an open casket/viewing so be sure to ask them what their policies are. If they tell you it is required for any of their services hang up immediately!

Links to Vital Record Offices

For a link to the Los Angeles County Office of Vital Records click here.

For a link to the Long Beach County Office of Vital Records click here.

For a link to the Pasadena Office of Vital Records click here.