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Information for bereaved people: procedures and paperwork

After any sudden death there will usually be a number of procedures that need to be followed by the authorities. These procedures are likely to involve you at differing levels, and in different ways.

Procedures vary in different countries, so this guidance doesn't attempt to give you a detailed description of what will happen in your country. However, this guidance does outline procedures that are likely to occur in many countries.

It is worth being aware that procedures can cause varying degrees of additional stress for suddenly bereaved people. This is because these procedures are often new to them, and happening at the worst time of their lives. Reading the below information may help you prepare for these procedures and reduce this stress.

1. Organ and tissue donation

Organ and tissue donation saves lives and radically improves lives. However, in some countries, organ and tissue donation from a dead body cannot happen without the permission of a close relative, or doesn't happen unless specifically requested by a close relative.

Some emergency service and medical staff may be nervous about talking to suddenly bereaved people about organ and tissue donation. Some suddenly bereaved people have in the past not been offered the opportunity to consider organ and tissue donation from their dead loved one's body, and then later regretted that this didn't happen, because they weren't asked, and they didn't think of it themselves because of the shock they were suffering. Other suddenly bereaved people don't wish to consider it for cultural or other reasons.

Some people think that organ and tissue donation is only possible if a person dies in hospital after a period on a life support machine. This isn't true. Regardless of where someone died, it may be possible to transplant certain parts of the body still, such as skin or the cornea of an eye. Such transplants can transform the lives of burns victims and people with impaired sight.

If you wish to consider organ and tissue donation, tell medical staff as soon as possible.

2. Post-mortem examinations and inquests

The purpose of a post-mortem examination is to establish the cause of death by studying the body. In cases where it is possible someone caused the death, the post-mortem examination also looks for any forensic evidence that may be useable in a court of law. Post-mortem examinations are usually carried out by a pathologist; a specialist doctor trained in studying dead bodies.

In many countries, post-mortem examiniations are invasive. This means that the body is opened up to find out what happened to the body's systems in the final moments of life. This means studying parts of the body such as major organs like the heart or lungs. If you don't want the body to be opened up for investigation it may be possible, particularly in cases where it is clear that no-one else caused the death, for a non-invasive autopsy to be carried out. However, this depends on the rules of your country and is not always possible.

In some countries, the post-mortem examiniation is followed by a court case called an inquest. Generally, the purpose of an inquest is not to determine the guilt of any individuals or companies and sentence those individuals or companies. Rather, it is a fact-finding investigation to determine in a court setting the cause of death, and anything that could have been done differently to stop the death happening, and that could stop similar deaths in the future. 

In many countries it is increasingly understood that people bereaved by sudden death often want to understand what is happening during an inquest, and that the rights of suddenly bereaved people to information and support during an inquest are very important.

If you are not sure where to obtain information and support during an inquest, you should talk to the police or the prosecuting authority.

3. Criminal investigation by the police and criminal court cases and sentences  

If there is any possibility that someone else caused a death, there is usually a police investigation. The purpose of a police investigation is to collect evidence. Evidence is then usually considered by a separate prosecuting authority, which decides whether or not there is enough evidence to bring a successful prosecution of one or more people using criminal law. If the prosecuting authority thinks there is enough evidence, then one or more people will be charged with a criminal offence. If they plead guilty they will usually be sentenced by a judge in a court. If they plead not guilty they will usually be put on trial. If someone is found guilty and sentenced, they often have the right to appeal against the verdict or the sentence. This means an additional hearing in court.

Criminal court cases involve lawyers acting on behalf of the prosecuting authority, and lawyers acting on behalf of the person accused of any offence, who is often called the "defendant". The lawyers acting on behalf of the prosecuting authority are generally not acting on behalf of you; they act on behalf of your country and the laws of that country. However, in many countries it is increasingly understood that people bereaved by sudden death often want to understand what is happening during criminal prosecutions and court cases, and that the rights of suddenly bereaved people to information and support during these processes are very important.

If you are not sure where to obtain information and support during a criminal prosecution or court case, you should talk to the police or the prosecuting authority.

4. Claims for compensation

In some countries, it is possible for certain suddenly bereaved people to claim compensation. For example, following a road death, or a death in the workplace.

In some countries, this compensation is paid automatically by a government agency.

In other countries, this compensation is decided through a legal process and is only possible if someone else can be found to have been liable for the death. Usually the liable person's insurance company pays (for example, their motor insurer if it was a road death, or liability insurer if it was a death in the workplace).

If you think you may be due compensation, and compensation in your country is decided through a legal process, it is important to hire an appropriately qualified and experienced lawyer. There may be a variety of ways to pay your lawyer; you do not necessarily need the funds in advance to hire a lawyer. It should be possible to consult several lawyers for free, in order to find the best one for you.

Make sure the lawyer you hire has a track record of working successfully on similar cases to yours, and has a financial agreement with you that you can understand and that is fair, and won't result in you giving an unreasonably large amount of your compensation to them.

5. The media  

Some suddenly bereaved people welcome media attention, because it helps highlight an important issue in the media. For example, some families bereaved by drunk drivers want the public to understand the consequences of drink driving. Other families want to be left alone by the media, and to have their privacy respected.

If you want media attention, it may help to consider carefully what you want to say, so you don't regret anything you say. It can help to write things down in advance. You may want to choose with care a photograph of your dead loved one that you release to the media, considering how they may have wished to be remembered. You may wish to consider whether you want to release a statement to the media, or do print, radio or TV interviews.

It is worth being aware that some broadcast interviews are pre-recorded and it is possible therefore to edit things out. Other broadcast interviews are live. It is also worth noting that you might like particular journalists, and not get along so well with other journalists.Some print journalists might want to visit you in your home, or talk to you on the phone. 

You can choose what you do or don't do. It may help to reflect on whether you will find interviews too stressful or not. It is important at this time to consider your needs first and foremost.

6. Telling other people about the death 

There may be lots of people who, over time, need to be informed about the death by you. In some countries, you may need to register the death with the State. You may also be in charge of ensuring that money or property owned by the dead person are given to the right people in accordance with any laws or in accordance with a will the dead person wrote. You may also need to inform banks, insurers, employers, schools and pension providers.

These jobs are often time-consuming and exhausting for suddenly bereaved people. If you have lots of these jobs then it can feel over-whelming. It may help to write lists, prioritise, and spread the work over many days. Not everything will need doing at once, and it may be better to focus on just one or two tasks a day.

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Copyright: Brake 2013