Overview

Immediately after a death several steps need to be undertaken to:
  • ensure a medical practitioner declares the death;
  • determine if the deceased person wished to be part of an organ and/or tissue donor program;
  • determine if the body can be kept at the morgue or needs to be transferred to a funeral home immediately;
  • ensure the deceased person’s body is washed and stored appropriately;
  • decide whether to allow family and relatives the opportunity to visit the deceased person; and
  • inform relevant parties of any religious or other customary wishes.

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1.1 Location of the Death

The three most common locations of a death are:

1.1.1 Death at Home

Call Emergency Services on triple zero ‘000’ immediately if your loved one has passed away unexpectedly, if you are unsure if the person is still alive or if you suspect a medical emergency.

If the person’s death was expected, call the treating doctor to request a visit as soon as possible. If there was no General Practitioner (GP) treating the deceased, the police should be called.

Depending on the location of the death, the family’s wishes and any pre-paid funeral arrangements, you may not want to engage a Funeral Director for another day or two until you better understand the situation. For more information read Step 1.2 below.

A Doctor will need to establish the cause of death and complete a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death outlined in Step 1.3 below.

If the natural cause of death cannot be established by the medical practitioner, the Coroner will need to get involved. For more information read Step 1.5 below.

Only once the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death was completed can a Funeral Director be engaged. (see Step 6 – Organise Transportation of the Body)

1.1.2 Death at a Nursing Home or Hospital

Most Australians die in a nursing home or hospital where staff are well prepared and trained. Nursing home and hospital staff will in most cases be able to provide further details on the immediate requirements.

After the death at a nursing home or hospital, the body will ultimately be transferred to a funeral home. Sometimes a funeral director is not immediately engaged, and the nursing home or hospital may allow to leave the body in a mortuary for an agreed duration if available. For more information read Step 1.3 below.

A Doctor will need to establish the cause of death and complete a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death outlined in Step 1.3 below.

If the natural cause of death cannot be established by the medical practitioner, the Coroner will get involved. For more information read Step 1.5 below.

Only once the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death was completed can a Funeral Director be engaged. (see Step 6 – Organise Transportation of the Body)

1.1.3 Death in Regional and Rural Australia

In Regional and Rural Australia, organising a medical practitioner to determine the cause of death, transporting the body and completing the necessary documents to notify the State/Territory’s Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages may be more challenging due to distances and more limited access to medical practitioners.

Your local health district should be able to provide advice and information for your specific circumstance and if the death was expected, specific procedures may have already been put in place beforehand.

A Doctor will need to establish the cause of death and complete a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death outlined in Step 1.3 below.

If the natural cause of death cannot be established by the medical practitioner, the Coroner will get involved. For more information read Step 1.5 below.

Only once the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death was completed can a Funeral Director be engaged. (see Step 6 – Organise Transportation of the Body)

1.2 The Deceased Person’s Body

It is important to remember that you do not need to engage a Funeral Director immediately but can take a few hours or even a day or two to better understand if pre-arranged funeral insurance or pre-paid funeral plans are in place and what arrangements you want to make.

After the death at home, a nursing home or hospital, the body will ultimately be transferred to a funeral home. Sometimes a Funeral Director is not immediately engaged if pre-arranged funeral insurance or pre-paid funeral plans are in place. For more information read Step 4 – Locate the Will & Insurance Information.

While you find out the necessary details before engaging a Funeral Director, you and your family may want to have the deceased person at home for religious, ethnic or cultural reasons. The body can be safely kept at home unembalmed and unrefrigerated for up to 24 hours after death.

The body can be kept by an unlicensed person or facility for up to five days after the death in NSW and WA. It is required to place the body in a coffin, container or tray that ensures bodily discharges, contaminants or infectious materials are confided to the enclosure and storing the body at 5 degrees Celsius or lower.

If the death occurred at a nursing home or hospital, these may also allow to leave the body in a mortuary for an agreed duration if available.

The Chief Health Officer in WA or the Director General in NSW may approve in particular circumstances a body being retained for longer than 5 days, subject to any conditions considered appropriate.

While the body is in the custody of a Funeral Director, the body may at any time be unrefrigerated for a maximum of 8 hours if not embalmed.

1.3 Medical Certificate of Cause of Death

The Medical Certificate of Cause of Death as referred to on this website may also be called a Cause of Death Certificate in Queensland or a Doctor’s Certificate of Cause of Death in South Australia.

A registered nurse, paramedic or medical practitioner will be able to declare the death and pronounce the date and time of death. Unless the need to involve the Coroner, as outlined in Step 1.5 below, a Doctor will issue a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death. Depending on the relevant State/Territory the following applies:

New South Wales (NSW) – Sydney change State

The Doctor will give notice to the State’s Registry for Births, Deaths and Marriages within 48 hours of the death.

The Funeral Director should also give notice of the deceased to the State’s Registry for Births, Deaths and Marriages within 7 days of the burial or cremation.

Relevant Legislation

BIRTHS, DEATHS AND MARRIAGES REGISTRATION ACT 1995 (NSW) Section 39 and 41 (Austl.) (accessed 5/4/2021)
Victoria (VIC) – Melbourne change State

The Doctor will give notice to the State’s Registry for Births, Deaths and Marriages and provide a copy to the Funeral Director within 48 hours of the death.

The Funeral Director should also give notice of the deceased to the State’s Registry for Births, Deaths and Marriages within 7 days of the burial or cremation.

Relevant Legislation

BIRTHS, DEATHS AND MARRIAGES REGISTRATION ACT 1996 (VIC) Sections 37 and 39 (Austl.) (accessed 5/4/2021)
Queensland (QLD) – Brisbane change State

The Doctor will provide the original Medical Certificate of Cause of Death to the Funeral Director or to the State’s Registry for Births, Deaths and Marriages and provide a copy to the Funeral Director within two working days of the death.

Relevant Legislation

BIRTHS, DEATHS AND MARRIAGES REGISTRATION ACT 2003 (QLD) Section 30 (Austl.) (accessed 5/4/2021)

1.4 Organ and Tissue Donation

If the deceased made wishes to donate their organs and/or tissue it is important to have made certain decisions before the death or immediately after the death. Organs need to be removed as soon as possible prior to being damaged.

Make sure you find out if such wishes were made in the Will (for more information read Step 4 – Locate the Will & Insurance Information) or if the deceased person is registered in the Australian Organ Donor Register. This can be checked by authorised medical staff anytime online.

Organ donation always needs consent by the family and cannot be authorised by the Executor nominated in the Will, hence this should be discussed with the immediate family and agreed ideally before the death or immediately after.

Around 1,400 people in Australia are on the Australian Organ Transplant waiting list at any given time. In 2017 organ donors and their families gave 1,402 recipients a new chance in life, which is a tremendous gift.

For further information visit the Services Australia (formerly Human Services) website.

1.5 Investigation by the Coroner

The Doctor examining the deceased to ascertain the cause of death may not be able to issue a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death if the death appears to have:
  • been unexpected, unnatural or violent;
  • resulted, directly or indirectly, from an accident of injury; or
  • occurred during a medical procedure.

In these cases, the Coroner will be involved to investigate the death and may require an autopsy (also referred to as post-mortem examination) or a Coroner’s inquest to determine the cause of death.

Under these circumstances a death cannot be registered with the State/Territory’s Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages until the cause of death is established. The Coroner may however, issue an interim death certificate to allow you to hold the funeral and start with the deceased estate administration.

A police officer or another representative of the Coroner will collect information and organise transportation of the deceased person’s body. Religious, ethnic or cultural wishes may be considered if discussed immediately.


Complete Step

Actions and Decisions to Complete Step Yourself

If you have decided to tackle this Step yourself after reading and understanding the above, you may want to:

  1. Call the treating Doctor or the Police
    (see Step 1.1 above);
  2. Ensure the deceased person’s body is washed and stored appropriately
    (see Step 1.2 above);
  3. Decide if you will keep the deceased person’s body at home or in a morgue for the duration allowed until you find out about pre-arranged funeral, pre-paid funeral or funeral insurance in the Will, or engage a Funeral Director immediately
    (see Step 1.2 above);
  4. Decide if you will allow viewing or visiting of the deceased person’s body; and
  5. Inform the relevant persons who are dealing with the deceased person’s body about any religious or customary wishes that should be taken into consideration
    (see Step 1.2 above);
  6. Organise a registered nurse, paramedic or medical practitioner to declare the death
    (see Step 1.3 above); and
  7. Discuss and agree with the family to donate organs or tissue as per the deceased person’s wishes
    (see Step 1.4 above).

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Information

Forms

Legislation

New South Wales (NSW) – Sydney change State
Victoria (VIC) – Melbourne change State
Queensland (QLD) – Brisbane change State

Cost & Effort

Reading: 10 mins
Completing: 50 mins
Total: 1 hr
Cost: $0

Effort and cost are general estimates only and are based on the assumption that you complete this step without experienced support.

Instructions

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Glossary

To find out what the capitalised words mean, access the glossary here.

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Forms

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Legislation & Rules

Medical Certificate of Cause of Death in NSW

BIRTHS, DEATHS AND MARRIAGES REGISTRATION ACT 1995 (NSW) Section 39 and 41 (Austl.) (accessed 5/4/2021)

Medical Certificate of Cause of Death in VIC

BIRTHS, DEATHS AND MARRIAGES REGISTRATION ACT 1996 (VIC) Sections 37 and 39 (Austl.) (accessed 5/4/2021)

Medical Certificate of Cause of Death in QLD

BIRTHS, DEATHS AND MARRIAGES REGISTRATION ACT 2003 (QLD) Section 30 (Austl.) (accessed 5/4/2021)

Other legislation and rules not listed here may apply to your specific circumstances.


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