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After someone dies

Not many people have been around someone who has just died. You may not know what to expect or what to do. It may be helpful to understand what happens when a person dies.

Physical signs of death

The body changes after death. Physical signs that a person has died include:

  • They stop breathing or do not have a pulse.
  • They do not respond when touched or spoken to.
  • The skin will feel cool to the touch.
  • The skin colour will become pale and waxen.
  • The eyes do not move or blink and the pupils are enlarged (dilated). The eyelids may be slightly open.
  • The jaw relaxes and the mouth may open slightly. Saliva may come out of the mouth.
  • The body may empty the bowel or bladder.
  • The muscles will stiffen in the hours after death (rigor mortis).

After a person dies

There is no need to rush or hurry with arrangements after a person dies. For some time after death, caregivers and family members may want to sit with their loved one, talk to them one last time, say their goodbyes or pray. It’s okay to touch and hug loved ones after they die. It’s also okay to gently close the eyelids if they’re still open and you’d feel more comfortable if they were shut. Some people find they want to tidy up around the room or around the bed, and this is fine, too.

Sometimes a person’s culture will affect what happens after death and how the body is handled. Some cultures have beliefs about who can prepare the body and how soon the body should be buried or cremated. There may be other religious, spiritual or cultural rituals that need to be followed at this time.

Once you’re ready, follow the guidelines provided by the palliative healthcare team, such as contacting the person’s doctor, appropriate authorities or the funeral home.

Practical issues after death

Some of the practical issues that need to be dealt with after a person dies include:

  • notifying the funeral home
  • acting on the final arrangements, according to the person’s wishes:
    • arranging for burial or cremation
    • organizing service or memorial arrangements
  • writing and placing an obituary
  • meeting with the person’s lawyer or executor


Dr Jessie Lee-McIsaac Preventing cancer through healthy living school policies

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