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 November 1

by Karen Purze

Earlier this year, two people in one month asked me what to do if someone dies at home. One of them was my husband. His mother died in February and he asked me for advice on what to do first.

A few weeks later, a friend’s father died at home. Same question: who should I call when someone dies at home? It’s a pretty common question, as more Americans now die at home than in hospitals.

I had similar questions when we were anticipating my father’s death. In that case, we had support from a hospice team who gave us advice and guidance ahead of time. We knew to call the hospice nurse, and not 911 when my father died. (I’ll explain why in a minute.) The hospice team was then able to arrange for their doctor to pronounce the death.

If the person who died was not on hospice, you’ll have to get the death pronounced (and that has to happen before the body is removed from the home.) In some areas, morticians are deputy coroners and can also pronounce the death. If you haven’t made arrangments with a funeral home, start with a call to 911.

Before you call 911, find the DNR (a Do Not Resuscitate order), if the person had one. This is important because paramedics may attempt CPR if they don’t have a DNR (laws and norms vary by state.) If the person is already dead, this can be very disturbing. Be prepared to hand the paramedics this important document when they arrive. In addition to locating the DNR for my mother-in-law, we also removed her jewelry and put it in a safe location before the paramedics arrived.

When you call 911, emphasize that you are not calling about an emergency. It was shocking for me to think about it this way. It may feel like an emergency but death is not a medical emergency. Explain to the dispatcher that you need to have a death pronounced.

In summary, if someone dies at home, call the hospice team if the person who died was in hospice care. If not, call a funeral home (if you know which one you’ll use) or 911 (but do a little preparation first.)

It’s not unusual for a family to be unprepared for the practical tasks that need to be taken care of right away when someone dies. I’m sorry if you’re in this situation. If you’d like to more information, check out this post with practical preparations if you’re anticipating a death or this one on what to do first when someone dies.

Take Care,

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About the author

Karen Purze is the author of Life In Motion: A Guide for Gathering Life’s Vital Details, a workbook to help people get their affairs in order. She is currently working on a memoir about her caregiving experience. Sign up for the Life in Motion Guide newsletter to be the first to hear more!

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