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.

The body changes after death. Physical signs that someone 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. It will become pale and waxy looking.
  • The eyes do not move or blink. The pupils are enlarged and 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.
  • In the hours after death, the muscles will start to stiffen (rigor mortis).

There is no need to rush or hurry with arrangements. You may want to sit with your loved one for a while, talk to them one last time, say your goodbyes or pray. It’s OK to touch and hug loved ones after they die. It’s also OK 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 you may wish to follow at this time.

Practical issues after death

Once you’re ready, follow the guidelines provided by the palliative team, such as calling a member of the healthcare team, the appropriate authorities or the funeral home.

You will need to arrange for a burial or cremation and carry out other final arrangements according to your loved one’s wishes. The funeral home can help organize a service or memorial and arrange for an obituary to be placed in the paper.

If you are the executor of the will, you will need to meet with your loved one’s lawyer about their will.

Expert review and references

  • The moments after a death. Canadian Virtual Hospice Team. Canadian Virtual Hospice. Canadian Virtual Hospice Executive Committee; 2010.
  • After a death - If you are a partner, relative or friend. Macmillan Cancer Support. Macmillan Cancer Support. London, UK: Macmillan Cancer Support; 2011.
  • Morris T . The Last Hours of Life – What to Expect . Hospice Peterborough ; 2010 .

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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