Immediately after the death

Whether the death of your family member or close friend was expected or whether it was sudden, you’ll be finding this a time of shock, grief and adjustment to a whole new set of circumstances. There are, however, some steps that must be undertaken just after the death.

Practical advice

Our most practical piece of advice is to buy yourself a large exercise book in which you can write notes about phone calls, what people have told you (because you’re shocked you’ll find that you may forget things easily), ideas that you might have for the funeral or reminders to do things.

It’s also a good place to record phone numbers and any addresses you might need. Stick in business cards of, say, the funeral director, the funeral celebrant, minister or priest; the estate’s lawyer; and any other person you come in contact with at this time.

You’ll find this book to be invaluable as you work your way through all the arrangements that have to be made in the coming days, weeks and months.

Telling people

You’ll want to make sure the appropriate people are told of the death. Usually this is done by family, but sometimes people prefer either the executor of the estate to do this, or the estate’s lawyer. As a guide, the people you may need to contact include:

  • Doctor to issue the medical certificate of cause of death.
  • Family and friends. If you feel comfortable with this, email and social media can be useful for the wider circle of friends and relatives.
  • Funeral director
  • Their lawyer. If you’re not sure who this is, their lawyer’s name will be on the Will.
  • The executors of the Will
  • People or organisations making a regular payment to the person's bank account, eg: their employer, Work and Income or other superannuation payer.
  • Neighbours.
  • Business associates.
  • Bank. Once you notify the bank of the death, the person‘s accounts will be frozen.

The legal bits

You’ll need to get a medical certificate of cause of death signed by a doctor.  If the death was in hospital, this will be arranged with the medical staff. If the death was at home, for example, you should call their doctor who will arrange for this to be done. A medical certificate of cause of death is a
legal requirement for cremation or burial. The estate’s lawyer also needs this certificate, so remember to get it to them as soon as you can. (It’s also worth getting your lawyer to certify several copies of the certificate, as you may need it for things later on.)

You’ll need to call a funeral director. You may already know of a funeral home or ask other people for a recommendation. Alternatively you can Google funeral directors – there’s usually quite a lot of choice.

You’ll need to check the Will or separate funeral instructions for any funeral requirements, including whether a burial or cremation is requested. Many people are quite specific about what they want for their funeral, how they want their body dealt with (there may be cultural or religious requirements), who
should be notified and the form of service (whether it’s religious or secular).  Often the instructions include details about hymns or songs to be sung, music to be played, right down to what they’d like to be dressed in.

Even if you think you already know their wishes about their funeral, do check personal papers in their home and also with their lawyer. Sometimes funeral directions have been found in the oddest of places (wardrobes, tax files, etc), so without turning the house over, do have a good look. It’s comforting to know that you’ve been able to carry out their wishes for this most important farewell.


The executors are named in the Will. It’s their job to administer the estate and carry out the terms of the Will. They should be informed as soon as possible about the death as they have specific responsibilities for the assets of the estate.

After the funeral, the estate’s lawyer will be in touch with the executors so they can read through the Will and familiarise themselves with its contents.


The funeral director

The funeral director is, in effect, the master of ceremonies for the funeral. He or she will look after not only the legal requirements such as applying for the certified death certificate, but also the way the funeral is arranged.

Although the funeral director can run the entire funeral from start to finish, these days most families and close friends want to be involved. The lists below may help you with who does what.

The funeral director:

  • Collects the person from the place of death.
  • Ensures the medical certificate of cause of death has been completed.
  • Organises the cremation or burial details.
  • Orders a coffin.
  • Carries out the embalming, if required.
  • Organises transport to and from the funeral and to the cemetery or crematorium.
  • Arranges the funeral service, if required.
  • Arranges any function afterwards, if requested.

Before you see your chosen funeral director you may want to think about the family’s preferences for a funeral and, more importantly, the choices of the person who has just died.

The family or close friends can help with:

  • Guiding the funeral director and the funeral celebrant on any cultural or religious requirements or wishes.
  • Talking with the funeral celebrant, minister or priest about the location, day, time and type of funeral that’s required.
  • Drafting the death notice for the daily newspapers and emailing (to help prevent spelling errors) to the funeral director who will arrange placement.
  • You may want to consider asking for donations to a favourite charity rather than people sending flowers. This information goes into the death notice and online tribute page.
  • Writing a eulogy or asking people to speak at the funeral.
  • Organising and/or arranging the flowers for the coffin and the funeral venue.
  • Choosing music (songs, hymns, processional music, background music, etc).
  • Writing the order of service in conjunction with the priest or celebrant, and getting it designed and printed.
  • Selecting photographs or memorabilia for a slideshow during the funeral, for the order of service, or to place on top of the coffin. Children or grandchildren may like to write a letter or place a special memento into the coffin.
  • Choosing pallbearers.
  • Arranging the function afterwards. This is sometimes held in the church hall, in the funeral director’s premises or at a relative’s home.

Paying for the funeral

Many people establish a special funeral trust that will pay for their funeral expenses. Others may have ensured that there are sufficient funds on hand in a savings account to pay for their funeral.

Some people, however, have simply enjoyed their lives and have given little thought to their funeral or how it will be paid for. In most cases, their estate will have sufficient funds to pay for the funeral after probate is granted. If there are genuinely no funds available to pay for a funeral, family members
may want to chip in or the executors can apply to Work and Income for a funeral grant. If the death is the result of an accident, you can apply to ACC for a funeral grant.

If the person who has died had a SuperGoldCard, funeral directors in some locations offer a discount, although certain conditions apply. See for more details.

If you’re unsure how the funeral will be paid for, talk to the funeral director or to the estate’s lawyer. They will be able to give you some good advice.

Funeral costs

There are three main areas of cost for a funeral:

  1. Professional fee paid to the funeral director: this covers fixed overheads of receiving instructions, use of facilities, embalming (if required), use of vehicles such as a hearse, liaison with doctors for the medical certificate of cause of death, making arrangements with the crematorium or cemetery, etc.
    (The funeral director will register the death with the Department of Internal Affairs and will apply for a certified death certificate.)
  2. Expenses paid on behalf of the family: These can include the cost of the medical certificate of cause of death, death notices in newspapers, flowers, catering, order of service sheets and so on.
  3. Coffin (or casket). There is a wide range of coffins available made from the cheaper MDF to the more expensive models of solid wood; or you could decide on an eco-coffin. The funeral director will be able to guide you on this.

There are ways to rationalise funeral costs if you’re prepared to do some of the work yourself. For example, you can organise the flowers, arrange the order of service and the catering for the function afterwards.

We do, however, recommend that you liaise early on with the funeral director to ensure that it’s clear who is responsible for which arrangements. You don’t want to inadvertently double up, nor do you want to make an assumption that something has been done and it hasn’t.

Securing and caring for the home/business

It’s very important that the home of the person who has died is secure. This should be done as soon as possible after their death. The house should be checked by the family, or the executors, to ensure that what is probably the estate’s major asset is safe and looked after.

If the property is now empty you’ll need to:

  • Check all windows are closed, and the property is locked.
  • Remove all valuables such as jewellery to a safe place, and notify the estate’s lawyer of the location. You’ll need to list all those valuables removed from the house, and this list should be given to the executors.
  • Turn off hot water and unnecessary appliances such as the TV and computer (not the refrigerator!).
  • You may want to put a timer on for several inside lights so it looks as though the property is occupied.
  • If there’s a burglar alarm, make sure it’s turned on. If the alarm isn’t monitored, you may want to consider contacting the alarm company to arrange monitoring in the meantime.
  •  Newspaper deliveries should be stopped.
  • Contact NZ Post to ensure the mail is redirected; also ask a neighbour to clear the box regularly of advertising material and community newspapers.
  • Arrange for the lawns to be mowed regularly and the garden looked after.
  • Pets will need to be rehoused. Remember to take their pet food from the house.
  • Check whether any bills are falling due such as rates, insurance, etc and arrange for appropriate invoices to be paid. Talk to the estate’s lawyer about this, as these become an estate expense. Alternatively a family member can pay the invoices, and the estate can reimburse them later.
  • Notify the insurance company to say the house is unoccupied, and that the valuables have been removed to a safe location. The insurance company may want to have a list of valuables.
  • You may also want to arrange for the house to be temporarily occupied by a relative or short-term tenant so it’s kept well-aired and cared for. Check first with the executors before making arrangements.

Some families arrange for a security guard to be at the property on the day of the funeral. It’s not unknown for would-be thieves to check the daily death notices and burgle houses during a funeral.

Working life

If the person who has died was in paid employment, their desk will need to be cleared and their personal items removed from their workplace. Their employer should pay any annual leave and other entitlements to the estate.

It may also be necessary to ensure that businesses are looked after. Is there a trusted employee who can keep things going in the short term, or will it be necessary for someone to step in quickly to pay wages/bills, talk to suppliers/customers and so on?

There’s a great deal to do after the death of a family member or a close friend. Don’t worry too much about the Will or the legal side of things at this stage. Spend your time to secure their home, keep in touch with the executors, organise the funeral to reflect their wishes and give them a good send-off.


Please contact Tina McLennan or Jo McLennan for more information.