We hope you find this information helpful.
Please contact us at any time if you cannot find answers to your queries here. If you have ideas for other information which could be helpful to others, or if you would like to discuss your options, whether you are newly bereaved, caring for someone who is imminently dying or just curious, we would be delighted to chat with you.
Laws about death & funerals in Scotland
In Scotland, a death must be registered with the Registrar of Births, Deaths & Marriages (at any Registrar’s office) within 8 days, and must be done before burial or cremation.
There are no other laws about dead bodies in Scotland.
- Nobody actually owns someone after their last breath.*
- There is no time limit after death within which someone has to be buried or cremated.
- You can keep someone at home between their last breath and their funeral.
- You can transport someone who has taken their last breath in any vehicle, as long as they are covered.
- You can make all the arrangements yourself for a burial or cremation** – with or without a funeral.
- You can bury someone who has died on land you own, with the permission of SEPA.
- Ashes from cremation can be scattered anywhere you like as long as you have the landowner’s permission.
PLEASE NOTE: The Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016 gives a legal hierarchy of who can arrange a funeral and the possibility to name the person one would like to arrange their funeral. In this legal hierarchy, spouse/partner comes above children. There is no legal form for naming who you wish to arrange your funeral – you need to sign a piece of paper declaring this, or you could use this form.
*The person named as the Executor in the Will of the deceased, or if there is no Will, the person most entitled to be appointed Executor, has the right to decide how the deceased is cared for. Very often, that person happens to be the closest family member.
** Some crematoria owned privately only accept cremations arranged by a funeral director.
Try this quiz to find out how much you know: After the Last Breath Quiz.
Body Care for Someone After Their Last Breath
In the days between death and burial or cremation, people have the option to care for someone after their last breath. Not much more than 60 years ago, this was the usual way. However, in our current society this often takes courage since it is not “the norm” and most people have lost the knowledge about how to do it.
Caring for someone yourself, even for 24 hours immediately after their last breath, can give you a breathing space to get advice and decide on the next steps, e.g. appointing a funeral director with an approach and cost that suits you.
If this feels right for you then it probably is, but you do not need to do it alone. Please remember there is help available – contact us on 0300 102 4444.
Most things you need for body care are everyday items – you can download a list of items we recommend here. If someone has been cared for at home, then it is very likely that the other items will already be in the house. If not, you can ask your community nurse to provide some of them. If someone has been in hospital, then ask the nurses for supplies before leaving.
The most important extra is a way of cooling the body – you can use bags of ice but this has a risk of leakage and we do not recommend it. We recommend cool packs as these are sealed and stay cool for longer. They are available from pharmacies or online sold as “reuseable gel packs”, “techni-ice” or “cool cubes”. Picnic blocks are available from most supermarkets.
Our Practical Care Booklet (A5) gives a useful summary of the main points (see leaflet section).
You can also find useful information from these organisations:
Immediately after someone's last breath at home
Here are points to guide you if you are with someone at home when they take their last breath. The main thing to remember is that there is no rush to do anything. Also, if you are in this situation there will often be nursing staff visiting the house who will be able to advise you.
- Note the time you noticed them stop breathing.
- STOP – take as much time as you need to do whatever you need to do. It’s not a time to “do the right thing”.
- When you are ready, preferably within a few hours, call the GP or out of hours service, who must visit to verify the death. Ask their approximate time of arrival.
- Don’t move the person’s body from the place of death, or remove any medical devices until their death has been verified.
- While you are waiting for verification of the death it is OK to:
- lay their body straight – their head can be elevated slightly
- close their mouth – pillow under their chin or a scarf around their head
- close their eyelids – place a bag of rice or a few damp tissues over them
- replace any dentures, using denture fixative
- place a continence pad under their pelvis if there is not already one there.
- Be prepared that rigor mortis (natural muscle stiffening) may start after about 3 hours, but more usually 6. It takes time to develop and will not be sudden.
- Make plans for washing/ dressing their body if you are going to do this – either do it yourself or get help from a community nurse or a funeral director. This is not always necessary, depending on when a person was last washed. For some people this is an important ritual, but does not necessarily need to happen immediately after death.
- Choose if and when you would like a funeral director to visit and/or for the person’s body to be removed. Note that there is usually an extra call out charge at night, and rarely any practical reason not to wait until morning.
When someone dies in a hospital, hospice or care home
When someone takes their last breath in a hospital, hospice or care home, it may be especially helpful to you, and others close to them, to be able to spend time with them at home, in comfort and privacy, until their burial or cremation.
If possible, discuss your plans with staff beforehand, remembering that it may be the first time that the member of staff has been asked about this, and they may need time to find out how to help. The advantage of being in this setting is that staff will be ble to do the initial preparations/ washing of the body. if that is what you wish.
The usual routine immediately after someone’s last breath goes something like this:
- staff give those present some time alone with them.
- you are then asked to leave, to allow the staff to prepare the person for transfer to the mortuary. At this time you will be given instructions for collection of personal belongings and the death certificate, and asked to arrange a funeral director.
- the body is taken to the mortuary and placed in a refrigerator.
- the body is taken from the mortuary to a funeral directors’ premises by a funeral director. In larger hospitals a Bereavement Service may be involved in some of the arrangements and liaison with the next of kin.
Hospices may have a special room where family can spend more time with the person who has died. Care homes are unlikely to have mortuary facilities and so someone may be taken directly from their room out of the building.
Here are a few things to consider if you want to have control over what happens when someone takes their last breath in this case:
- In Scotland no-one has ownership of the person who has died. The next of kin have the right to decide what will happen to someone’s body immediately after a death is verified and so the right to take it away immediately if that is what they wish. Staff often do not know this and can insist that the death must be registered first – this is incorrect.
- However, a doctor needs to write a Medical Certificate of Death, giving the cause of death (you then take this to a Registrar to register the death). It is at this point the Doctor decides whether there are any reasons to refer the death to the Procurator Fiscal e.g. unexplained death. This is not always done immediately after the death and so, if you move someone before this time, there could be difficulty with you interfering with evidence. If you wish to move someone quickly then inform medical staff so that they are aware a Medical Certificate of Death will be needed soon after the death.
- Tell the staff as soon as possible if you have any particular wishes about what happens immediately after death, including you assisting with washing and dressing.
- Some hospital mortuaries are more helpful than others to people who want to collect someone who has died.
- It would be helpful to have a coffin available for transport, although this is not strictly necessary so long as the person is covered and on a piece of board strong enough to handle and transfer to a vehicle. (Coffins can be bought online.)
- Unless you have enough people robust enough to handle someone’s body then it is wise to consider asking a funeral director to transport them home.
- Asking a funeral director to transport as a stand alone service gives you time to consider how you want to proceed with the rest of the arrangements. All funeral directors may not offer transport of someone’s body as a stand alone service so you may need to shop around.
Watch this video for an example of how one woman did it.
Please contact us at any time if you cannot find answers to your queries here, if you have ideas for other information which could be helpful to others, or if you would like to discuss your options. Whether you are newly bereaved, caring for someone who is imminently dying or just curious, we would be delighted to chat with you.
When a baby dies
Parents can benefit from spending a prolonged period of time with their baby after death. After childbirth, parents are psychologically and biologically primed to bond with and nurture their newborn. Even after a death, parents wanting to be with their baby is a natural expression of their postpartum drives and parental devotion. As a result, spending time with the baby’s body can offer a number of therapeutic benefits over the course of several days or longer.
- Spending time with their baby allows parents to say hello before saying goodbye, easing the transition from “We’re having a baby!” to “Our baby died.”
- Saying hello gives parents the opportunity to become acquainted with their baby, rendering this child more real. It also reassures them about the normal aspects of their baby’s appearance, offers memories of love, and grants opportunities to gather keepsakes and integrate the baby into their family—all of which can ease emotional suffering.
- In becoming acquainted, parents can express their love to their baby in the tangible ways that parents do naturally, such as examining the body, admiring adorable features, noticing family resemblances, bathing, dressing, and sleeping with their little one.
- Providing the special care their baby needs, parents can feel a sense of competence and authority, counteracting the failure and helplessness that parents typically feel when a baby dies.
- Having the gift of time allows parents to find their way to doing what is most meaningful for them, and to revel in this time without feeling rushed and unsure.
- Having the gift of time also allows parents to recover somewhat from the shock of their baby’s death, a traumatic delivery, pain-killing drugs, or exhaustion, ensuring that their memories of this time aren’t just a hazy fog.
- When parents set the pace for spending time with their baby, they get to gradually say their hellos and goodbyes, and determine for themselves when to part with their baby’s physical body. Some parents report that they feel like they got to witness the soul’s leave-taking, another reassuring experience. Setting their own pace, rather than having the hospital staff, morgue, or funeral home set the pace, also offers parents a sense of control, which can minimise the trauma of letting go.
- Having their baby for an extended period enables parents to invite family and friends to meet and welcome their little one. This ritual enables them to cultivate shared memories and surround themselves with support.
Thank you to Psychology Today… the full article is available here.
Sands supports anyone who has been affected by the death of a baby before, during or shortly after birth. They offer emotional support and information for parents, grandparents, siblings, children, families and friends, health professionals and others.
Arranging and paying for a funeral in Scotland
Our leaflet Your Options When Someone Dies is helpful for introducing the steps to think about.
In Scotland, a death must be registered within 8 days, and must be done before burial or cremation.
The Scottish Government has introduced a legal hierarchy of who can arrange a funeral (helpful if there is disagreement), unless the deceased person has made an ‘arrangements on death declaration’ naming the person they want to arrange their funeral. In this legal hierarchy spouse/partner comes ahead of children. (see legalities section)
The person who is arranging the funeral can do as much or as little as they want. People usually want to take into account any wishes left by the deceased, but there is no legal need to do this. The aspect of someone’s Will relating to their funeral wishes is not legally binding.
There are no laws about transporting, treatment or storing a body.
You do not need to hold a formal funeral/ service or use a funeral director unless you want to.
You do not need to take responsibility for arranging any funeral, even if you are next of kin, if you cannot afford to do so, but if you do, you will be responsible for the cost.
Local authorities have a duty to arrange a funeral if no-one else is able to. They will recover the costs from the deceased’s estate if money is later available.
You can find information on arranging funerals in the Good Funeral Guide (Book available from many libraries.)
Paying for Funerals
The average cost of a basic funeral in Scotland in 2021 is estimated as £3,873.
This includes the cost of burial or cremation, funeral director fees and a basic coffin. Extras such as flowers, cars, elaborate coffins or wakes can double this amount. There are many ways to reduce the costs.
The costs of burial and cremation vary greatly across Scotland. Funeral Directors fees also vary greatly. Often people are not aware of the costs of their choices, e.g. the cost of removing someone’s body from home overnight can be over £200.
There is concern across the UK about the rising costs of funerals and the rise in the level of debt due to paying for a funeral. Caledonia Funeral Aid can help people having difficulty paying for a funeral.
In Scotland a Funeral Support Payment may be available towards funeral expenses for some people receiving benefits. For further information contact a Citizens Advice bureau or see here. This payment will not cover the cost of a typical basic funeral.
In any group of people close to someone who is dying, there will be different reactions and different needs at the moment they take their last breath. Preparing for that moment can help ensure that the significant people in your life have the best chance of moving forward without you in a helpful and healthy adjustment process. Surely that is worth the effort.
It is usually helpful to give a bit of guidance as to your wishes, without being too prescriptive, and always paying attention to costs and affordability. It may help to discuss with those central to your life what their wishes would be for the days after your last breath but bear in mind that it may be difficult for them to discern this if they do not have much experience of death and funerals.
We suggest that as well as thinking about your funeral, you consider the first days immediately after your last breath and write out your wishes in a letter , your After My Last Breath letter.
Web Resources and Leaflets
We are continually collecting resources to share about death, dead bodies and how to care for them. Many come to us via network members, and we are happy to share information you think would be useful to others. If you know of any other useful resources, please let us know.
Click here to receive a list of links to relevant websites and videos.
You can download our leaflets using the links below (all designed to be printed A5 double sided).
Your Options When Someone Dies – a short leaflet giving the main options to consider when someone dies
Advice for time of death – a short booklet with advice for the first hours and days after someone’s last breath
Preparing for After Your Last Breath – for those wishing to write down their preferences in order to assist those who will be arranging their burial or cremation.
Keeping Someone at Home– introductory leaflet about this option
After The Last Breath Quiz– to learn about the legal situation in Scotland relating to death and funerals
Practical After The Last Breath booklet – a larger booklet with practical details for care after death including MUST-DOs, advance preparations, and care of someone’s body.