Freeman Brothers has been carrying out funerals in Sussex and Surrey since 1855. As we have been so long established as a Funeral Director, we have a good sense of some of the most common questions people have around funerals. Taking feedback from colleagues in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint as to what we are asked frequently, we have produced a series of blog posts addressing some of these issues.
Today we will be looking at some of the questions which we are often asked about the registering of a death – something which everyone has to do as part of making the funeral arrangements – although not always at the time that the person has died.
We can think about registering the death as the ‘tying up’ of everything official which has accrued during a person’s life. Imagine that when someone is born and their birth is registered, this is the start of a large ball of string. Everything ‘official’ which happens to them during their lives – their medical records; social security- first child benefit for them, then working life benefits for them and those they are entitled to when they have their own children, then state pension; passport; driving license; criminal record if they commit an offence; and so on – is attached to this one length of string. Registering the death is like snipping the string and tying the two ends in a knot – all of the person’s official information is enclosed inside the loop.
When the death is expected to take place (which means the person who has died has been treated by a doctor, who, when the time comes, is able to identify the cause of the death and to complete a Medical Certificate of the Cause of Death (MCCD)), the death can be registered as soon as an appointment is available. The doctor may be the person’s own GP, or a doctor where they have been an inpatient at a hospital or hospice. This doesn’t matter, as long as they are prepared to say why the person who has died. The MCCD is the necessary document which the Registrar will need, as it confirms that the person has died and the cause, and so that has to be waited for before the Registration can take place. There is a rule that deaths should be registered within 5 days, but this is not always possible when appointments are scarce or if the certifying doctor is away. While it is true that not registering the death is an offence, it would only be deemed as wrongdoing where no efforts had been made to do so, which only usually happens if there is an attempt to conceal the death itself for some reason.
Ideally, the death will be registered in the district where the person has died. ‘District’ is an arbitrary term and, in this context, it has changed over time. Once, a person who died in Crawley District would have had to have their death registered in Crawley, and so on, but most counties or unitary authorities have been designated as one District for those purposes. However, it is quite common in our local area that a death might take place outside of West Sussex – for example, in East Surrey Hospital, or Royal Sussex County Hospital- which means there needs to be a journey to a Registry Office in Surrey or Brighton and Hove respectively. It is definitely worthwhile to do that because, if not, it by far extends the length of time of the overall registration process.
The role of the Registrar is to examine the MCCD, ensure that what has been given as the cause of death is permitted (there is a technical difference between a cause of death and what is called a ‘mode’ of death, which cannot be entered onto the certificate) and check that it is genuinely an expected death. This includes asking the person registering, called the ‘informant’, a series of questions about the person who has died. The informant is ideally a close family member of the person who has died but there is a hierarchy of eligibility to register the death and, ultimately, it can be done by anyone if they are declaring themselves ‘responsible’ for the subsequent funeral. (This is what enables council officials to register deaths in cases where there is no family and the Local Authority is undertaking the funeral under its statutory obligation.) However, the information the Registrar requires – date and place of birth, previous surnames, and details about a surviving spouse or civil partner – are normally easiest able to be provided by someone who knows the person who has died, well.
Once the Registrar has gathered the information they need, they will provide what is colloquially known as the ‘Green Form’ (because it’s printed on pale green paper, and is one of the only pieces of paperwork used for funerals which isn’t white). The proper name of this paperwork is ‘Certificate for Burial or Cremation’. It is given to the funeral director, who passes it on to the Crematorium, Cemetery or Burial Ground and it confirms the death has been registered, which is to all intents and purposes compulsory before a funeral can take place. The Registrar will also give as many copies of the Death Certificate (whose actual name is ‘Certified copy of an Entry of Death’) as are required, but these come at a cost – albeit a lower one at the time of death than purchasing them later. These are used to get the Deceased person’s affairs in order, for example with the bank or insurance company, and it’s usually recommended to obtain a few copies. If you Register by Declaration– which is the term used when you register the death outside of the district where it took place – the Registrar you see will post all of the information to that other District, and you will have to wait for the Green Form and Death Certificates to be posted to you. You can therefore see why, as mentioned above, it makes sense to go to that District if you can. Because the Green Form is needed for the funeral, Registration by Declaration delays this by up to a week.
During the pandemic, registration of the death took place by phone. This provision has been removed but a campaign in underway to reinstate it, as everyone (including Registrars) found benefits in it, especially in avoiding Registration by Declaration, long journeys for informants where the death was elsewhere, and difficulties in access to Registry Offices.
If the Death is unexpected, it will not be registered until after the Coroner has finished their investigations into the death. You can read more about the process when a Coroner is involved here (hyperlink to previous blog). If the investigation is concluded without an Inquest, the death will be registered after it in the same way as outlined above, with the difference that there is no MCCD provided by a doctor – instead the Registrar is provided with the pertinent information by the Coroner’s Office.
When there is an Inquest, the death is not able to be registered until it is concluded, which can often be several months after the funeral has taken place. In the meantime, the Coroner’s Office will provide a document called Certificate of the Fact of Death, which acts in the same way as the Death Certificate and enables the affairs of the Deceased person to be put in order rather than waiting until after the Inquest has taken place.