When a sudden death happens

The death of someone close to us is always distressing, but when it happens suddenly and unexpectedly it can be even more challenging. We might hear the news from others or have witnessed the person’s death ourselves. It may have been an accident or by natural causes.

Whatever the situation, and wherever it has happened, our Support Workers are available to support you personally, or as a family or whānau, for as long as you need us.  You can call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker.

A lot needs to happen within the first 2-3 days. These pages provide practical information about what to expect and suggestions on ways to cope with the reactions you may have.

Please click here if the death was due to any of the following specific sudden death situations. We have dedicated sections on our website with information to help you cope with these.

Next Steps
Many people and agencies become involved after a sudden death. This section explains the roles of the key people you may meet and some of the legal processes that must happen. They understand how distressing this time is and will work respectfully and with care.

A sudden death will first be responded to by a doctor or emergency services. If the family and whānau were not present, police will advise them about what happened as soon as possible. In some circumstances, search and rescue teams may also be involved in recovering the person’s body.

The law requires police to investigate the cause of every unexplained sudden death, on behalf of the coroner. This can take time and can be distressing but it is their job. They must make sure no one else was involved in the person’s death. Sometimes it can be unclear how a death was caused. To investigate they must ask questions and will speak to any witnesses and those who discovered the death. They are also likely to speak with close family, whānau, and friends of the person who died.

The police will remain at the scene until the forensic investigation is completed. They will take photos and gather evidence. Sometimes police might need to take personal items away, but these will be recorded and returned later. The investigation can be upsetting, but police must do this. Note down the name and contact details of the officer you speak with in case you have questions later.

When police visit a family or whānau, they may organise for a Victim Support Worker to come with them or they will arrange for a Support Worker to be in touch as soon as possible. You can also contact on Victim Support 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker, even if police do not refer you.

If you’d also like the support of a specialist Iwi, Pacific and Ethnic and Pacific Liaison Officer to listen to any cultural concerns you may have, ask the officer in charge of your case to contact one for you. https://www.police.govt.nz/advice/personal-community/new-arrivals/ethnic-liaison-officers

To formally confirm the identity of the person who died, police may ask you, or someone else who knew them well, to assist them.

If the death was accidental, in a workplace or other public facility, other agencies, such as WorkSafe New Zealand, may also need to immediately begin an official investigation and inquiry into the circumstances of the death.  https://worksafe.govt.nz/notify-worksafe/

We have highly trained Support Workers who have in-depth knowledge of the impact a sudden death can have on people, the services available, and the legal processes following a sudden death.

We offer support to immediate families and whānau, as well as witnesses. Police can introduce you to a Support Worker or you can call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker.

The police may contact a duty funeral director to transfer the person who has died to the nearest hospital mortuary (unless they died in a hospital).  There is no cost for this. The person’s body will be safely kept there until they are formally identified, and their cause of death is confirmed.

The hospital mortuary team work respectfully at all times and are led by pathologists, who are specially trained doctors.

A local coroner may decide to order that a post-mortem is done, which is a physical examination of the person’s body, (See more about this below.)

All viewings must be authorised by the office of the duty coroner. This is because the body remains the responsibility of the coroner until it is released to the immediate family or whānau. You can ask your Support Worker to help you arrange a viewing through the duty coroner's office, or contact the office directly. (You can find your local office contact details here. )

Some hospitals have a family or whānau room for viewing, usually with a screen or window between them and their loved one. The family won’t be able to touch the body or remove items from the body. For cultural or spiritual reasons, families can sometimes sit in a dedicated whānau room until the person’s body has been released to them.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to view the person’s body. This is usually when they’ve been very badly injured. If this happens, this will be explained to you.

If you wish, you can also talk to a funeral director of your choice about any other options there are for sitting with or viewing the person’s body after it has been released from the mortuary, or about following any specific cultural traditions you need respected at this time. (See the box below Your chosen funeral director.)

If you and your family and whānau decide to view the body at any stage, it can help to know that the person’s body will look different – eg. their facial features and skin colour are likely to have changed. This is normal but can understandably be unsettling for some people.

A coroner may decide to order a post-mortem which is part of an inquiry into the cause of death. (See more about the coroner’s role below). The coroner is like a judge and is a qualified lawyer appointed as a judicial officer to confirm the cause of all unexpected, unexplained, violent, or suspicious deaths.

A post-mortem provides key evidence and is done by a pathologist, who is a specially trained doctor. They surgically examine the person’s body to find out exactly how they died. They will try to take into account any cultural needs and concerns the family or whānau have. As this can be very distressing for families and whānau, delays in this process will be kept to a minimum.

You have the right to object to the post-mortem or ask for it to be done in a particular way The exception is if it is suspected that the death is suspicious in any way, such as caused by a crime. In this instance, a post-mortem cannot be objected to.

If you do want to object or make a cultural request, you must do this as soon as possible, within 24 hours. Tell the duty coroner’s office immediately by phoning 0800 266 800 and tell the police officer in charge of the investigation. The coroner will decide if they can grant your cultural request or not. If they cannot, they will explain why.

For more information on objecting to a post-mortem, see pages 6-8 of Ministry of Justice publication, When Someone Dies Suddenly  or call us on 0800 842 846 (24/7) to be connected with a Support Worker.

The immediate family and whānau can, if they wish, request to see a copy of the final post-mortem report. It can be disturbing to read and hard to understand, so it can be helpful to talk it through with your doctor. Ask your Support Worker how to arrange this or call the duty coroner’s office on 0800 266 800.

Police will inform a local coroner that someone has died unexpectedly. The coroner is like a judge. They are qualified lawyers appointed as judicial officers to lead the coronial process. This process looks at the causes and circumstances of someone's death and if there is anything that can be done to prevent deaths in similar circumstances.

The coroner may decide to order a post-mortem examination of the person’s body to discover exactly how they died, as described above. It is part of a coronial inquiry, which aims to find out who the person was, and where, when, and how they died. An inquiry can also assist them to find out what could be done to reduce the chances of future deaths in similar circumstances. Coroners don’t hold inquiries into all deaths reported to them. After a natural sudden death, for example, they may make a finding without having to open an inquiry.

When the coroner holds a hearing as part of their inquiry, it can be done in one of two ways. If this hearing is done ‘on the papers’, it means the coroner decides on the cause of death by using all the paper evidence available, including the post-mortem report and the police report.

A hearing can also be held in the Coroner's Court, which allows the coroner to speak to witnesses in person. This type of hearing is called an inquest. It is usually open to the public and family, whānau, and friends can attend if they wish.

A dedicated coronial case manager will help you and your family throughout the coronial process. (See below).

When the hearing is completed, the coroner will write a formal report, called the Coroner’s Findings, about the facts of the death. The immediate family can ask for a copy. This is a public report that anyone can read.

For more about the Coronial Process see the Coroner’s website or our Coronial Process section

https://coronialservices.justice.govt.nz/

Up until a person’s body is released to the immediate family or whānau following a post-mortem, a staff member of the duty coroner’s office will keep you and your family or whānau informed about what is happening. After that, a dedicated coronial case manager will help you and your family or whānau through the coronial process. They will keep you updated about what’s happening and answer any questions you may have. They’ll let you know if an inquest will be held and when. They’ll give you their contact details so that you can get in touch at any time during the coronial process. It can be helpful to choose one family member to be the key contact person on behalf of the family.

When the person’s body has been released from the mortuary to the immediate family, you can decide together what you would like to happen next. You may wish for family or whānau to collect the person’s body, or you may choose to call a funeral director to do this. (See below about the role of a funeral director.)

For more about the Coronial Process see the Coroner’s website or our Coronial Process section

https://coronialservices.justice.govt.nz/

The family’s chosen funeral director can do as little or as much as a family or whānau asks them to. Talk with your funeral director about what you would like, including any cultural or religious rituals you want honoured.

How a funeral director can help bereaved families or whānau

  • Collecting the person’s body from the mortuary and caring for them at their funeral home until burial or cremation.
  • Providing information about necessary legal requirements after a death.
  • Registering the death and helping families and whānau get a copy of the death certificate.
  • Preparing the body for viewing if the family and whānau wishes this and it is possible.
  • Fulfilling the choices of the family and whānau for the funeral, tangihanga (tangi), or memorial event.
  • Checking if the person’s legal will requested certain arrangements for the funeral or tangihanga.
  • Organising cremation or burial procedures and ensure they meet necessary requirements.
  • Helping families apply for financial assistance, if needed.

Ask them about costs, and payment options, so you can make choices that are manageable.

Finding a funeral director

Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand
https://www.fdanz.org/planning-a-funeral/find-a-funeral-director/

NZIFH Independent Funeral Homes
https://nzifh.org.nz/find-a-member/

Organising a burial or cremation without a funeral director

The Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua explains the legal and practical requirements you must follow here, if you prefer to arrange a burial or cremation without a funeral director. There are rules about where and how you can bury or cremate someone, and where you can scatter ashes. https://www.dia.govt.nz/pubforms.nsf/URL/BeforeBurialorCremation.pdf/$file/BeforeBurialorCremation.pdf

Blessing the site where a person has died is very important for some families, whānau, and communities. See here for information about arranging this.

Please see our section about this here

Downloads

After a death: Dealing with practical matters