The Most Important Document After Death

After a loved one dies, do you know which document you need to move forward with everything from wills to the burial? The death certificate, sometimes called the medical certificate of the cause of death (MCCD), is a document issued by a government official such as a registrar of vital statistics that declares the date, location and cause of a person’s death. While a death certificate can help officials and others understand how the person died, it also may be required in order to arrange a burial or cremation, to prove a person’s will or to claim on a person’s life insurance.

In a recent story, four families in Gary, Indiana, did not receive death certificates for loved ones whose arrangement were handled by the former Serenity Gardens Funeral Home. The funeral home had closed down, and the missing paperwork has preventing them from settling estates and life insurance claims.

This case began nearly three weeks ago after members of Northlake Church of Christ viewed the former funeral home they had purchased at a tax sale and found occupied caskets and body bags. Authorities have said the bodies are believed to have been at the funeral home since 2006. Authorities also have found the cremated remains of seven other people there. Darryl Cammack, who operated the funeral business until 2006, has his funeral license revoked in 2006 after clients complained that he forged signatures, failed to deliver death certificates and in one case took more than a year to deliver cremated remains.

In many cases, the funeral home will handle the death certificate for the family, as these documents must be verified by physicians and sometimes through a health department before the family can obtain a copy. Death certificates are legal documents, and filed with a local health department once completed. The funeral home usually does not keep a death certificate or copy of such a certificate on the premises. Each state and location may have individual rules and guidelines for completing a filing a death certificate, and family members may obtain certified copies for their records if needed through the funeral home or from the county health department where the death occurred.

In most cases, the death certificate is issued in the county of the state where the death occurred, and overseas deaths are more complicated. Often you will need a certified English translation of the foreign death certificate from the country in which the person died as well as authorization to remove the deceased’s body from the country. Sometimes, legal copies of these certificates may take a year or more to reach the proper authorities in the states.

While you may not have much control over an overseas death, you can maintain some control over a death certificate for a loved one who dies near to home or in the U.S. This action may be important to you if you want to maintain control over the funeral and the ensuing legal ramifications. First, let the authorities know that you are not dealing with a funeral home, and familiarize yourself with the state’s regulations. For instance, the state of Virginia requires certain information from and for a funeral home, and this information if vital if you wish to handle the death certificate.

Also, you can familiarize yourself with a standardized death certificate [PDF] so you can have the required documents at your disposal when death occurs. Also, you might become familiar with a state’s requirements for the affidavit procedure. Some states, like Washington, offer this material online [PDF].

In the Gary, Indiana case, since the funeral home did not proceed with the affidavit to acquire a death certificate and file it with the health department, the families must be patient as authorities aquire information and follow procedure. If you can find information about how to file a loved one’s death certificate in advance (or your own, for that matter), you can rest assured that nothing will be held up financially after a loved one dies. This is depending, of course, on whether the loved one wrote a will!

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