Typically it takes one to two weeks to arrange a funeral. Getting the paperwork sorted, gathering family together in one place and making choices about the service are some of the things that affect the time it takes.
When can you begin arranging a funeral?
You need a death certificate before you can hold the funeral
You can start making plans at any time after someone dies. But before you go ahead with a burial or cremation, you need to register the death and get a death certificate. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland you have to register a death within five days. In Scotland, it’s eight days.
The process is by appointment at your local register office. It should only take around 30 minutes for them to give you a death certificate and a certificate for the burial or cremation (known as a ‘green form’).
You may need to wait a couple of days for an appointment after getting in touch. So, it’s important to contact them as soon as possible.
For the appointment you’ll need to bring:
the medical certificate showing the cause of death, signed by your loved one’s GP or someone in a position of authority at the hospital or care home where they died
some documents showing your loved one’s identity such as their driving licence or passport – these may help the death registrar find the information they need more quickly
The death certificate will show the person’s name, sex, age, details of birth, occupation, cause of death, date and place of death, and details of the person registering the death.
It’s a copy of the entry the registrar makes in the register of life events – births, deaths, marriages and civil partnerships. The register helps the government keep track of causes of death and mortality rates in different groups of people.
You need a death certificate to hold a funeral for your loved one, and to apply for probate – a document that lets you deal with assets of the person who’s died, like property and bank accounts.
Some people choose to buy several copies of the death certificate
If you’re the executor of a will or administrator of someone’s estate, you’ll need to send a death certificate to various financial organisations. They generally ask for an official copy of the certificate, rather than a photocopy.
If you want to move quickly and deal with several companies at the same time, you may want to order several copies. Each official copy costs £11.
You can start making plans before the paperwork is done
While waiting for an appointment at the registrar office or for your documents to come through, you can start thinking about the service you’d like to create.
You may want to start talking to funeral directors straight away, as it can take a few phone calls or meetings to find the one who feels right for you. They’ll be happy to start planning the funeral with you and guiding you through the process.
Just remember that the burial or cremation cannot actually go ahead until you have the death certificate.
An investigation may delay the death certificate
Sometimes, a doctor or the police report a death to a coroner or a procurator fiscal in Scotland. A coroner is an official who investigates certain deaths, to establish the cause. This may be because the circumstances were suspicious or the death was sudden.
You cannot register a death, and therefore get a death certificate that allows you to hold a funeral, until the coroner has finished their investigation. It may involve a postmortem, which can take time.
If the coroner cannot determine a cause of death through their investigation, they’ll open a legal investigation called an inquest. It can take several months before an inquest starts, and longer for it to reach its conclusion, but this does not mean waiting that long before you can hold a funeral.
The coroner will usually issue an interim certificate of death and release the body for burial or cremation, to allow a funeral to go ahead.
It can take time to decide what your loved one would want
There’ll be various choices to make and things to do when you’re arranging a funeral, such as:
deciding whether to have a burial or a cremation
choosing where to hold the service
writing an order of service
arranging a wake
inviting family and friends
If the person who died had a funeral plan they may have logged some wishes or requests with the plan provider. You can call the provider and start putting your loved one’s plan into action.
In this case, it may be possible to arrange the funeral within a few days - as long as that’s enough notice for relatives and friends to be able to come.
Sometimes people leave their funeral wishes in their will, and these are a useful starting point when considering all the options. It can take a few days to get hold of a will and find the funeral wishes.
They’re not legally binding, so you can go ahead and plan the funeral without seeing them. But many families do wait until they can see the will and find out what their loved one would like.
If the person who died did not express clear wishes, you may need to have discussions with relatives about what’s best, and it can take time to agree on all the details.
A few other things that may hold up the arrangements
There may be a wait for a cremation or burial date
Your chosen crematorium, place of worship or cemetery may not be available immediately and you may need to wait for a slot. The waiting time can be up to three weeks, and varies by location, depending on how many crematoriums there are. Public holidays may delay things a bit as well.
Family members may need time to travel
It can take several days for relatives and friends who want to come and pay their respects to make arrangements to travel from around the country or abroad.
It can take time to work with the celebrant if you hire one
A funeral celebrant is a person you can hire to plan and run a funeral service. You do not have to hire one but some families choose to. Before the service, they spend time finding out about the life, interests and beliefs of the person who’s died and create a service that fits them.
Their availability and the time it takes to hold conversations with you and other family members, gathering stories and memories, can affect how long it takes to arrange the funeral.
Many different types of people can run a funeral
A funeral is not a legally binding event in the way that a marriage is, which means anyone can organise and run the service. You might hire a humanist celebrant, a civil celebrant or a religious leader - or someone else entirely.
Some people feel more comfortable asking a friend or family member to run the ceremony. You can even have a celebrant split the role with someone else so that they take turns speaking and leading the service. This may mean it takes a little longer to prepare.
A direct cremation is an alternative to the traditional funeral
With a direct cremation, the timeline is different from a funeral and there’s less of a rush to arrange things. You’ll receive your loved one’s ashes after an unattended cremation, and then have the freedom to arrange a memorial service at a time and place that’s convenient for you and your family.
This allows you to delay getting people together for a send-off for weeks, months or even years. It can be particularly useful if you’re struggling to get all your family and friends in one place. It’s an option during unusual circumstances when the UK government restricts gatherings like funerals for public health and safety reasons – during the COVID-19 lockdowns, for example.
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