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What to Do if Someone Dies Unexpectedly

A call to 911 is the best thing to do first when someone dies unexpectedly.
Ernesto Eslava
A call to 911 is the best thing to do first when someone dies unexpectedly.

In the event of an unexpected death, professionals advise calling 911 first.

The death of a friend or family member is always traumatic, but when it occurs unexpectedly, it can be especially disorienting.

According to Gary Watts, executive director of the South Carolina Coroners Association and former Richland County coroner, many people don’t know what to do when someone dies unexpectedly, and there’s a good reason for that.

“The thing that you need to be aware of when you’re dealing with an unexpected death is just that. It’s unexpected. So you’ve got emotions, and people are gonna be extremely upset,” he said. “It’s difficult to lose a loved one regardless. You can have someone in hospice care for several months, and they die, and it’s still very difficult to have that loss. But when you have the individual that’s 45 years old and goes to bed and everything’s fine, and wakes up dead in the morning, that’s a little more difficult to take.”

So, in that emotional state, who do you call? A doctor? The coroner? The minister or rabbi? The funeral home? The police? “I always encourage ppl to call 911 first,” suggested Watts, “because someone can be in a pretty severe state, but not necessarily deceased, and you don’t want to make a mistake, and not get them medical attention when it may help. So I always say when you’re in a situation, call 911. Let them assess the situation to make sure in fact that the individual has died.”

Watts’s recommendation was seconded by United Methodist minister Joel Jones, who said he sometimes gets the first call. “And I come and I ask them what they have done. And if they say ‘I haven’t done anything. I called you first,’ then I’ll immediately say ‘we need to call 911.’”

When someone dies at home, after 911 is called, there are other steps to take which involve a good deal of paperwork, said Jones. “The doctor has to make an official declaration of death. That is the first step to getting a death certificate, which is very critical. If you can take the time and let people know where your Social Security card or your birth certificate is, your marriage or your divorce certificate, life insurance policies and all that, that is so vitally important.”

Watts agreed. “I’ve seen some people who will actually bring it out, put it in an envelope, and put it on the back of their door to their apartment or their house, and will list all of their next of kin, with contact information, put that in there and put their doctor in there, and will put medications that they were on. All that information about their life, so that if in fact, they did die, whether they died unattended or whatever, that information is available to help contact next of kin and also help in the investigative process. You’re able to track down information on that person that will help you come up with a cause and manner of death.”

The need to prepare a list of things to do was driven home to Jones early in his ministerial career – in fact, after only one week on the job. “A church member says, ‘my wife has just passed away. I have no idea what to do.’ And as a 26-year-old, I had no idea what to do, either! Thank goodness my father was a pastor, and I said ‘Dad, what do I need to do?’ And he said ‘you go to the home and you simply sit with the family.’ But that was a wakeup call for me, that there really does need to be a sort of a standardized list, at least in your head, of some of the protocols you need to do.”

There also are many little things to do that others can help out with, said Jones. Make sure the home is secure if the person lived alone. Make sure the mail is collected, and pets are cared for, “and get plenty of copies of the death certificate for insurers, government agencies and financial institutions.” But the best thing a friend or family member can do, he said, is simply to be there.

A calming presence, added the minister, gives the family the hope that things will get better.


Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.