It’s easy to forget that people don’t deal with death on a daily basis.

That sounds like an absurd statement, doesn’t it?  If you are a mortgage broker, nurse, teacher, or electrician, it wouldn’t sound ridiculous to say “I forget that people don’t deal with loans [illness, learning, or home repair] all the time.” and you wouldn’t sound insensitive.  But when you help a few families every day work through the post-death process, it is routine.  Every family is different, every death is unique, but the process is the same for each of them. I thought I would take a moment to cover what a funeral home does, and how the process plays out for each family.  The one task that a funeral director oversees that would be inordinately cumbersome for a family to take care of is the processing of the death certificate. What will follow is how it works in Washington State, but just about anywhere in the country, it will be a similar variant.

Step 1: Someone dies.

Step 2: The funeral home gets the deceased.

Step 3: The family communicates the death certificate information to the funeral home.

Step 4: The funeral director fills in the deceased person’s biographical information into the death certificate.

Step 5: The funeral home sends the death certificate to the doctor to complete the section on how the person died, and they sign it and send it back to the funeral home.

Step 6: The funeral home signs it and sends it to the county to be filed. The county then sends a “burial transit permit” back to the funeral home.*

Step 7: The funeral home then cremates the person, or takes them to the cemetery for burial.

To simplify this even further, here are the people in this process – The funeral director, the doctor, the county.  Of these three, there’s only one that the family faces, and that’s the funeral director. Often times, when there is a dramatic delay in the death certificates, or a cremation, it is the funeral director that gets the full brunt of the family’s wrath.  It stands to reason then, that the funeral director has a real incentive to get her death certificates quickly. The other two in the equation don’t have to answer to the pissed off family at 8:00 on a Saturday when they don’t have the keys to a bank account.

Here’s how you can tell what’s holding up a death certificate:

If the cremation hasn’t happened and it’s taking too long, you can pretty much count on the fact that the doctor, hospital, or medical professional has either dropped the ball, or didn’t know that there was a ball in play. The funeral home and medical examiners don’t like dead people with question marks hanging over them – it’s inconvenient.

If you have your cremated loved one back in your arms, or they have been buried at your favorite cemetery, there are two potential reasons you don’t have death certificates.

1.       Your funeral director has screwed up and hasn’t ordered them.

2.       The county didn’t get/hasn’t processed the order.

Truthfully, number one is more likely – though, as a funeral home owner and funeral director it pains me to say that.  Even though it is frequently a funeral director issue, I have seen the county fail on this one from time to time, so if the director gives you this excuse, there may be validity to it.

None of this changes the fact that it doesn’t matter who screwed up, or when they did it, you need death certificates to do anything after someone dies.  If death certificates are taking longer than you think is reasonable, ask yourself “Has it been more than two weeks since the arrangement with the funeral home?” The arrangement – not the death.  If so, there’s something that is broken in the process. If it hasn’t been two weeks, a simple polite call may be in order to see where they are in process. If it is more than two weeks, refer to the above and see where there was a breakdown.

Remember this little tidbit though: NO ONE in the process has one iota of motivation to hold up a death certificate. The slower they are, the bigger the pain it is to deal with – for everyone.  Whatever the reason, you can be pretty certain that there is nothing intentional behind the delay.


* A burial transit permit is the permit that accompanies the body to its place of “final disposition.”  Final disposition is either a crematory or a grave at a cemetery.