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Guide for bereaved family members

This guide answers common questions that bereaved relatives may have about the investigation of a family member's death.

Why is my relative's death being investigated?

When someone dies in Scotland, a death certificate is normally issued by a doctor and the person can then be buried or cremated.

COPFS investigates all sudden, suspicious and unexplained deaths. This includes the sudden, suspicious and unexplained deaths of children. This means that doctors need to report these deaths to us. In these cases, a doctor cannot issue a death certificate without the agreement of COPFS. Once the death has been reported to us, an investigation will be carried out

Our investigations usually find that the death was due to natural causes. Sometimes there might be suspicious circumstances. In these instances, we will tell the police to investigate further and then decide if there should be a criminal prosecution.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having a significant impact on the investigation of deaths. See Coronavirus (COVID-19) information for more information.

Why have I been asked to go to the mortuary?

Relatives are sometimes asked to identify the deceased before a post mortem examination is carried out. This can be an upsetting experience, but it is a necessary part of the investigation of the death.

Post mortem examinations

Why is a post mortem examination happening?

Post mortem examinations are sometimes carried out during death investigations to help determine why someone died.

We know that it can be worrying when you hear that there is going to be a post mortem examination. We will always aim to respect your wishes and cultural and religious traditions as far as it is possible to do so.

If you do have concerns you should speak with the doctor or police who informed you of your relative's death investigation.

I have been told that samples or organs have been removed – why is this necessary?

In a very small number of cases, it is necessary to remove an organ so a more detailed examination can take place.

We will contact family members in these cases to explain why this has happened. If an organ has been retained, we'll ask you to decide how you want the organ to be treated when the tests are completed.

My relative wanted their organs donated – will this be possible?

Every effort will be made to respect your family member's wishes although in some situations this may not be possible.

When can the funeral take place?

The funeral can take place after a cause of death has been determined and the death certificate has been issued.

When will I know the cause of death?

The cause of death is recorded on the death certificate issued by a doctor or pathologist (if a post mortem has taken place).

Your funeral director can advise you how death certificates are issued to nearest relatives in your local area.

If there has been a post mortem examination and further tests are being carried out, the cause of death recorded on the death certificate may need to be changed once the test results are available. We will let you know if this happens and a new death certificate will be provided.

When will I get information about the investigation?

We will keep in touch with you during your relative's death investigation. We may ask to meet with you to provide you with information and updates about the investigation. We will ask you for your views before we make certain decisions.

Help and support for family members

  • Contact our Victim Information and Advice service if you have questions, concerns or need support.
  • View a list of bereavement support organisations for dedicated help and support after the death of a loved one.
  • Report the death of your loved one via the UK Government’s Tell Us Once service. When someone has died, there are lots of things that need to be done, at a time when you probably least feel like doing them. Tell Us Once is voluntary to use and very helpful. It enables you to report a death only once, telling central and local government services securely and confidentially without you having to inform them individually

For more information about the types of deaths we investigate, see Our role in investigating deaths.