The following is adapted from Unthinkable.
If someone you love is the victim of a fatal incident, then first of all, let me say how sorry I am. My mother was struck and killed by a commercial truck in April 2020, and it left a gaping void in all our lives.
As hard as it is to move forward in the wake of an unthinkable tragedy, eventually, you have to. As part of that process—and I realize that this is a tough topic—you need to think about the body.
To be more specific, you have to be prepared to identify your loved one’s remains. You need to consider whether you want an autopsy done. You have to think about keepsakes. And, you need to decide who will pay the funeral costs.
Identifying Your Loved One’s Remains
If the person who died was killed instantly and therefore didn’t get transported for medical care, then their body is typically taken directly to the medical examiner’s office. If they died in the hospital, their body typically goes to the medical examiner’s office next.
Depending on the circumstances, the medical examiner’s office may ask you to identify your loved one’s remains. For some families, it’s an important step toward closure—completing the story of their loved one, in some sense, and making their death real. (And of course, the opportunity to identify the body may come at the funeral home or the crematorium too.)
In our case, the accident that killed my mother rendered her unrecognizable. I don’t know that I would have had the courage to go see my mom, but my brother, a doctor, certainly would have. Without that opportunity, it’s as if we are missing something important in the story of her life.
We were asked to identify my mom by photographs the medical examiner’s office took of her cell phone, her driver’s license, and the bloodstained jewelry she was wearing. We recognized them all. Then, we were asked to sign an affidavit—a sworn statement—identifying her based on the circumstantial evidence we had seen.
Getting an Autopsy
If the cause of death is not immediately clear, the medical examiner may do an autopsy to determine the cause of death. It does not happen in every case. If the medical examiner considers it necessary, there’s no cost to the family; it’s a public expense, paid by taxpayers.
There may be instances where the medical examiner doesn’t consider an autopsy necessary, but the family wants one done. You’re entitled to ask, but you need to do so promptly.
Autopsies are best if performed within 24 hours of death and ideally before embalming, which can obviously interfere with blood tests. But autopsies performed later and even on exhumed bodies may still provide vital information, depending on the circumstances.
If there’s any question in your mind about what caused your loved one’s death, you can request that an autopsy be performed even if the medical examiner doesn’t consider it necessary. The cost for a private autopsy is not covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or private health insurance, but some hospitals will cover the cost for an autopsy if requested by the family for a patient who died in their hospital. Otherwise, you likely will have to pay out of pocket.
Preserving a Keepsake
Along with autopsies, there is one more thing with long-term consequences that you need to think about as soon as possible, while the body remains available: keepsakes. These can be meaningful to loved ones for years to come. The funeral home or crematorium may raise the topic, but if they don’t, you may not even think to ask.
I can tell you that preserving a keepsake helped my family. We had my mother’s fingerprint taken before her cremation, and we made the image available to family members on pendants. We ended up getting four or five. Nobody was asked to wear them, or expected to, but they were a keepsake.
My sons asked for one, and I don’t think they are ready yet to look at it. But they can. It’s there whenever they need it. My daughter, who is a little older, wears hers every day, in a pendant dangling around her neck. It’s that important to her.
What’s important for you to know is that preserving a keepsake such as this is possible—and that the opportunity to do so lasts only as long as the body is present and available. In some states, the Victim’s Compensation Fund will even cover the cost.
Paying for the Funeral
Once your loved one’s body is transferred to a funeral home, one of the next issues you’ll face is who’s going to pay for it. Funeral homes don’t work for free, and the decision needs to be made quickly.
First off, it’s important to know that these are ultimately expenses of the estate. That means if there’s money in the estate, it can be used to reimburse the person who paid for funeral expenses.
The Victim’s Compensation Funds also cover funeral expenses. In most cases, the funeral home will be aware of these funds and are willing to assist you in accessing that money. So can the victim’s advocate, if one is working with you.
It’s also possible that your loved one bought insurance to cover their funeral expenses. You may find that the person listed as the beneficiary of a funeral policy isn’t the one who actually paid for the funeral; in that case, you’ll have to work it out. Whether the beneficiary chooses to do the right thing with the money is their decision and no one else’s.
Finally, if your loved one’s death involved a car accident, many car insurance policies also provide a funeral benefit that may apply whether they were in their own car or not. That means even if they were walking or riding a bike and were hit by a car, their funeral expenses could be covered, typically up to a limit of $5,000 or $10,000.
You Can Start to Move Forward
If someone you love is the victim of a fatal incident, it might feel like you’ll never be able to move forward. But, as difficult as it is, you have to.
Part of moving forward is taking the steps necessary to lay your loved one to rest: identifying their remains, getting an autopsy (if necessary), preserving keepsakes, and, finally, holding the funeral. By working through each of these steps, you—and the rest of your family—can start to gain some sense of closure about your loved one’s death.
For more advice on what to do if your loved one is the victim of a catastrophic tragedy, you can find Unthinkable on Amazon.
A founding partner of the law firm Bachus Schanker, Kyle Bachus limits his practice to representing individuals and families in catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases nationwide. For more information, visit KyleBachus.com.