Sometimes, sadly, we have to deal with tragedy, and the time when someone dies is no time to be at a loss as to what to do for the best. Here, hopefully, is a fairly straightforward ready reckoner on what to do in the saddest of circumstances.
First of all, when someone dies unexpectedly, you must call the policía local – the number is 092. If the person was already under medical supervision, call the doctor who was treating them. If the police are called they themselves will normally call a doctor to certify the cause of death and issue a certificate (not a formal death certificate). If the death occurred in suspicious circumstances or involves an investigation, an autopsy may have to be carried out, or if death was the result of a road traffic accident or criminal action, the body will only be released after application to the Court. Normally, however, at this stage, you will need to contact a funeral director, and they will arrange for the body to be removed.
This is a reasonable point at which to clarify procedures which frequently cause distress if police are involved. It evidently sometimes appears to onlookers as though bodies are “just left” somewhere for a considerable time, and I’m occasionally asked “couldn’t they show some respect and put them somewhere while they decide what to do”. Just to be clear: there is no confusion about what to do, nor is there any disrespect. Bodies must always remain in the place at which they are found under police cordon until the Courts approve their removal by forensic teams and transfer to judicial police, usually for autopsy, but always for legal procedures and formalities to be completed.
In cases where there are no police involved, you will need to give the undertakers the full ID of the person who has died, as well as instructions for what is to happen next – is there to be a funeral service, for example? Ask them what services they provide in full, because within 24 hours or so the death will need to be registered at your local Registro Civil; there is a list of registry offices HERE, but if in any doubt, check with your local town hall for the one nearest to you. It is the registry which then issues the formal death certificate (certificado de defunción), and as a foreigner, you will almost certainly be given both Spanish and international copies. Various officials and organizations will need a copy, so get the maximum number of copies permitted. Please note that deaths of British residents in Spain must be registered with the Spanish authorities. After this, if you wish, you can also apply to register the death in the UK, although this is not a requirement (please also see THIS information from the British Government).
The undertaker will take care of many of these arrangements for you, and he can himself only obtain a burial licence after the death certificate has been issued. The body should be cremated or buried within two days of death. If it is to be buried, it will be interred in a wall niche in the municipal cemetery; these niches are leased from the local authority, and once the pre-agreed period (normally between 1 and 50 years) has expired, the body is usually moved to a communal burial ground. Many people, particularly expatriates, prefer to be cremated, and this needs to be clarified from the start with doctor and funeral directors. A formal funeral can be arranged, or in the absence of relatives or as a result of personal preference, no funeral service as such need be held, and the funeral directors will return the ashes a few days later.
At this point it will be important to establish whether the deceased made a Will. If this is not known, it can be ascertained by contacting the appropriate registry. This is the Registro de Últimas Voluntades del Ministerio de Justicia. It will also be appropriate to start (or instruct your lawyer to start) probate proceedings, since inheritance tax (see HERE) on any bequests must be paid within six months to avoid incurring any penalties for late payment. It cannot be stressed enough that dying intestate in one’s own country is bad enough; dying intestate in a foreign country with different inheritance laws is hardly worth thinking about. To avoid triggering an Intestado Estate Transfer process, and the possibility of Spanish rather than British inheritance law applying to an estate, please do consider getting a Spanish Will drawn up.
If the body is to be taken back to the UK, this, like funeral choices, needs to be clarified from the start when the doctor first issues the death certificate. You should be aware that expenses may be covered by travel or life insurance, and that any bodies transported must be embalmed beforehand. This obviously does not apply to cremated remains, but airlines have to agree to carry the ashes when arrangements are made to transport them. Whether the deceased’s body or ashes are returning to the UK, their ID, death certificate, and a certificate of cremation if applicable must be carried along with them. Permission must also have been obtained from the authorities here in Tenerife to allow the body to be removed from Spain. Don’t forget that there will be some help available from the consulate in such circumstances, though such help will be of a practical and advisory nature, rather than financial; the consulate will also help smooth your arrival in the UK with the remains of your loved one.
Finally, do bear in mind the possibility that the person who has died may have wished to pass on some organs to other people. Spain is a world leader when it comes to organ donation, and it is not necessary here to carry a donor card because the country operates an opt-out system. In other words, we are assumed to be donors unless we actively take steps to ensure that our organs cannot be taken after our death. Families are almost always informed and consulted by doctors where the death occurred in a hospital, but if at home, it might be something to discuss with the attending doctor and funeral directors at the earliest opportunity. Alternatively, if the deceased wished for their entire body to be donated to science, arrangements will need to be made with the relevant legal and scientific authorities (see below).
When the initial arrangements have been finalised, it will then be necessary to begin the sad task of informing all the organizations which will need to be told of the death. In Spain, these include the Ayuntamiento for removal of registration from the Padron; Tráfico to cancel any driving licence; the Policía Nacional for deregistration from the lists of foreigners resident in Spain; and any bank in which the deceased had an account. British authorities which will need to be informed include the Dept for Work and Pensions (DWP) if the deceased was a pensioner; the Inland Revenue if tax resident in the UK; and again any banks with which the deceased held accounts. Insurance companies, whether here or in Spain, also need to be informed to begin the process to recover life insurance or other relevant policies.
The UK Government’s FCO has issued THIS Bereavement Information document for further information.
DONATING A BODY TO SCIENCE
I have been asked several times about the possibility of leaving a body to science in Tenerife. Sometimes this has been for practical reasons, perhaps to avoid funerary expenses, but at other times people genuinely want to do something useful with their body after their death.
A promotional campaign has been running for around five years now to inform the public on the possibility of donating a body to science, and Diario de Avisos has a piece (HERE), for example, on “the dead who give life”, perhaps by giving students the means to learn from practical experience, or by allowing doctors and forensic scientists to test or improve surgical or pathological techniques.
It’s important to note that written consent needs to be given in advance. Since the beginning of 2014, it is no longer necessary for the donor to have his/her signature witnessed by a consular officer. The form to complete and submit is HERE – it’s in English thanks to the British Consulate. The potential donor must print and complete two forms and have a witness sign them both. A photocopy of both the donor and the witness’s passport must accompany the forms when they’re sent to the appropriate department at the University; the instructions are on the form. It’s important that the donor reads all the information at the back of the form as it gives examples of when a body may be refused by the University. In this case the family would need to make alternative arrangements.
Apart from sending the form by post, the donor can take it personally to the University, or take it to any Tenerife Cabildo Registry Office and Citizen Service Centre. They facilitate the relationship with the government offices and movement of paperwork within public administrations and they can send the form officially to the University (no charge involved). The address for the one in Tenerife South is:
Oficina de Registro y Servicio al Ciudadano, Calle Roque de Jama s/n, Edificio Verodal, Local 7 letra A, bajo, Los Cristianos. Tel: 901 501 901. English is spoken in this office and they can also provide information on other Cabildo Services.
There are registry offices all over the island, however, and they are listed HERE.
While on the general subject, I am sometimes asked about blood donation. Please note that due to fears about CJD (fears that many think unfounded), Spain – as part of regulations also imposed by other EU countries – has rules forbidding British people to donate blood if they were in the UK for more than three months between January 1980 and December 1996.