Scroll down for information and advice on things that often happen in the first few days after a fatal crash.
This includes information and advice on organ donation; seeing, touching and identifying a loved one's body; post-mortem examinations; return of belongings; visiting the crash site; what happened in the crash; and what happens to vehicles.
Organ and tissue donation
You may or may not want to consider donation of organs or tissue from a loved one’s body to help others live. Donation of most organs is only possible if a loved one died in hospital, but donation of tissue or eyes may be possible after a death at the roadside.
If you want to consider it, but haven’t been contacted by medical staff, you need to act quickly – usually within 24 hours although sometimes up to 48 hours after the death. For organ donation, call 0300 123 2323. For tissue donation, call the Tissues National Referral Centre on 0800 432 0559.
The law in Scotland
Under Scottish law, if your loved one had made their donation decision known (for example, by informing a relative or close friend, or by joining the NHS Organ Donor Register), and they died in circumstances where they can become a donor, the person caring for your loved one’s body should make every effort to fulfil this decision. However, even if a loved one’s decision is unknown, donations should be discussed with you. After a road crash, medical staff may need to obtain permission for donation to proceed from the Procurator Fiscal, who investigates all sudden deaths in Scotland (see Practical issues). This permission is usually given.
From Autumn 2020, a system known as ‘deemed authorisation’ (commonly known as an ‘opt out’ system) will be introduced in Scotland. Under this system, most adults aged 16 years and over may be considered to be willing to donate their organs and tissue when they die, unless they have ‘opted out’ and stated that they don’t wish to donate. Certain groups of people will not be subject to the new law including: people under 16 years of age; people who lack capacity to understand the new arrangements; and people who have been resident in Scotland for less than 12 months.
Organs or tissue are removed with care and do not delay burial or cremation arrangements. You can still see a loved one’s body afterwards if you choose.
Seeing a loved one’s body
After someone dies suddenly or unexpectedly, their body is taken to a hospital mortuary or a local authority mortuary. You can decide whether or not to see a loved one’s body. To help you make this decision, and if you didn’t see a loved one in hospital or at the roadside before their death, you can ask your police contact or medical staff to tell you about injuries to a loved one’s body and what their body looks like.
Sometimes, the bodies of people killed in road crashes have few visible injuries because injuries are internal. Sometimes bodies are very badly damaged. If a body is badly damaged, medical staff may cover the most damaged areas with a sheet. You can ask which areas of a body will be covered or uncovered. Sometimes the whole body is very badly damaged. Sometimes a body is a different colour, due to internal bleeding or bruising.
You may choose to see a loved one's body to say goodbye. Or you may choose to remember someone as they were. The decision is yours. You can take your time to decide. If a loved one's body is in a hospital, there may be a bereavement officer or hospital chaplain who can support you at this time. You can ask if this support is available.
Touching a loved one’s body
If you decide to see a loved one’s body, you may wish to touch their body. If you want to do this, talk to your police contact or medical staff. Sometimes, bodies of people killed in road crashes are very delicate because they are damaged, or bodies should not be touched for reasons to do with a police investigation. If you touch a loved one’s body, it may help to remember their body will feel cold.
Identifying a loved one’s body
The police sometimes require a family member to identify a person who has died. If the police ask you to do this, they may ask you to identify your loved one’s body or identify them from their belongings. If you do not want to see a loved one’s body but you are asked to identify their body, ask the police if there is anyone else who could do this for you. Alternatively, you may be able to identify the body through an internal glass window (at the mortuary), or by photograph or by video recording. In rarer instances, a body is harder to identify due to injuries sustained. In this case, police may ask you to help identify a loved one through dental records or by providing a sample of their DNA (for example, from a hairbrush or toothbrush).
After someone dies on the road, there is likely to be a post-mortem examination of their body. This is a medical examination to determine the cause of death. A post mortem includes examination of body organs, tissues and fluids and is carried out by a specialist doctor called a pathologist.
A post-mortem examination will be instructed by the Procurator Fiscal (see Practical issues). The Procurator Fiscal investigates all sudden deaths.
In nearly all cases of death on the road, the Procurator Fiscal decides that a post-mortem examination should include surgically opening and looking inside a body. The body is then closed again. This is called an invasive autopsy. Some people have objections, for faith or other reasons, to an invasive autopsy. If you have objections, or concerns about the way it will be carried out, you should talk to the Procurator Fiscal or your police contact as soon as possible so they can take into account your views. A post-mortem examination may still be required.
Usually a post-mortem examination also includes toxicology tests. This means that the pathologist takes samples of blood and urine, and possibly other samples such as stomach contents, fluid from an eye and pieces of tissue, to find out if they contain any toxic substances, such as alcohol or drugs.
Very rarely, a second post-mortem examination may be carried out, if someone is charged with a crime in connection with the death, or if a criminal investigation is ongoing in relation to the circumstances of the death. This is often called a ‘defence post mortem’ as it is requested on behalf of the person accused of the crime. If this is necessary, the Procurator Fiscal or your police contact will let you know as soon as possible.
You should be informed about whether a post-mortem examination will take place. You should be told by the Procurator Fiscal, or by your police contact. For more information about post-mortem examinations, the role of the Procurator Fiscal in the investigation of deaths, and information for bereaved relatives, go to www.copfs.gov.uk/investigating-deaths/deaths.
More information about the Procurator Fiscal is available in Practical issues. Your police contact can tell you how to get in touch with the Procurator Fiscal if you haven’t been contacted by them already.
Organ or tissue retention
Most post-mortem examinations involve taking small tissue samples, known as 'tissue blocks'. These are less than six millimetres thick and are embedded in wax or resin. From them, very small amounts of tissue, thinner than a hair, are placed on glass slides so they can be examined under a microscope. These slides help confirm the cause of death. Tissue samples retained from the post-mortem examination become part of the dead person's medical record. Taking tissue samples does not disfigure a body.
Rarely, a Procurator Fiscal releases a body for burial or cremation but retains organs or tissue temporarily as part of their on-going investigation. If this occurs, the nearest relative will be informed. You can decide if any retained tissue or organs should be reunited with the body, which may mean you have to delay a burial or cremation until the investigation is over. If you proceed with a burial or cremation, any retained tissue or organs will be disposed of by the pathologist in a respectful way. The Procurator Fiscal (see Practical issues) should explain these options and discuss what you want to do.
Sometimes medical staff want to keep tissue samples for research, education or training purposes. They can only do this with the authorisation of the person who died (if they were an adult) or their nearest relative.
The law on organ and tissue retention is explained in the Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006. The Procurator Fiscal or the pathologist can provide more information about the law or your case.
Delays to a burial or cremation
Following the report of a death to the Procurator Fiscal, a burial or cremation can only take place once the Procurator Fiscal has given permission for the body to be released. To find out how long a post-mortem examination will take, or if you have objections to a burial or cremation being delayed, talk to your police contact or the Procurator Fiscal.
The post-mortem examination report
You are entitled to, and can ask for, a copy of a loved one's post-mortem examination report, usually for free. You may or may not want to see it. The Procurator Fiscal can arrange for it to be sent to your GP who can help explain it. Sometimes, you cannot see it until after an investigation has finished. A pathologist who carried out a post-mortem examination may also be able to meet with you. Usually this happens at the office of the Procurator Fiscal.
If a loved one died before emergency services reached them, the pathologist may be able to give you information about their death. For example, this could include how fast they lost consciousness.
Return of a loved one’s personal belongings
The police, hospital officials or mortuary staff may be holding personal belongings of a loved one who has died, such as a bag, mobile phone, clothes or jewellery. You can ask if they are holding any belongings. You may decide that you want to have all, some or none of them returned. If you are using a funeral director, you can ask them to collect any personal belongings for you when they collect the body.
Personal belongings, particularly clothes, are often damaged or blood-stained in crashes. Before deciding if you want certain belongings, you may want to ask about the condition of them.
If you want something returned that has been blood-stained, you can choose whether you want it returning just as it is, or cleaned first. Some people don’t want a loved one’s clothes cleaned because the clothes may carry the smell of that person. Some clothes are very badly damaged and you may want them cleaned or not returned at all. The police may or may not charge you a fee for any cleaning you want them to do.
If a loved one who has died was in a vehicle, you can ask your police contact to check if any belongings are still in that vehicle (for example, in the boot or glove compartment of a car) and ask for these to be returned to you.
Sometimes belongings are kept temporarily by the police because the police need them as part of their investigation. Once the police investigation and any resulting criminal prosecution are finished, these belongings can be returned if you want them.
The police and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service have produced joint guidance on the return of property kept for use as evidence, called ‘Victims' Rights – Return of Property’. This guidance can be found at www.copfs.gov.uk/involved-in-acase/victims/resources-for-victims.
Many people treasure the smell of a loved one who died. You may wish to preserve their smell for a while by storing clothing they recently wore in an odour-free zip-locked bag.
Visiting the crash site
If you were not in the crash, you may or may not want to visit the place it happened. If you want to visit, your police contact can tell you the precise location if you do not know it and tell you any dangers such as parking problems, lack of pedestrian access or fast traffic. They may be able to accompany you to ensure your safety and answer questions you may have about the site.
If the crash site is far away and not accessible by public transport, your police contact or someone else may be able to drive you there. You may want them to do this if you do not drive, do not feel able to drive because of the shock, or you can't drive because your vehicle was damaged in the crash.
You may or may not want to leave flowers or something else at the crash site. See Practical issues for information on roadside memorials.
How did a loved one die?
If you were not in the crash yourself, you may or may not want to know the details of how a loved one died. You may want to know about medical treatment given at the roadside or in a hospital, and whether a loved one said anything or was unconscious during this time.
Sometimes it is possible to meet and talk to people who provided help at the crash site, such as a paramedic or a fire officer, or members of the public who provided first aid. If you want to do this, your police contact will be able to find out if this is possible. Alternatively, your police contact may be able to ask these people questions on your behalf.
If a loved one died in hospital, you can ask to talk to doctors or nurses who provided treatment. The Patient Advice and Support Service (PASS) can help you do this. Alternatively, your police contact may be able to find out about treatment given and explain it to you.
You can also, if you are the nearest relative, get a copy of the medical report prepared by the hospital on treatment given. This can be requested by you or your solicitor (see Practical issues) and there may be a fee. This report may use medical terms unfamiliar to you, so you may want to ask a hospital doctor or your GP to explain it to you. You may not be able to get full details of treatment until after the Procurator Fiscal’s investigations into the death are finished.
If concern that a hospital treated you loved one inadequately, you may wish to consult a personal injury solicitor (see Can I claim compensation?). In some cases, a medical negligence claim can be brought.
Why did the crash happen?
It is common to want to know straight away what happened and who was involved.
The police will carry out an investigation into the crash and collect evidence on behalf of the Procurator Fiscal (see Practical issues). If it appears that someone may have committed an offence, criminal charges may then be brought (see Criminal investigation and charges).
If a solicitor is working on your behalf to find out if you can claim compensation (see Practical issues), they will need information from the police (including names of people involved, witness statements, and evidence such as photographs). It is important that your solicitor requests and gets information as soon as possible.
The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (the organisation responsible for raising criminal proceedings) has guidelines about when information may be released. In some cases, for legal reasons, some information may not be released until after an investigation or a prosecution has happened.
You can ask your police contact or the Procurator Fiscal questions at any time during the police investigation. They may not have much information at first and may not be able to tell you certain things until their investigation is complete, but they will tell you as much as they can.
You can read more about what information can be released and when it can be released in the document ‘Access to Information Protocol’. This guidance can be found at www.copfs.gov.uk/publications/victims-and-witnesses.
What happens to a vehicle involved in the crash?
If a person who died was in a vehicle or on a motorbike or bicycle, it might be taken away for examination by the police along with any other vehicles involved in the crash. The police examine vehicles involved in fatal crashes to find out if they were mechanically defective, and to get more information about what happened in the crash.
Vehicles may be kept until the end of the police investigation and any resulting criminal prosecution. Sometimes the police have to take vehicles apart to find out what happened. Your police contact can tell you where vehicles are being kept and what is happening to a vehicle. If you were not in the crash, you may want to see a vehicle. You can ask your police contact to arrange this. Many vehicles involved in crashes are very badly damaged, although some are not. Ask your police contact to tell you in advance what a vehicle will look like.
The Procurator Fiscal must authorise the release of a vehicle.
You can pay for an independent examination of a vehicle if you or your solicitor (see Practical issues) think this is necessary. If you wish to do this, tell your police contact. A list of crash investigators is available from the website www.itai.org.