Funeral Director, Mortician and Undertaker: Any Difference?

The Undertaker was borrowed from European tradition.

The Undertaker was borrowed from European tradition.

Unless you work for a funeral home, or unless you have an obsession about death and dying practices, you may wonder if there is a difference between a funeral director and a mortician or a mortician and an undertaker. For all intents and purposes today, there is no difference – especially if the funeral home is a small family operation. But, in larger funeral home operations, you might see a slight difference in what each job traditionally entails.

The “Undertaker” is a traditional European term that described the person who would transport the body, prepare it for burial and interact with the survivors on funeral preparations. When the colonies were formed in the New World and burial services were needed, often church and family members would take over the job of the undertaker. During the Civil War, when embalming practices became popular among the growing funeral profession, the title of the person handling the affairs became the “Mortician” over the last decades of the nineteenth century:

“The word ‘mortician’ is a recent innovation due to a need felt by undertakers for a word more in keeping with, and descriptive of, their calling.” [“Literary Digest,” Jan. 16, 1915]

A mortician often carried out all the duties of the undertaker as the body was transported and prepared for burial. As the funeral profession grew with the U.S. population over the following century, the term, “Funeral Director” became popular. The funeral director, however, often dealt directly with the family as they developed burial plans. The mortician, on the other hand, handled the body of the deceased and prepared that body for the funeral.

Today, a funeral director may deal with families, take care of the body with an assistant’s help and handle the business as well. Or, the funeral director may operate from an office in another location as managers and morticians work in various funeral homes operated from the home office. But, in most cases, each funeral home has a funeral director who interacts directly with the bereaved family.

So, to answer the question about which term is correct to use today, in most cases, you would use the term, “funeral director” – at least for the person who deals directory with the family.

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