When it comes to funerals, death, and dying, those who work in this field often struggle with the public understanding their roles. With terms like mortician, funeral director, coroner, and undertaker all thrown around interchangeably, what are the real differences?
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In reality, there are many unique roles in the death-care industry. From those who help families plan the funeral of a loved one to medical diagnoses after death, there are a variety of different people who play a role in this important life transition.
Two of the most important figures in death care are the coroner and the mortician. Do you understand the key differences between these two professionals? If not, you’re far from alone. There’s a lot of understandable confusion about death and end-of-life care. In this guide, we’ll pull back the curtain to reveal the difference between a coroner and a mortician.
What’s a Coroner?
Many people use the terms coroner and mortician interchangeably, but these are actually very different roles. A coroner is also sometimes known as a medical examiner, but there can also be differences in this line of work as well. In short, a corner is someone who determines the cause of death.
A coroner can be a medical doctor with a medical degree, but this isn’t a requirement. Instead, they work directly with the Sheriff’s Department for specific states and counties. In order for coroners to perform specific roles (like an autopsy), they might need to hold a medical degree and license.
States and local jurisdictions are the ones who set the requirements for what is necessary to be a local coroner. There are often different standards, so you might encounter a lot of different roles under this umbrella.
What are the duties of a coroner?
The key duties of a coroner depend on the specific role and location. Some places have a Medical Examiner who is a licensed doctor who performs these roles. In general, most coroners do a combination of the following:
- Declaring death: Coroners are one of the professionals legally allowed to declare death, similar to doctors or other medical professionals.
- Cause of death: The main role of coroners is to determine the cause of death, whether it’s natural, homicide, accidental, etc.
- Notification: The coroner might also be tasked with notifying the next of kin.
- Death certificate: The coroner is one of the professionals who can complete and file the death certificate.
- Death records: At a local coroner's office, coroners are in charge of maintaining accurate death records for the community.
- Court proceedings: If a death is being investigated, the coroner might be asked to present findings in front of a court of law.
- Death investigation: Sometimes coroners are also asked to look into the cause of death if there’s an investigation, working with law enforcement and medical professionals.
Where do coroners work?
Unlike others in the death-care industry, coroners typically work in offices away from the public. They might work in a court, morgue, or as part of law enforcement agencies.
Most coroners work in private offices where they handle documents, death certificates, and investigations. The handling of human remains is only part of the job, and there are many administrative tasks that take place within a traditional office.
What’s a Mortician?
A mortician has some similarities to a coroner in that they work with the dead and their families, but there are also many differences. Also sometimes known as an undertaker, a mortician is a funeral director. This is someone who handles planning the funeral, burial, cremation, and preparing the body for its final resting place.
Many morticians directly work with the dead, embalming the body or applying cosmetics for viewings. To become a mortician, one must undergo education and state qualifications. There is also a licensing board federally and on a state level. That being said, morticians are not licensed medical professionals or doctors.
What are the duties of morticians?
Within funeral homes, morticians handle many different tasks. Some might lead a staff, while others work one-on-one to complete all of the tasks below:
- Transport the body: Mortificans are typically “last responders,” or the first to be called after a death. They start by handling the transportation of the body from the place of death (hospital, home, etc.) to the funeral home.
- Embalming: For families that choose embalming, morticians prepare the body for burial by cleaning the body, using special embalming chemicals, and creating a preserved, lifelike appearance.
- Paperwork: Funeral directors also handle admin work like filing for death certificates, completing paperwork, and assisting the family.
- Funeral planning: Morticians are the first line of assistance for families with planning the funeral, burial, and final resting place.
- Grief: Lastly, because these are the professionals families work directly with after death, morticians are also equipped to handle grief.
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Where do morticians work?
Morticians work in funeral homes. There, they directly work with the public and families of all backgrounds. Funeral directors often own their own practice, work for national chains, or work under a more experienced funeral director.
The majority of morticians' time is spent working with families, planning memorial events, and so on. There is also an element of the work that is directly with the dead, though this is a smaller percentage of the time. Many movies about working in a funeral home show what it’s like to be a mortician.
Coroner vs. Morticians: 6 Key Differences
To review, let’s highlight the key differences between a coroner and a mortician. Though they might seem the same at first glance, you’ll quickly realize that these are unique, separate roles.
1. Medical licenses
The first key difference is that many coroners hold medical licenses. While this isn’t always required, it’s very common. This is especially true for coroners who complete autopsies.
On the other hand, morticians do not hold medical licenses. They are licensed in funeral work, but they are not medical doctors. This means there is a difference in training and education.
2. Legal cases
Morticians don’t typically play any role in the courtroom or with law enforcement. This is something that is strictly done by coroners who are more versed in legal matters and investigation.
Many corners work directly with police and law enforcement, while morticians are not included in this process. A funeral director is not usually consulted until any pending legal cases are closed.
3. Family and grief
Morticians are well-versed in grief and suffering after a loss. Because they work directly with families, they need to be respectful and sensitive around these issues.
Coroners, on the other hand, don’t interact with family as much. While they might deliver information about the cause of death or court cases, they are not a part of the memorial planning process.
4. Public vs. private
Coroners are often government employees. Many work for state coroner systems, and they work closely with other government offices.
Morticians, on the other end of the spectrum, are always private employees that work for private businesses. Morticians can also own their own funeral planning practice.
When it comes to training, there are a lot of differences between coroners and morticians. The training required to be a coroner varies widely by location. Some states require less training than others. Some states require degrees and licenses.
For morticians, the opposite is true. There is a strict education and licensing process in every state. Some even require a specific number of training hours and hands-on practice under a licensed mortician.
Last but not least, the coroner has unique power that morticians do not have. In many states, coroners actually have the power to arrest individuals. They also play an important role in court cases.
In many states, the coroner can act as the county sheriff as long as specific conditions are met. This is also sometimes an elected position, similar to county sheriff.
Understanding Death Care Positions
As you can see, it takes a village to care for the dead. There are many different roles each community needs fulfilled when it comes to helping families through this time. From the coroner investigating cause of death to morticians preparing the body for burial, each of these steps is important.
The key differences above reveal how vastly different these roles can be depending on the location. While they’re easy to get confused, every professional brings his or her unique skills and education to every role.
- Rogers, Brad. “Ask the sheriff: The jobs of the county coroner include arresting the sheriff.” The Goshen News. 19 February, 2016. GoshenNews.com.