What’s the Difference Between an Undertaker, Mortician & Funeral Director?

Updated

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You might be revisiting funeral basics if you’re preplanning your own funeral or you’ve recently lost a loved one and are planning someone else’s funeral. Maybe you’re researching the differences between burial or cremation, trying to find appropriate readings or songs.

Jump ahead to these sections:

Let Cake help you navigate this complicated industry. More specifically, we’ll cover the titles of the people in this profession — undertaker, mortician, and funeral director.

Virtual funeral tip: If you're planning a virtual or hybrid funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you'll also hear the term "facilitator." A virtual funeral facilitator works with you on the technology involved with hosting a virtual event. But they also take on similar tasks to a funeral director, like planning and creating the funeral program itself. 

What’s an Undertaker? 

The term “undertaker” may sound dated and old-fashioned. Even though you may not use the term in conversation often, you probably already understand that an undertaker is someone who works in the funeral industry.

Definition and synonyms

“Undertaker” means “​a person whose job is to prepare the bodies of dead people to be buried or cremated, and to arrange funerals,” according to the Oxford Dictionary.

The synonyms for the word are “funeral director” and “mortician.”

History of the word

The history of the word “undertaker,” which has been in use since the 1400s, may surprise you. The term did not come from the fact that undertakers placed bodies “under the ground.” 

It was used to name a person who would “undertake” a task — usually one associated with woodworking. Undertakers could build a house, cabinet, or a coffin for you.

It wasn’t until the 1690s that the term began to be used to refer specifically to the act of taking care of the deceased. 

» MORE: Keep a loved one's memory alive by creating a diamond from their ashes.

 

What’s a Mortician? 

The term “mortician” may sound a bit more modern than the word “undertaker.” The word was created in the last century, but it’s use caused a bit of controversy.

Definition and synonyms

“Mortician” means “a person whose job is to prepare the bodies of dead people to be buried or cremated and to arrange funerals,” according to the same dictionary. Does this sound familiar? 

The synonyms of “mortician” are “funeral director” and “undertaker.”

Etymology

The prefix for the word comes from the Latin “mort,” meaning “death.” The suffix of the word derives from the French “icien,” which means “a person skilled in or concerned with a field or subject.” 

History of the word

The history of the word “mortician” is fascinating. To understand where this word came from, you need to know a bit about the industry's history.

Embalming the deceased in the U.S. was not common practice until around the time of the Civil War. In fact, the method became popular when Abraham Lincoln’s body was embalmed in preparation for his funeral procession from Washington, D.C. to Illinois. Since the journey was going to take more than a week, the organizers wanted the body to remain as preserved as possible since it would be on display. 

Embalmers of the time were proud of their skills. They wanted to distinguish themselves as “professionals” instead of mere “undertakers.” A professional organization of embalmers decided they needed a new name, and “mortician” was chosen. The word was reminiscent of the word “physician,” and it had a dignified air about it. 

What’s a Funeral Director? 

You may feel the most comfortable using the term “funeral director” rather than “undertaker” or “mortician.” You might be surprised by how old the term actually is. 

Definition and synonyms

You guessed it. The Oxford dictionary defines a funeral director as “​an undertaker, a person whose job is to prepare the bodies of dead people to be buried or cremated and to arrange funerals.” The synonym for “funeral director,” as you can see in the definition, is “undertaker.” 

Etymology

The word “funeral” came from late Middle English. It is from the Old French word “funeraille,” from the medieval Latin word “funeralia,” and from the Latin words “funus,” or “funer” meaning “‘funeral, death, corpse.”

History

The history of the term funeral director may surprise you.

As you can see from the etymology, the word “funeral” is late Middle English. The term “funeral director” was used to describe the profession around the same time that the word “mortician” came into vogue. 

In 1905, the British Undertakers’ Association changed its name to the National Association of Funeral Directors. 

Undertaker vs. Mortician vs. Funeral Director: Are There Any Differences?

There is no difference between an undertaker, mortician, or a funeral director. Although the educational requirements to become a member of this profession vary from state to state, the terms may be used unilaterally to mean the same thing.

One of their nationally-known professional organizations is called the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association.

Educational requirements

Each state has its own requirements to become a mortician or funeral director. Some states do not require applicants to have a degree. Other states require either a two-year or four-year college degree in Mortuary Science. More institutions offer an associate’s degree in Mortuary Science than a bachelor’s degree. Most who enter the field choose to obtain formal training whether it’s required by the state or not.

An applicant becomes an apprentice with a licensed, practicing funeral director. Some states require a license to become an apprentice. Your state may also require that you assist in all parts of the process, from funerals to embalmings. 

After the requirements for the apprenticeship are fulfilled, you may need to obtain a full license. Some states require candidates to have at least a two-year degree, to have served as an apprentice between one and three years, and to pass a licensing exam.

On a side note, embalmers may require separate training. 

Talk With Your Funeral Director

The cost of funerals continues to increase. One way to save money on a funeral is by making arrangements well ahead of death. Prepaying for a funeral is just one way to have an inexpensive funeral. Talk with your funeral director and do more research to find other ways to cut costs. 

Also, stop and consider this person’s job. It’s unique and requires a wide array of skills. 

Not only does your funeral director need to understand the mechanics of handling a deceased person’s body, but the funeral director also needs to know about how to transport, store, and prepare bodies. Funeral directors need to understand the laws associated with burial and cremation and be on call at all hours. They must also be highly skilled to interact with people who are going through the worst time of their lives.

If you know a special funeral director or mortician in your life, why not get them a gift? Read our guide on the best gifts for funeral directors for some ideas.


Sources

  1. “Funeral Director.” “Mortician.” “Undertaker.” Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. 2020. Oxford University Press. www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/mortician
  2. “History.” National Association of Funeral Directors. N.d. nafd.org.uk/about-us/history-2/
  3. “How to Become a Mortician.” Mortician School. 2020. www.morticianschool.net/become/
  4. Long, Thomas G. and Thomas Lynch. The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. January 2013. Westminster John Knox Press. Pg 113. 

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