Perhaps you're looking at options for your death or planning for your family, or maybe you’re handling a loved one’s affairs after death and they didn't leave any instructions.
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No matter the reason, you'll want to know the different institutions that can help you. Most common is a mortuary or funeral home. Whichever option you choose, knowing the differences can help you plan the
What is a Mortuary?
A mortuary is a place that provides services to families of a recently deceased person. Mortuaries exist in a variety of forms around the world. This means you may or may not find the same services at every mortuary you encounter.
Most offer embalming and often cremation services. Your choice of mortuary (or funeral home) will depend on the needs and wishes of the person who died and their family.
Difference between a mortuary, morgue, and funeral home
Generally speaking, morgues and mortuaries are often referred to interchangeably. Morgue is the common term in the United States, and mortuary is more common in the United Kingdom and other places where a version of British English is spoken.
A morgue in the United States often refers to a place in a medical center or hospital where bodies are stored. There can be morgues/mortuaries that are essentially holding places, storing a body until it's claimed or redirected.
Others are full-service businesses, intended to help the deceased's families after a death. They provide a variety of services, including on-site cremation as well as embalming.
Funeral homes may include many services that prepare a body for burial or cremation. They often focus on the ritual of the funeral itself as well. They will have space for receiving family at a wake with an open casket, and often a chapel for holding a service before burial.
It's possible for a business with "mortuary" in the name to offer funeral services, though they are often less extensive than those of funeral homes. Funeral homes usually don't offer cremation services on site, but they can connect you to this service.
What Happens at a Mortuary?
Not every mortuary will offer all of the services below. The core service provided is the storage of bodies while you make arrangements for a cremation or burial.
All of the other services depend on whether the mortuary is tied to or similar to a funeral home. The best place to start is by calling the business. Speak with the mortuary's representative and ask about the services you seek. If they’re not offered, the mortuary is likely to have referrals in the area.
After death, bodies begin to quickly decompose at room temperature. This decomposition can create a health risk for others in their vicinity. If it goes on too long, it can also make the embalming process harder.
To prevent these problems, mortuaries have rooms of refrigerated cabinets with drawers, each one made to fit a person’s body. Some mortuaries may use a different temperature-controlled setup.
These rooms may be located in a medical center or hospital, or they may be part of stand-alone facilities or funeral homes. In nearly every case, a person's remains will spend some amount of time in storage between death and their burial or cremation.
Consultations with families
Mortuaries usually have someone who can explain how a body is handled after death. Morticians or funeral directors are trained to be kind and thorough in their explanation of the services available. When looking for a mortuary, you might look for reviews online that specifically reference how helpful or understanding the mortician/funeral director is.
You make many decisions in these meetings. This includes the style and duration of the funeral. It might also include elements like whether the casket will be open or present at the funeral.
Other decisions include what casket the family wants to use, whether there will be a cremation and an urn, and how burial will be completed. Some choices regarding funeral specifics may need to be made at a funeral home. It simply depends on the services the mortuary offers.
If a person will receive a traditional burial in a casket, mortuaries often offer embalming services. This process involves the use of preserving chemicals to retain the person’s look from before death. It's often used in the case of funerals or wakes with an open casket, and is customary in funeral preparation in the United States.
After embalming, funeral preparations include dressing the body, adding items to the casket that have been requested by the family, and make-up. Different traditions handle the dressing of the body differently, as well as what goes into the casket.
Mortuaries are more likely to offer cremation services than funeral homes. Pursuing cremation might be a good reason to focus on the option of a mortuary. Cremation involves the burning of the person’s remains. This is sometimes preferred because it takes up less space and the remains can be stored in an urn or another ceremonial vessel.
Some prefer this option because of its economic benefit over the costs of a casket and burial plot. Others prefer it for the possibility of having ashes scattered in places of significance. In any case, a mortuary offering cremation services can walk you through the costs, timing, and potential ways to ceremonially store the ashes.
Some mortuaries also offer simple funeral services. They can offer referrals to a funeral home for a larger event or program. For instance, you may use both a mortuary and a funeral home if you're having a large funeral but also choosing cremation.
Every funeral is different. They often include some form of a receiving room where family and friends can formally greet and grieve with the bereaved. There's often a religious service and a time for sharing stories and memories. At the end of the service, pallbearers move the casket from the funeral service space to a hearse. The hearse transports it in a procession to the burial site.
Depending on how many services the mortuary offers, they may be able to coordinate a funeral procession. They also may not have anything to do with a burial site, so make sure you talk through your desires thoroughly.
Understanding the Mortuary and Your Needs
Mortuary services are often simpler and more direct than funeral services, but they may offer what you need to fulfill the end-of-life plan of a friend or family member. They are especially known for cremation and affordable funerals.
On the other hand, you may find that a traditional funeral home offers you more information on what to expect at a funeral and how to plan one. One option isn’t better than the other. Explore both and multiple options for each to figure out what’s best.
Exploring your options for a loved one's funeral may make you realize how helpful an end-of-life plan is. Even if it feels far off, making a funeral plan helps your family in the event of your death. Consider taking what you've learned about mortuaries and applying it to your future care.
- “What Does a Funeral Director Do?” Careers. Fine Mortuary College. fmc.edu/careers/what-does-funeral-director-do