What is an Undertaker for a Funeral? And What Do They Do?

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While the term ‘undertaker’ might bring to mind dark images of haunted houses and horror films, it’s actually an important profession in the funeral industry. However, the difference between mortician, undertaker, and funeral director isn’t always clear.

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What exactly is an undertaker for a funeral, and what do they do? Because most people don’t research planning a funeral until they have to, it’s understandable that there’s a lot of mystery around this position. 

In reality, an undertaker is just the British term for a funeral director. In this guide, we’ll dive deeper into this role to understand what they do exactly and how they help people navigate the world of funeral planning. 

What’s an Undertaker?

You’ve likely heard the terms ‘undertaker,’ ‘funeral director,’ and ‘mortician’ used interchangeably. This is actually because all of these terms refer to the same position. In simple terms, an undertaker is a person who supervises or conducts the preparation of the dead for burial or assists with arranging for a funeral. 

The exact roles of an undertaker depend on the specific funeral home. They might do the preparation of the bodies, including embalming and beautification. Sometimes they only assist with planning and arranging funerals. For small funeral homes, it’s likely the same person doing all of these roles. 

The role ‘funeral director’ is more all-encompassing than ‘undertaker,’ so you’re more likely to hear this term used. In addition, ‘undertaker’ sounds a bit malicious and sinister, while ‘funeral director’ is a neutral term that’s caught on in recent years. 

Why are they called an undertaker?

In the United States, the term ‘undertaker’ has largely fallen out of practice. In 1894, it was replaced by the term ‘mortician’ which was derived from the word ‘physician.’ Why was this rebranding necessary?

This dates back to the Civil War. During the war, undertakers followed the armies. They were seen in the same light as others who used to follow soldiers, like sex workers. These so-called professionals referred to themselves as ‘doctors,’ though there actually wasn’t any formal medical training around embalming and burials at this time. 

This is the same time when ‘casket’ replaced ‘coffin’ in the death industry, and it was clear a rebrand was needed. These original undertakers didn’t have a strong reputation, and they were seen as shady businessmen during and after the Civil War. 

In 1917, around 200 American undertakers organized as the National Selected Morticians. This is when they began to reform the terminology. As such, ‘body’ turned into ‘patient’ and ‘ambulance’ replaced hearse. Today, the politically correct term is still ‘mortician’ or ‘funeral director’ to distract from this shady past. 

In the United Kingdom, it’s still common for the term ‘undertaker’ to be used interchangeably with other terms like ‘mortician’ or ‘funeral director.’ However, you’re not likely to see it in the United States. At least, not outside of Halloween. 

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What Duties Is an Undertaker Responsible For?

What exactly does an undertaker do within a funeral home? If you’re wondering what to expect at a funeral, how do undertakers help? You can think of these professionals as the jack-of-all-trades (and master of all) within the funeral industry. 

For those learning how to plan a funeral for themselves or a loved one, there are a lot of moving parts. From planning arrangements for the body to helping the family through their grief, undertakers are highly skilled, respected business owners. 

Business owner

First and foremost, most funeral directors are business owners. While some funeral homes are owned by larger companies or a separate owner, it’s very common for the undertaker or funeral director to also be the owner or manager of the business. 

While we usually think of undertakers as being the ones who handle the bodies of the dead, they’re also in charge of many day-to-day administrative tasks. Running a business is often life or death, and it’s a complicated process. Undertakers might have assistants or employees to help them manage admin, paperwork, hiring, finances, and so on, but many do these tasks themselves. 

Prepare the remains

The most well-known task undertakers are responsible for is preparing the body. They handle the remains according to the family’s wishes. This might include cremation, embalming, beautification, dressing the dead, and so on. 

This is complex, heavy stuff, but it’s a job that must be done. These individuals are highly skilled in how to safely handle deceased remains, and they do their job with the utmost respect of those they work with. 

Transportation arrangements

Undertakers are also responsible for transportation arrangements. This could include a number of things. It usually refers to transferring the body to/from the funeral home, but it also could mean assisting the family with arrangements for the funeral, memorial, or graveside service. 

Funeral homes usually partner with local emergency responders, transportation services, and other members of this field to simplify this process. Though a lot happens behind the scenes, this is a seamless process for grieving families. 

Submit paperwork and documents

There is a lot of paperwork that goes into dying. From filing the death certificate to arranging country records, the undertaker knows exactly how to navigate this process. For families facing a world of grief, it’s nice to have someone else take care of this step. 

Plan funerals

Planning funerals is no easy task, but it’s one undertakers manage every day. They help families choose what type of funeral service they’d like, decorate, manage guests, and prepare the body if it’s to be shown at the memorial. 

Some funeral directors also manage the event itself. They might say a few words, arrange religious speakers or celebrants, or help the family face their grief in a constructive way. Ultimately, this peer-to-peer service helps families in their time of need. 

Advance planning

Last but not least, undertakers discuss and help plan funerals for those wishing to create plans in advance. It’s common for people to plan their own funerals. Having control over one’s memorial service is a form of comfort. 

These advanced planning practices make the undertaker’s life a little bit easier, and they help many people prepare for the inevitable. Though it might sound morbid, this is a much-needed service. 

How Do You Become an Undertaker?

Though some might find it hard to believe, the career of undertaking calls to many. For those with a lot of empathy and compassion for the grieving and the dead, this is a highly rewarding career path.  

However, becoming an undertaker is no simple process. This is a highly-skilled profession, one that requires a lot of education and training. First, you must earn a mortuary science degree from a qualified mortuary institution. This could be an associate or bachelor’s degree. 

In your education, you’ll learn things like embalming, funeral service management, embalming, and even business law. This is a lengthy process, but it’s not over there. Next, the undertaker-to-be needs to join an apprenticeship program where they work under an experienced funeral director. 

After 1-3 years of practical experience, the undertaker will need to earn his or her license through the state. Once this license has been earned, the individual is free to practice undertaking at an existing funeral home or by starting their own. 

Preparing for the Inevitable: The Role of Undertakers

Undertakers don’t always get the recognition they deserve for the work they do, but they’re always there when families need them most. Though the term ‘undertaker’ has fallen out of style, it doesn’t lessen the impact these professionals have within the funeral industry. 

Whether you call them ‘undertakers,’ ‘funeral directors,’ or ‘morticians,’ they do one of the hardest jobs each and every day. Nobody wants to think about the inevitable, but someone has to help when the time does come. Undertakers balance both life and death, helping families transition through some of life’s darkest moments. 

Though undertakers didn’t always have the best reputation, they’ve earned their place within society. They’re skilled, technical professionals, and business owners. The term itself might feel cloaked in mystery, but it’s really a straightforward, essential profession. 


Sources

  1. Smith, Jack. “A Very Grave Undertaking in Etymology.” Los Angeles Times. 9 October 1989. LAtimes.com

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