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Differences Between Undertakers, Funeral Directors, and More

When it comes to job titles like undertaker, embalmer, mortician, and funeral director, its not uncommon to feel a sense of confusion.

When it comes to job titles like undertaker, embalmer, mortician, and funeral director, it's not uncommon to feel a sense of confusion. The different names may lead you to believe they represent distinct professions, but they all refer to the same domain. These terms encompass a wide range of services within the world of funerals. Although there may be variations in educational requirements from state to state, their fundamental purpose remains synonymous.

A Brief History of Each Term


The term "undertaker" may evoke images of a bygone era, but it is just one of the many names given to professionals who provide invaluable services in the funeral industry.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, an undertaker is "a person whose job is to prepare the bodies of dead people to be buried or cremated, and to arrange funerals." While the term dates back to the 1400s, it does not refer to burying bodies underground. Instead, it was initially used for someone who undertook tasks, often involving woodworking, such as building houses, cabinets, or coffins.

By the 1690s, the term became exclusively associated with individuals who cared for the deceased in the funeral industry.


An embalmer is an individual who uses chemicals to prevent a decedent from decaying.

The practice of embalming did not become standard until the Civil War, especially following the death of President Lincoln. Embalming was necessary to prevent decomposition, allowing millions of Americans to pay their respects during the president's 1,645-mile journey by train. Embalmers used a mixture of chemicals, including arsenic, zinc and mercuric chlorides, creosote, turpentine, and alcohol. In the late 1880s, formaldehyde was developed in Germany, and embalmers began using this compound for preservation purposes in the early 1900s.


While "mortician" may sound more modern than "undertaker," the two terms mean the same thing. The word "mortician" comes from the Latin prefix "mort," meaning "death," and the French suffix "icien," which refers to someone skilled or concerned with a particular field.

In the 19th century, embalmers took pride in their craft and sought to distinguish themselves as professionals. They adopted the term "mortician" to embody the dignity and professionalism associated with the word "physician."

Funeral Director

While "mortician" is still used today, most people are more familiar with the modern synonym "funeral director." The word "funeral" has roots in late Middle English, borrowed from the Old French word "funeraille," which can be traced back to the Latin "funus" or "funer," meaning "funeral, death, corpse."

The term "funeral director" became commonplace after "mortician" gained popularity. In 1905, the British Undertakers' Association further solidified its usage when it rebranded to the National Association of Funeral Directors.

No matter which term you use, these professionals possess diverse skills. They are responsible for preparing deceased bodies, understanding burial laws, and providing emotional support to grieving families. Their work is demanding, often requiring them to be available at all hours. It calls for empathy and a deep understanding of human emotions during challenging times.

Taking Control of Your End-of-Life Arrangements

Understanding the nuances between these job titles can help you navigate the funeral industry and make informed choices when planning for end-of-life arrangements. Whether you're considering the type of services you want or determining which professionals to trust, having a basic understanding of the roles involved can empower you to take control of your arrangements.

When making your decisions, it's important to remember that your choices are valid and will be honored. Funeral professionals are there to guide and support you through this difficult time. They have the knowledge and expertise to fulfill your wishes while providing compassionate care for you and your loved ones.

By familiarizing yourself with the job titles and their history, you can have more meaningful conversations with funeral professionals and make informed decisions that align with your values and preferences. To learn more about funeral directors, take a look at our article Compassion in Action: Exploring the Profound Work of Funeral Directors.