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Know the Lingo: Demystifying 7 Funeral Words and Phrases

Anyone who has found themselves in the position of having to make funeral arrangements for someone else or planning their own end-of-life care...

Defining Funeral Terms

Anyone who has found themselves in the position of having to make funeral arrangements for someone else or planning their own end-of-life care knows that the process can be complicated. 

Like any industry, funeral homes have their own unique vocabulary that may be foreign to families. Since most of us only encounter this type of business once or twice in our lives, not knowing the lingo can often increase stress and confusion. 

But understanding what a few key words and phrases mean can help families navigate the process. Here are a few funeral terms to know.


Cremains or cremated remains are commonly referred to as “ashes,” but in truth are more similar to sand in texture. After cremation, bone fragments are left behind and then ground to a finer size.

Crematory, Crematorium

Both of these words refer to the location where a body is cremated. Some crematories or crematoriums also have additional space for viewings or services. Sometimes a crematory or crematorium is part of a traditional funeral home. Other times, these are standalone businesses that work with third parties. People working in the funeral business may call the location a “trade center.”

Direct Cremation

Direct Cremation happens “directly,’ that is, before there is a funeral or memorial service. Families instead may hold whatever kind of ceremony they’d like at a later date.


Embalming is a chemical process that was made popular during the Civil War to preserve bodies to ready them for funerals or viewings. Embalming is not necessary with direct cremation and no state law requires it. Many green funeral advocates recommend against using embalming because of the harmful chemicals left behind. However, those who choose a traditional funeral with an open casket should discuss it with their funeral director.


While the dictionary defines funeral as “the observances held for a dead person usually before burial or cremation,” the word funeral is used more broadly in phrases that describe the roles, businesses and decisions made after a death, even when no actual funeral service is planned or anticipated. For example, even if you do not have a funeral (a service with a body present) you will likely encounter a funeral director, may choose a funeral home or make funeral arrangements. State regulations define what a funeral home is depending on where you live. 

A service without a body present is a memorial or a celebration of life, but not a funeral.

General Price List

Under the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule, funeral homes must provide you with a General Price List, or “GPL.” Consumer advocates have been pushing to mandate online posting, but for now, only a small percentage do so. Advocates also have urged the FTC to make the GPLs more consistent, clearer and easier for consumers to understand. To be sure you aren’t being charged anything you don’t want or need, always ask if the number you’ve been given is the complete and final price. The Funeral Consumer Alliance has some tips on how to read a GPL and notes red flags to be aware of. 

Prepayment, Prearrangement

Families sometimes choose to pay in advance for funeral services. Depending on the state where you live, these plans are regulated by the state government under various names like prepayment, pre-planning and pre-arrangement. Consumer advocates suggest another choice is putting money aside for funeral arrangements yourself without giving that money to a funeral home. Either way, putting money aside for the future will help your loved ones when the time comes.


A vault is a grave liner that encloses a casket. Burial vaults and casket liners are sometimes added to a family’s burial arrangements in a traditional cemetery plot. Their stated purpose is to avoid the ground from caving in around the casket, but the FTC warns that they never should be sold as a way to preserve the body indefinitely. No gasket, seal, vault or liner can do that. 

We hope knowing these words and phrases will help demystify the funeral business and help families make sense of their choices. At Afterall, we’ve worked hard to make the process easier for families.

We encourage your questions and we support your right to be a curious consumer. If you need assistance from the professionals, find a nearby Afterall location here.


For more definitions and information, check out the Funeral Consumer Alliance website, the FTC’s funeral terms page or the NYS Funeral Directors Association’s glossary.