People often use these four job titles interchangeably. Despite the various names, these roles refer to the same profession. While the educational requirements may vary from state to state, all the terms reflect the same services in the funeral industry. Here is a brief history of each word.
While the term “undertaker” might conjure images of a bygone era, it’s just one of the many appellations attributed to professionals who provide invaluable services in the funeral industry.
An “undertaker,” according to the Oxford Dictionary, is defined as “a person whose job is to prepare the bodies of dead people to be buried or cremated, and to arrange funerals.” The term dates back to the 1400s, but not because undertakers buried bodies underground. The term was coined for someone who undertook tasks, often involving woodworking, like building a house, cabinet, or coffin.
The term was exclusively associated with the funeral industry around the 1690s, representing those who cared for the deceased.
An embalmer is an individual who uses chemicals to prevent a decedent from decaying.
Embalming was not standard until the Civil War, particularly after President Lincoln’s death. The late president’s body required embalming to prevent decomposition so that millions of Americans could pay their respects on its 1,645-mile journey by train. Embalmers used a mixture of arsenic, zinc and mercuric chlorides, creosote, turpentine, and alcohol. Formaldehyde originated in Germany in the late 1880s. Embalmers began using the compound for preservation in the early 1900s.
While “mortician” might sound more contemporary than “undertaker,” they mean the same. The term comes from the Latin prefix “mort,” meaning “death,” and the French suffix “icien,” referring 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 “mortician” to echo the dignity and professionalism associated with the word “physician.”
While “mortician” is still used today, most people are more familiar with its modern synonym of funeral director. The term “funeral” is rooted in late Middle English, borrowed from Old French “funeraille,” which can be traced back to the Latin “funus” or “funer,” meaning “funeral, death, corpse.”
The designation “funeral director” became commonplace when “mortician” was popularized. The British Undertakers’ Association further solidified its usage in 1905 when it rebranded to the National Association of Funeral Directors.
No matter which term you use, these are professionals equipped with diverse skills, from preparing deceased bodies and understanding burial laws to providing emotional support to grieving families. Their work is demanding, often requiring them to be on call at all hours, and it calls for empathy and a deep understanding of human emotions during challenging times.