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Funeral director vs. mortician: What's the difference?

The people involved in end-of-life arrangements play an essential role at the most difficult time in a person’s life. They share knowledge about the process and have specialized skills and experience that allow them to guide people through the process. They can also provide reassurance and comfort when it’s needed most. But for those who aren’t familiar with the process, it’s not always clear who does what. 

What’s the role of a funeral director vs. a mortician? What does an undertaker do? Who is the person who runs a funeral service? Learn the answers to these questions and more below. 

What’s the difference between a funeral director and a mortician?

The roles of a funeral director and a mortician aren’t always different, and many people use these terms interchangeably. However, funeral director and mortician roles can be split in the following ways. 

Funeral director

The funeral director is generally the person who owns and operates the funeral home. They oversee the logistics of the entire end-of-life process, and they’re also the person who runs a funeral service. Common funeral director duties include: 

  • Filing paperwork
  • Arranging transportation of the body and any ashes after cremation
  • Communicating with the deceased’s family
  • Giving advice on things like burial types
  • Providing support for the deceased’s family and friends

Being a funeral director requires compassion and understanding, along with professional credentials such as certification, apprenticeship, and higher education, depending on the state. 

Mortician or undertaker

At smaller funeral homes, the funeral director may take on some of the duties of the mortician, or they may be the same person. When the roles are split, the mortician’s duties include:

  • Transporting, washing, embalming, and dressing the body
  • Casketing the body, or placing it in the coffin
  • Applying cosmetics to enhance the appearance 

The licensing requirements for morticians are typically the same as for funeral directors, although a separate license may be needed for embalming, depending on the state. The term “undertaker” is an older term for mortician and is used more frequently in the UK than in the United States. 

Who else is involved in end-of-life arrangements?

There are many people involved in end-of-life decisions and planning. You may also need assistance from these roles: 

Estate executor

The estate executor is the person who carries out a will. They’re appointed by the person who creates the will or can be assigned by the court if necessary. They’ll present the will for probate, which is a court process that decides the validity of the will, determining the beneficiaries, and deciding on the value of any property. The court then authorizes the executor to first pay any taxes or debts and then distribute the property to the beneficiaries. 

Medical examiner

The medical examiner is the person who conducts the autopsy, interprets laboratory results to determine the cause of death, collects evidence in cases that require further investigation, and generally manages the death investigation office. They’re usually board-certified physicians or forensic pathologists who are appointed by the county’s board of supervisors. 

Coroner

A coroner’s responsibilities are similar to those of a medical examiner. The main difference is that coroners are elected and don’t necessarily have medical training, while medical examiners are physicians or forensic pathologists. The main duties of coroners are to verify the cause and manner of death and complete the death certificate. They sometimes conduct autopsies, or they can enlist a forensic pathologist on a contract basis. 

There is a lot to think about when a loved one passes and every end-of-life professional should be willing to answer your questions. By knowing the definitions of these different roles ahead of time you can direct your questions to the right people and in turn, everything will go more smoothly.