A funeral director (also known as a mortician or undertaker) is someone involved in the business of funeral rites. The job often entails the burial or cremation of the dead, as well as the planning and arrangement of the actual funeral ceremony.
In the United Kingdom, a funeral director is someone who directs the funeral, a mortician is someone who works in a mortuary, and an undertaker normally refers in modern times to the person who actually does the carrying (vehicularly or by hand) of the deceased. However, the word "undertaker" in the UK was the name given to members of other professions, e.g. cabinet makers or carpenters, who had the tools and skills to make coffins or caskets, and who therefore were able to "undertake" funerals as a part of their work. In modern times the term "undertaker" is seen as old-fashioned within the "Funeral Service", but is still the most commonly used term by many people.
Funeral directors are responsible for meeting with the family of the deceased to make arrangements for the funeral service. The director is also responsible for preparing the deceased for the service by means of embalming, dressing and casketing, and applying cosmetics. However, not all funeral directors are embalmers and vice versa. Many jurisdictions require separate licenses for funeral direction and embalming.
The modern profession of being a mortician started in England in the 1700s. Before it, officers of the College of Arms – a government heraldic authority – directed funerals. The family of the deceased had to contact a member of the College of Arms to manage the funeral. The family also had to hire and coordinate the efforts of others involved in the funeral, such as surgeons, plumbers, coffin makers, upholsterers, carpenters, tailors, drapers, and other contractors. Once the new profession was established, morticians would organize the entire arrangements of the funeral, and the family would only have to rely on them. The first mortician, according to Sir Anthony Wagner, was William Russel, a coffin maker who had set up the business as early as 1688.
Despite opposition from officers of the College of Arms, mortuary services continued to grow. From their origins as funeral organizers, they began to involve themselves in embalming, previously only a surgeon's job. In a book NEKPOKHAEIA: or The Art of Embalming, Thomas Greenhill, a London surgeon, argues that since the days of ancient Egypt embalming has been entrusted only to surgeons. He attacked the "ignorant undertakers", who had begun embalming several years prior. Morticians didn’t stop there. They took jobs from “Glovers, Milliners, Drapers, Wax Chandlers, Coffin-makers, Herald-painters, Surgeons, Apothecaries, and the like.”
Morticians have expanded further and have encroached on what used to be seen as the job of the clergy. Their job gradually grew to include more intensive involvement funeral service (rather than mere organization), and hiring ministers for families without church membership. They also worked at transferring the location of the funeral from the church to the funeral home, because there they could establish clear authority over the funeral service.
Most modern day funeral homes are run as family businesses. The majority of morticians work in these small, family-run funeral homes. The owner usually hires two or three other morticians to help him. Often, this hired help is in the family, perpetuating the family's ownership. Most funeral homes have one or more viewing rooms, a preparation room for embalming, a chapel, and a casket-selection room. They usually have a hearse for transportation of bodies, a flower car, and limousines. They also normally have choices of caskets and urns for families to purchase or rent. Evolution of the industry is continuing today. While most funeral homes are still operated by families, larger and more centralized organizations are coming to prominence. This shift towards larger and less personal organizations can largely be attributed to changing societal views toward the death process, such as the institutionalization of death.
Modern methods of embalming allow for preservation of the body for over a year. While most cultures embalm using modern techniques, many cultures still embalm their dead by exposing the body to the sun and air in hot climates.
It is the embalmer's job to move the body to the mortuary where facilities will enable the embalming to take place conveniently. This is common in America, but in the UK and other countries, family members usually prefer the body to remain with them in their house. This is more difficult for the embalmer, because he will have to take all his equipment with him to the home of the deceased.
When embalmers take a body to the mortuary, the first thing they do is place it on the embalming table. They then make an assessment of the condition of the body. They position the hands of the deceased, and place the head on a block. Next they set the features. ‘Setting the features’ is the terminology for closing the eyes and the mouth. They wash the body thoroughly. They then begin the embalming process, which replaces the blood in a persons body with embalming fluid. During this process they work the fingers and other muscles to release any rigor mortis.
The next step in handling the body is dressing it. The embalmer has to be skilled at applying cosmetics. Cosmetics are used to restore the person to a life-like appearance, and to hide injuries or imperfections. The embalmer spreads a foundation cream over the face. The color depends on the natural complexion of the individual before death. Cream rouge is then applied over the cheek bones in a triangular area. The eyebrows and eyelashes are brushed to remove powder. Cosmetics are also applied to the arms and hands. The hair is dressed and the fingernails are trimmed.
Morticians are also in charge of the obituary and various legal paperwork. They prepare the obituaries if the family doesn’t write one, and give it to the local newspaper. They are responsible for submitting papers to the State so it can issue a formal death certificate. If the deceased was a veteran, they help family members apply for veteran's burial benefits. They are responsible for notifying the Social Security Administration of the death. They sometimes handle all other paperwork for the families, such as for the transfer of pensions, insurance policies, or annuities.
In the US, the individual states each have their own licensing regulations for funeral directors. Most require a combination of postsecondary education (typically an associate's degree), passage of a National Board Examination , passage of a state board examination, and one to two years' work as an apprentice.