AskDefine | Define undertaker

Dictionary Definition

undertaker n : one whose business is the management of funerals [syn: mortician, funeral undertaker, funeral director]

User Contributed Dictionary


  • /ʌndə'teɪkə/


  1. A funeral director; someone whose business is to manage funerals, burials and cremations
  2. a person receiving land in Ireland during the Elizabethan era, so named because they gave an undertaking to abide by several conditions regarding loyalty to the crown, marriage, and using English as their spoken language.
    In 1588 Edmund Spenser becomes an undertaker in the first Elizabethan plantation, receiving the forfeited Irish estate of Kilcolman Castle.

Related terms


Extensive Definition

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.
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. Preservation of the body is important if relatives are coming from far distances and the funeral takes place long after the death. Embalming is also useful when the body is needed as evidence in a criminal charge.
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. Six years later, two practical experimenters, independently published the results of their cremation experiments. In 1873, Professor Brunetti of Padua displayed ashes, along with a model of his furnace, at the Great Exhibition at Vienna. In the autumn of 1874, the first European cremation outside of Italy took place in Breslau, Poland (in what was then the German Empire), followed by another in Dresden, Germany. In America, the first man to be cremated was the poor Austrian nobleman Baron de Palm, on December 6, 1876. The idea slowly caught on, but was resisted by the funeral industry which had built a highly profitable industry, and saw cremation as a threat. Cremation might have gained acceptance largely because it was viewed as a much simpler and less ostentatious (Prothero,1). Cremation might have been the modest alternative, but funeral directors soon began to see an economic opportunity, and began to incorporate cremations into the business, by featuring elaborate caskets and urns, floral arrangements, mausoleums, and even embalming.

Employment opportunities

Employment opportunities for funeral directors are expected to be good, particularly for those who also embalm. However, mortuary science graduates may have to relocate to find jobs.

See also


undertaker in German: Bestatter
undertaker in Italian: Necroforo
undertaker in Dutch: Begrafenisondernemer
undertaker in Swedish: Begravningsentreprenör
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