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Behind the Scenes at a Mortuary

What is the Difference between a Mortuary and a Funeral Home?

Note: Please do not be confused. The word mortuary is, generally speaking, entirely synonymous with funeral home, and this article will use those words interchangeably. Further, you will see that our first behind the scenes lesson explains the curious death care industry phenomena that led to a slight distinction between those two words in some people's minds.

Understanding what happens behind the scenes at a mortuary is vitally important, experts say, for anyone involved in the decision to cremate a loved one who has passed away. This importance comes from a wide variety of perspectives: psychological, financial, and even medical, legal and more. Leading industry experts and consumer advocates, such as Caitlin Doughty, author of the best seller Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, point out that, in general, most who hire the services of a mortuary are largely ignorant of how the death care industry operates, and that unfortunate, innocent ignorance often leads directly to a wide variety of problems, from psychological stress to surprise bills that are unexpectedly high, to unforeseen legal and even medical Behind the Scenes at a Mortuaryissues. Knowing some key, insider facts and traditions will be helpful for any family wanting to get the most from its funeral director or mortician.

Difference between Mortuary and Funeral Home

In her ground breaking, wildly entertaining book, Caitlin Doughty dismisses the fine line of distinction between these two very similar types of establishments that make up the bulk of the “death care” industry.

“It was my first day as a crematory operator at West Wind Cremation & Burial (Doughty's fictional name for a real establishment), a family owned mortuary. (Or a family owned funeral home, depending on which side of the United States you live on. Mortuary, funeral home, po-tay-to, po-tah-to. Places for the dead.”

Meanwhile, a blog maintained by Science Care, a company that facilitates whole body donations for medical schools and hospitals, generally agrees that the difference is slight, but nevertheless offers an important note for anyone interested in an inexpensive “no-frills” disposition of a relative's remains: “Typically a funeral home is able to provide a more full-service experience and often in more opulent surroundings centered on the comfort of the surviving family members ...” the blog says, while “a mortuary is often more focused on the mortuary sciences of caring for and preparing the body for burial or cremation. The organization may be more to the point, offering direct services such as a quick viewing for immediate family members and cremation without full-scale memorialization services.”

For basic services without any added opulence, then, experts say your best bet might be a company with “mortuary” in the name. Though, this distinction might not always hold true: some mortuaries in the United States are not open to the public at all, in fact. Rather, they are contracted by funeral homes to provide technical, industrial-caliber services – such as cremation to name the main function of these mortuaries, but embalming, body preparation, and even burial are also handled by these types of mortuary. The funeral home, meanwhile, would be responsible for the marketing end of the relationship and would handle the more ornate and social elements of a memorial ceremony: visitation, receiving of visitors, grief counseling, and the funeral ceremony itself.

In general, as both Science Care and Doughty point out, mortuaries and funeral homes are typically regulated similarly (or even precisely the same) by state and local agencies and are typically equipped to do all of the basic tasks associated with death care: coordinate autopsies and medical records with government officials, coordinate burials or disposition of cremation ashes, and announce memorial service plans in local media and other outlets.

In this day of consolidation among large companies in the death care industry, many establishments have both funeral home and mortuary in their title. An establishment of this sort bills itself, generally speaking, as a one-stop shop for a families to come for all their death care needs, from cremation to the funeral service itself. Consumer advisers will typically caution families who are dealing with this type of establishment to be wary of monopolistic practices that might lead to inflated prices. In many cases, a company that is both a funeral home and mortuary began its life as either one or the other, but bought into the other “branch” of the death care industry as a means by which to eliminate competition. Families of deceased descendants should always keep in mind that, legally speaking, these funeral home/mortuary establishments must offer their products and services on an “al la carte” basis, thereby allowing for customers to comparison shop among other companies that, say, may offer cremation at a lower price than the funeral home/mortuary. Behind the scenes at any funeral home/mortuary, consumer protection experts typically warn, lies the potential that sales personnel will mislead customers into paying much more for their services that are available for less money elsewhere. The competitive nature of the death care industry makes this a practice that is an all-too-common experience for grieving families. Videos, blog articles and books abound in which workers in the death care industry (both current and former) tell of the pressure placed on them to bring in as much money for their companies as possible, even if it means misleading or even outright lying. And one of the most popular tricks of the trade is to carefully word sales pitches so that families never realize they have the legal, and competitively very fair, option of buying some products and services for a particular memorial ceremony from a competitor.

Surprising Lack of Training or Credentials

One of the things that families may find most surprising – or even alarming!-- about the inner workings of a mortuary is that employees are routinely trained entirely on the job and have to meet no pre-employment qualifications or credentials. In Doughty's much discussed opening chapter (called Shaving Byron), she gives an astounding account of her first day on the job at a mortuary:

“'Um, hey, uh, Mike?” I called out to my new boss from the body preparation room. “So I guess I should use, like, shaving cream, or...?'

“Mike walked in, pulled a can of Barbasol from a metal cabinet, and told me to watch out for nicks. 'We can't really do anything if you slice open his face, so be careful, huh?'

“'Yes, be careful. Just as I'd been careful all those other times I had “given someone a shave,' which was never.”

The story has a happy ending, of course. Doughty didn't nick the body, and Bryon's family was pleased with how he looked just before Doughy and Mike cremated him. Doughty even had a chance to visit with Byron's wife and learn some things that touched her.

“I learned from his wife that Byron had been an accountant for fourty years, A fastidious man, he probably would have appreciated the close shave. Toward the end of his battle with lung cancer he couldn't get out of bed, let alone yield a razor.”

And it was this sort of hopeful, healing, uplifting interaction with the family that Doughty had assumed would be a big part of her time in the death care business. But she learned from Day 1 that it was not necessarily encouraged.

Instead, it was a no-nonsense, often crude atmosphere that prevailed behind the scenes:

“Mike brought me a metal pole with a flat rake on the end. He demonstrated the long strokes required to pull the bones from the machine. As what remained of Byron fell into the waiting container, the phone rang. It boomed loudly through the speakers in the ceiling, installed specifically to be heard over the thunder of the machines.

“Mike tossed me his goggles and said, 'You finish raking him out. I gotta grab the phone.'”

Doughty objected so much to this quirky, arguably disrespectful (except that mortuary employees were careful to never revert to this demeanor in the presence of family members) atmosphere, that she became an activist striving for change in the death The Mortuarycare industry. In particular, her main concern is that funeral homes and mortuaries should do more to involve families in the process. She envisions employees – even the technical ones who are not necessarily expect to conduct grief counseling” sessions with families – demonstrating compassion and comfort to family members, offering friendly tours of the facility, thoroughly explaining the behind-the-scenes processes (upon request, of course), and generally being inviting and friendly. In fact, it seems she even assumed that funeral home and mortuary training might make such demeanor a primary focus.

But she found that reality was the opposite. Her day-to-day routine involved no contact with family members, and very little compassion. Bodies were treated as commodities that were to be handled in the same manner as the fruits of any other business:

“Every morning, Mike stacked several State of California disposition permits on my desking telling me who was on deck for that day's cremations. After selecting two permits, I had to locate my victimes in the 'reefer' – the walk-in-body-refrigeration unit where the corpses waited. Through a cold blast of air I greeded the stacks of cardboard body boxes, each labeled with full names and dates of death. The Reefer smelled like death on ice, an odor difficult to pinpoiont but impossible to forget.,” Doughty says in her chapter two.

Though its been more than a decade since Doughty's first days on the job at a mortuary, a quick survey what happens in a typical mortuary school seems to confirm the potentially ribald, unsympathetic nature of the industry. Not that those who run the schools intend to build such an industry – quite the opposite, in fact.

“I've asked students who come to see me, 'Why do you want to be a funeral director?'” a Funeral Services professor in a State University of New York mortuary program once told a public television interviewer. “And I had one young lady who was a student here, and that was the first thing she said, she said, “Oh I think it's very lucrative.” And I said, “Why's that?” And she said, “Well, you have a nice house … drive a nice car.” And I said, 'Well, that's really not what it's all about.' And I proceeded to explain to her about how, when you're a funeral director, you no only wear the hat of a funeral director, care giver of the dead. You're also caring for those families who have lost a loved one.”

Alas, there is hope:

The director of the SUNY Funeral Services Administration school says he sees a good potential market for students who are interested in programs like his for the more altruistic reasons. Though only a two-year associate degree is required for a national Funeral Directors Certification, SUNY has recently expanded its program to offer a four year bachelors degree instead. And the school expanded in this directly, confident that students will enroll.

“We are one of only four schools in the United States that have a four year program. I think you're going to see that the trend is going to be moving away from two year institutions, specifically because I think these institutions teach to the test, and it doesn't prepare a funeral director for being professional in the field,” he said.

But this prediction may come as a surprise for those who note that states vary wildly as to what types of licenses are required of funeral home employees, with most states requiring licenses for only one or two of the death care industry's most common professions: funeral director, embalmer, crematory operator, and transporter. Human nature being what it is, it seems likely that, unless a state requires a specific course of study, most new funeral directors or morticians will likely seek the least amount of education allowed.

Lack of Family Involvement Built in to Long Held Traditions And Laws

A push for more licensing (and its corresponding education) is probably not a good thing, Doughty, and other similar advocates point out. They say that long-held mortuary and funeral home practices that discourage families from being heavily involved-- or often even consulted – in the death care of their loved ones are often backed by laws intended to help funeral homes and mortuaries keep profits high and competition at bay.

In the very first page of her book, for example, Doughty reprints a warning required by California law of all mortuaries but which works mightily against her goal of family involvement: “Warning! Limited Access Area. California Code of Regulations Title 16, Division 12 Article 3 Section 1221. Care and Preparation for Burial. 'The care and preparation for burial or other disposition of all human remains shall be strictly private...'”

Though interpretations of this and other similar laws in other states can be broad, the requirement does not help the cause of families who, say, may want to invite family and friends to view the actual cremation process. And there are at least a few cases in which families have been told that that cemetery personal have a legal duty to prevent them from witnessing their family member's burial. (This, of course, has brought about accusations of fraud. If families are not allowed to see their loved one cremated, or his or her body buried, how can a family confirm that the event actually took place? Critics of these types of laws will note, with varying degrees of anger or amazement, that, in some locals, it is legally possible for a funeral home or mortuary to sell many different families a single casketed used only for above ground display, but bury each body, privately, in a much less expensive model (or perhaps even no casket at all).

In the very first pages of their ground breaking book “Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death,” Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson tell the story of a Utah family who, in the midst of their grief over losing a six year daughter, was kept in limbo for days as hospital officials struggled with a new state law that, they believe, prohibited them from releasing the girl's body directly to the family. While the case was eventually resolved in the family's favor allowing for a funeral director free “home burial,” it points to the question: how many other potential home burials were discouraged by the law, simply because families assumed they were illegal.

All of this works against the idea (of Doughty and others) that families ought to be allowed (in not encouraged) to conduct do-it-yourself funerals, to prepare their loved ones bodies themselves, to even cremate them on their own if that's their calling, and certainly to bury them on their own private property in whatever manner they see fit.

In such cases, of course, family's would be very involved, but, if this trend (along with the associated lower costs) were to catch on, the death care industry as it's known today might be in trouble.

In fact, thanks to the work of advocates, there actually are new a number of new “professions” that have come about in the death care industry unanticipated by regulators. So questions about about their legality, though many pioneers risks fines and even jail time to serve their customers.

Among these are “green burial specialists,” “death midwives” and “home burial consultants.”The Funeral Home

Means for Learning More

Doughty and several of her supporters have made the inner workings of mortuaries and funeral homes a calling. Doughty runs a activist website called Order of the Good Death, and she offers (apparently low cost) death care consulting services through her (some call rogue) company “LA Undertaking.”

On her website, she continues her calls for more family involvement in funerals and burials, and, while she is careful to never question or demean those who are content with the status quo of the death care industry, she does have a seemingly popular post (based on the comments page activity) entitled “I Can't Encourage You To Become a Mortician.”

She ends this post with an intriguing couple of paragraphs:

“Don't get me wrong. I want you to pursue this if you are smart, innovative, and ambitious. Lord knows we desperately need you. It’s the Wild West out here, we don’t know where death will go in the next 10, 20, 30 years and we have the unique opportunity to shape it. Go to mortuary school (especially if that is required to become licensed in your state), but research exactly what being in the industry means. In my dreams the mortuary schools are flooded with revolutionaries. But we’re at the beginning of a movement here, and the path is not yet clear and easy and free of brambles and knocked down trees.

“And if you have to do this, it’s a calling, you can’t not do this? Then welcome to death, we’ve been waiting for you.”

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