What Does a Mortuary Do?

A morgue is the place where bodies are stored temporarily while awaiting identification, autopsy, respectful burial or cremation. Most people are familiar with the concept from seeing it in movies or TV shows, but what does a mortuary actually do?

Most importantly, mortuaries are not full-service funeral homes. Their focus is more on the mortuary sciences and preparation of the deceased.


Embalming is a multi-step process that uses formaldehyde based chemicals to preserve bodies. Decomposition begins as soon as someone dies but embalming slows it down and allows the body to remain intact for wakes and viewings.

First, the embalmer cleans the remains with disinfectant spray or solution then positions the body by bending, flexing and massaging arms and legs to relieve rigor mortis. They check for signs of death such as cloudy corneas, lividity and a pulse in the carotid or jugular vein.

Next, he or she drains the blood in the body cavities and soft organs then replaces it with embalming chemicals. This is known as arterial embalming. The embalmer also punctures the organs in the chest cavity and abdomen to remove the gas and fluid contents then injects the remaining formaldehyde based chemical into them. Finally, he or she sutures the incision. Bruises and scars are often artfully blended out with mortuary makeup.


Burial is the process of placing a body in the ground. This is usually done after a funeral service or memorial.

After the ceremony, a casket is lowered into the grave, either alone or with other loved ones who have also been buried in the same plot. The grave is then filled in and covered with dirt. Flowers or other tributes may be placed at the site.

Many cultures have rituals surrounding burial and differ widely in their practices. Some bury their dead in ways that are intended to keep spirits close to guide those still living. Other cultures “banish” their dead, burying them in ways that distance the spirit from inhabited areas.

Mortuaries often perform specialized burials for their clients. They can bury a body in a traditional grave or place it in a mausoleum, where the casket never comes in contact with the earth. This is a more expensive option, but it can give families peace of mind that their loved one will be preserved.


Cremation has become a popular option for many families, as it offers flexibility in memorial services and final disposition. After a body is embalmed, it’s placed in a casket or container made from combustible materials and then placed in a cremation chamber where the heat dries the skin and hair, contracts and vaporizes the soft tissues and calcifies the bones. The cremation process can take several hours.

Once the remains have been reduced to bone fragments and ash, the cremation chamber is swept clean and the ashes are collected in an urn. This urn is typically returned to the family or representative of the deceased.

Families may choose to scatter the cremated remains in a natural setting or at a special location that was meaningful to their loved one, such as the ocean. They may also chose to bury the remains in a cemetery niche or columbarium. Some people even use ashes to infuse their artwork, such as jewelry and sculptures.

Final Arrangements

Whether your loved one’s death was unexpected or they made arrangements ahead of time, contacting the mortuary is often the first step to take. They should be able to provide you with the name of the physician who signed their medical report, which you can then use to locate their primary care physician.

Getting a legal pronouncement of death is usually the next step. If your loved one died in a hospital, nursing or palliative care facility, the facility will typically contact their doctor to do this. If your loved one died at home, a family member or friend can contact their doctor to make the call.

Once you have the legal pronouncement, meet with a funeral director to discuss final arrangements. During this meeting you will choose whether your loved one will have burial or cremation and what type of ceremony to have. This is also the time to select a casket or other container for the body, or urn or niche space for cremated remains.

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