“I wasn’t some kooky kid who was collecting dead animals and keeping them in jars,” Amber Carvaly explains. “I was obsessed with The Little Mermaid and I had so many Barbies; I was just like everybody else. But I also loved The Nightmare Before Christmas. I really like the romanticism of death.”
Carvaly’s red hair is pulled into a tight bun and she's sitting behind a large wooden desk that takes up half of Undertaking L.A.’s just-opened office. East Hollywood’s latest funeral home isn’t what you’d expect from a mortuary — but then again, neither is Carvaly.
She is the first to admit the word "mortician" conjures some undesirable stereotypes: creepy men who prefer the company of dead bodies; or maybe greedy ones, who prey on the families of the deceased with high prices during a fragile time. And perhaps the worst: it’s most certainly not a job for a woman. But Carvaly is a mortician and a woman — and half of a new company that could likely change those clichés for good, although that’s not their goal. They have bigger fish to fry than stereotypes.
A Little Background
Carvaly grew up in Corona, California, a small town about two hours east of L.A. She was laid off from her first job out of college when the Great Recession hit, forcing her to give up a rewarding post at the Downtown Women’s Shelter for a stint waiting tables. It was there she ran into an old pal, who had become a mortician.
“I was like, ‘Wow, it never occurred to me that this was a thing you could do,'" Carvaly says. “You grow up and people are like, ‘What do you want to do? Be a teacher, a doctor, or a lawyer?’ None of those sounded right, so I think I’m going to try this.’” It was at Cypress College’s School of Mortuary Science — which she notes is a very intense program with high dropout rates, and one of only two mortuary schools in the entire state of California — that she learned about Caitlin Doughty, a student a few semesters ahead.
“People were gossiping about this girl who was doing videos,” Carvaly says. “I went on my computer and I was like, ‘This girl’s really funny.’ I forget what video it was that I watched, but I was enamored with her. She’s so clever and witty, and she’s taking this hard topic and talking about it in this clever, satirical way.” Carvaly’s talking about Ask A Mortician, Doughty's YouTube series where, like the name implies, she fields questions about dying, embalming, and everything in-between. It's catnip for the curious set: Her milk-white skin, jet-black hair, and purposefully cheesy props bring 'em in, her candid knowledge keeps 'em hooked.
As a child growing up in Hawaii, Doughty had a fascination with death. “I wasn't overly morbid, but we all struggle with our obsessions,” she says. “Learning you're going to die someday is harsh for a child in the single digits.” After landing in California, she got a job as a crematory operator — and the rest is history. Relatively speaking, she could be considered one of the most famous people in her field. There are the aforementioned YouTube videos and a New York Times best-selling memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. She also founded The Order of The Good Death, a non-profit advocacy group that seeks to "explore ways to prepare a death-phobic culture for their inevitable mortality." Suffice it to say, she’s become the next-gen poster girl for the industry. But her next act — the one she tapped Carvaly to partner in — could be even bigger.
The New Kids At The Morgue
Undertaking L.A. is an oxymoron; it's a brand-new type of funeral home that seeks to bring us back a few hundred years, before the commercialization of death. And it’s almost eerily simple. Doughty and Carvaly will come to the home of the deceased and walk the loved ones through how things were done in the past and still done all over the world: washing and dressing of the body, and an at-home wake and/or funeral. The survivors can be involved as much or as little as they’d like.
The body may stay in the home for people to properly mourn for a few days. Then, it’s taken to Undertaking L.A.’s co-op crematory or to a cemetery in Joshua Tree for a natural burial. (That's the closest secular cemetery that allows the practice.) The definition of a natural burial is a loose one, but basically, the body is wrapped in organic, unbleached linen or cotton, and laid to rest in a hand-dug grave. (You can opt for a biodegradable casket if you prefer.) There's no embalming, no calling 911, and no last visions of a loved one wearing too much makeup in a casket. For Carvaly, it’s one last act of kindness and dignity she gets to be a part of; for Doughty it’s her life’s work come to fruition.
While it might seem strange to us, the concept of Undertaking L.A. is far from novel. It’s how most of the world treats death, as well as certain religions within the U.S. So, when did it become a taboo thing that could only be handled by professionals? Blame Abraham Lincoln and the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died during the Civil War.
“When Lincoln was shot, his body was embalmed and went on a parade so everyone got to see him,” she explains. “It popularized embalming because people now understood this amazing technological advance; it lit the fire for embalming to be something that was acceptable. [In this case] it was necessary. But I think we’re coming back to a time where you don’t need to do that anymore."
(Embalming, for the record, is when the bodily fluids are replaced with a cocktail of preservatives and chemicals, like formaldehyde, by being pumped through a main artery.)
This Civil War theory not only makes sense, but also offers insight into why the modern approach is better suited for some. Such as those who pass away far from home — or in situations where the body couldn't be kept at home, like a car accident. After all, a one-size death does not, in fact, fit all. But Doughty adds that there’s more to the growth of the funeral industry than that. When asked why the current system prevails, she’s quick to reply: Money. “Capitalism and the rise of cities,” Doughty says, adding that it’s left a undesirable impact on our connection with death.
“[At the beginning of] the 20th century, you had big hospitals come in and take the dying out of the home, you had funeral homes come in and take the dead bodies, and you had slaughterhouses and food plants take away the killing of animals. So every type of death and dying is now removed from society,” she says. Of course, with change comes both negative and positive effects. The positive includes the care hospitals can administer. The negative? According to the women, the fact that death is a specialized industry makes it all the more scary, mysterious, and abrupt — which they say deeply disrupts the grieving process.
Mourning: A Theory
“Because we shroud and protect society from death, you don’t understand what level of grief to feel for things, so everything is blanketed at a 10,” Carvaly says. “Because we make it such a taboo subject, there is no barometer.”
“There are no academic studies on this, which is a shame, because I would love to point to something and say 'Yes, it’s proven!'" Doughty adds. "But anecdotally, everything I’ve seen is that when you’re involved in the death and you’re present and you let things unfold as they naturally unfold, and you see the small changes in the person, and you see the small changes in yourself over a couple days, you are much more ready to let go of the person and their body at the end of the process.”
Doughty speaks from personal experience. Her grandmother was the first death she handled as a funeral director. "It made me realize how hard it is to have services outside of the traditional death system," she says. "You really have to have the strength of your convictions or you'll get swept up in the status quo."
Luckily for those who don't feel the current system best, they have advocates in the duo. "The way we do it now when someone dies is you call the funeral home, and they come, day or night, to take the body away," Carvaly explains. "That’s it. The next time you see the body, it’s in a velvet-lined casket with makeup on and they’re wearing their suit. How can you properly work through grief when you’re trying to process why your dad looks like that? Why did they brush his hair that way? Why does it look like he has makeup on? My dad would never wear lipstick. Why is his neck scrunched up? He looks so unnatural.”
The alternative that Undertaking L.A. will provide? “If I was there with you, from beginning to end, and we dressed your dad together, and we laid your dad in his casket together, I think it would be easier. It would also give me the time to talk about everything with you,” Carvaly says. At this point in the conversation, you can tell she’s hitting her stride, her sweet spot; this is why she does what she does. “Yes, it’s more work, and it’s more emotionally draining than just taking a body and putting some embalming fluid in them, and putting them back in a casket. [In my job] you have to be willing to do that for people.”
Welcome to Death Week. This week, we'll attempt to unpack our feelings, fears, and hang-ups about death, dying, and mourning. We’ll do our best to leave no gravestone unturned.