Sitting in the back of a Los Angeles café, Amber Carvaly holds a butter knife to her neck. Head tilted back, eyes shut, she places two fingers near her collarbone. “Make an incision right here and slide something underneath the carotid artery to pick it up,” she says, and a lesson on embalming begins. She brings her chin down, eyes now wide with enthusiasm. “It goes from this tiny, tiny little thing to this really amazing large vein,” she says, the distance between the tips of her thumb and index finger widening.
Carvaly is 30 years old, has hair the color of her first name, and tends to debate her words. She is one half of Undertaking L.A., a new company that aims to upend the funeral-home industry. Undertaking L.A., which plans to open this summer, is the inspiration of her business partner, Caitlin Doughty, who is also 30 as well as something of a YouTube phenomenon, thanks to her cheeky Ask a Mortician videos. She has milky skin and long dark hair, and her no’s and yeah’s usually come in threes. Neither woman looks like whom you’d expect to show up when the undertaker is called. But that’s the point.
Doughty’s relationship with death grew from intensely fearing it as a kid on Oahu to wearing black vinyl ball gowns at goth clubs as a teen. At 23, after failing to get her idea of “macabre spectacle theater” off the ground in San Francisco, she spent a year loading bodies into brick chambers at an Oakland crematory before enrolling in Cypress College’s three-semester mortuary program. At the crematory she first conceived of a different kind of funeral home. It would be called La Belle Mort and would help clients accept death through lavish send-offs of loved ones. After graduation, while driving a body-removal van up and down Southern California, she concluded that what was needed was the opposite of La Belle Mort: funerals without frills.
Carvaly was waitressing in Los Angeles when a guy from her hometown of Corona told her he had become a mortician. “I was like, ‘I bet I could do that. I think I could be OK around dead people,’” she says. She, too, enrolled in Cypress College’s program, and while there occasionally emailed Doughty, whose YouTube videos had gained a following at the school. They eventually met in early 2014, when Doughty spontaneously asked Carvaly if she’d want to work with her.
Although Undertaking L.A. will offer a conventional service like cremation, it will also work with families to facilitate what the two call a “more natural” death — no formaldehyde cocktail, no pods that fill hollow eyes, no mouth former, no satin-lined casket, no metal vault. The goal is to promote home funerals. If family members care to, they can undress, bathe, and cool the body with ice themselves or they can watch Carvaly and Doughty do so. “What I believe to be the problem is the lack of the dead body, the lack of reality, the lack of the ritual around the death,” Doughty says. “The solution is a return to all that.”
Carvaly and Doughty acknowledge Undertaking L.A. won’t be an easy sell, but they’re convinced that the funeral-home business is ready to be disrupted. “People are like, ‘Someone died, I gotta call the police! I gotta call a funeral home!’ And that is a lack of education on the industry’s part,” Carvaly says. “Leave the body at home. Honest to God, a dead body is not an emergency.”
One reason they’re hopeful is the response to Doughty’s other projects. Her sly but empathetic memoir about working in crematories and funeral homes, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, made the New York Times bestseller list last year. The online group she founded, The Order of the Good Death, has held conferences in the U.S. and Europe. The most recent one took place at the Getty Villa in Malibu and included talks like “Death and the Hollywood Ending” and “Catacomb Saints.” The event concluded with Doughty interviewing a medical examiner, who explained that cats will eat your face first if you die with only them around. Half the crowd nodded; the other half gasped. Carvaly worked the merch table, selling black T-shirts with FUTURE CORPSE written on them.
The crematory Carvaly and Doughty will use is in the San Fernando Valley, a few exits past the city’s largest and most famous cemetery, Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills. Doughty and Carvaly have come here to shoot videos for their website to show clients what to expect if they participate in a cremation: chain-link fences, limited parallel parking, overturned shopping carts, dead flowers in the planters. “Of course, I wish there were waterfalls,” Doughty says, shielding her eyes from the sun. “But this is where a crematory would be,” she says, looking up and down the shadeless street at rows of gray warehouses.
Inside it’s 20 degrees cooler and silent, except for the murmur of talk radio and the exhaust of the cremation chamber seeping underneath a door marked PRIVATE. “What’s the least sterile-looking shot?” Doughty asks, scanning the prep room. “This angle, maybe?” Carvaly responds, drawing a box in the air with her finger near the industrial sink. She coaxes on blue rubber gloves and picks a bottle of bright-green liquid off a metal shelf before displaying it like a hand model holding a prize. “Embalming fluid,” she says, smiling for the camera. Without a word, Doughty wanders away to focus her tripod on a candle burning in the waiting room. “Never know when you’ll need a metaphorical candle shot,” she says.
As for their own deaths, Carvaly and Doughty have the same request: to be wrapped in a shroud and placed into a 3-foot hole to decompose. It’s a service Undertaking L.A. will offer, but they admit it will be hard to fulfill. The closest secular cemetery with space designated for natural burials is 140 miles away in Joshua Tree Memorial Park.