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Undertaking LA: A new funeral home for people who want to hold a funeral at home




Licensed morticians Caitlin Doughty and Amber Carvaly, at their one-room, statutorily mandated, office for their new venture, Undertaking LA.
Licensed morticians Caitlin Doughty and Amber Carvaly, at their one-room, statutorily mandated, office for their new venture, Undertaking LA.
John Rabe

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Death and dying happened in the home for hundreds of years of American history. In the 20th century, the rise of the medical and funeral industries have taken dying and the dead body behind closed doors to be handled by “professionals.” — Undertaking LA

If you're a fan of Caitlin Doughty's Off-Ramp commentaries on death, you might have been wondering why she's been silent for a few months. Doughty, who gained fame blogging at The Order of the Good Death and then with the bestselling memoir, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory," has been working on opening a funeral home. Or rather, her idea of a funeral home, called Undertaking L.A.

For instance, Undertaking L.A. has a one-room office, unlike the sombre, stately funeral homes we're used to. "It's not like that, mostly because our funerals are going to take place in the family's home, so we don't need a big funeral home." The state requires an office (with a door), so they have one in a medical building on Santa Monica Boulevard where it intersects with the 101 Freeway.

The Order of the Good Death, which Doughty founded, is about getting us more comfortable with the idea of death — something our ancestors were accustomed to and dealt with in a healthier way — and as The Order puts it, "accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not."

(A home funeral, America, 19th century. Credit: The Order of the Good Death)

To that end, so to speak, Undertaking L.A. will help you plan and hold a funeral at your loved one's home. It will connect you with a co-op crematory or a burial ground near Joshua Tree if you want to be buried un-embalmed.

They'll show you how to wash the body, if you want, and show you that there is no law that you must use a standard funeral home. "That's definitely the first thing all of my friends say when I tell them I'm doing this," says Undertaking L.A. mortician Amber Carvaly. "Oh, I didn't even know that you could! Is that legal? That doesn't seem legal."

Carvaly was an apprentice embalmer at Forest Lawn, but she says it wasn't for her because she's a "big picture" person. "I liked being there from the beginning to the end." She remembers a case where she helped a man take care of his wife's funeral, "making sure that his wife was set up in the way that he wanted, that she had her favorite scarf. I had tied it on her head and made a beautiful bow. I liked being there all the way." And she wished she could have been there for the actual funeral.

While the two say the process of setting up Undertaking L.A. was extremely difficult (logistically, not financially), they were surprised by help they received along the way. "Because we are a non-traditional model of funeral home," Doughty says. "I was expecting the cemetery and funeral board and the local and state agencies to be slightly more unwilling to help us. Everybody's been very helpful. They seem to want us to succeed."

For much more of our conversation, listen to the audio at the top of the page.