(The New Faces of Death is a series I originally wrote, beginning in 2015, and which was published at Dirge. The site is no longer active or updating.)
The New Faces Of Death is a series of profiles and interviews in which we celebrate women passionately involved in the Death Positivity / Death Acceptance movement. Women who seek, in different ways, to educate our repressed society regarding the various facets of death and how to cultivate a relationship with death that is liberating, humanizing – and ultimately – life-enhancing. From mourning and memory to pathology and the intricacies of the human body, from the meaning of a “good death” to The Order of the Good Death, and The Death Salon: we invite you to read further, learn much, and meet the new faces of Death.
Our first installment highlighted Sarah Troop, Executive Director of The Order of the Good Death and Social Media Editor for Death Salon, as well as, a blogger for Nourishing Death and Death and the Maiden.
Next we spoke with Bess Lovejoy, a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. She is the author of the bestselling Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, and is a member of The Order of the Good Death and a founding member of Death Salon.
Today we focus our attention on Amber Carvaly, a California native, mortician, and Service Director at Undertaking LA. Undertaking LA is a fully licensed funeral home, whose mission is to allow families to reclaim rightful control of the dying process and care of the dead body. Along with owner and author Caitlin Doughty (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death), they aim to raise awareness that families are empowered, both legally and logistically, to be involved in the care of their own dead. Changes like this, they assert, will help our society to better accept death.
How did you become interested in death and how did that lead to your current role in the death industry, or as a death positive activist?
Amber Carvaly: I think that I have always been interested in death. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t preoccupied with the thought of it. Mostly, it would just sort of come and go as I grew. My prior background is in the non-profit industry advocating for the homeless, so it makes sense to me that I would now advocate for the dead. I think that my lot in life is to speak for those who may not have access or ability.
What drew you to your particular profession?
At first I wanted nothing more than to be an embalmer. In my heart I am completely and hopelessly an artist. I am fascinated with learning and how things work, and being an embalmer was a great way to study an art that is reserved for only a few.
What do you want people to take away from the work that you do?
I really only hope for one thing: that people will accept the reality of death and use it to free themselves from the torment of everyday stress; the things that don’t really matter, like standing in a grocery store line for too long or making someone’s bad day a personal offense. I just want to help people see the big picture, because if they could, it would change the way we interact with one another – which would change the world. Whether or not I accomplish this isn’t my concern. It doesn’t take away the desire from me wanting to live this way.
What are some of the most common misconceptions you’ve run into about your job, and to a larger extent, the death industry in general? What do you do to disabuse people of those notions – or not?
The biggest one is that dead bodies are somehow scary. They are not. Really, truly. We are afraid of dead bodies because we are afraid of death. This is why it is so crucial that we work to help people open a healthy dialogue on death. People also think that if you work with dead bodies you are somehow creepy and morbid. I used to get offended, but to be honest, now I’m just sad for people that sneer at me or this line of work. I believe that what I am doing is really important, and I take it incredibly seriously.
Many people find working with the dead or talking about death creepy, or macabre or morbid – how do you enroll those people into the conversation?
In September, we at Undertaking LA did a fun 30 Days of Deathtember game that is inspired by a deck of conversational cards given to me by my friend Lea Gsceheidle from Berlin. Every day for the month of September we post a question related to death, either logistical or existential. It’s really nice because it allows people to come to us and talk if they would like, or abstain if they don’t want to.
I try to, as carefully as possible, engage with people to encourage deeper thought. It is hard because writing to people about a sensitive topic, especially in an online forum, can be difficult in making sure that you denote a warm and non-judgmental tone, but so far it seems to be going really well.
What can we do to open up the conversation on death? To not just increase awareness of it, but to make more sense of death and dying, to allay our death anxiety?
I think that what everyone at The Order of the Good Death is doing is a wonderful way to create change. Talking about death requires finding every applicable avenue and method of discussion; everyone is different and we all have different ways of learning. I believe it’s necessary to get as many different personality types involved so that talking about death feels accessible. Death shouldn’t be something that is talked about only in a church or educational setting. It has to be continuously delivered in new and innovative ways.
How have your views on the afterlife affected your involvement in the death industry, or vice versa?
I don’t really believe that there is anything after this. I want to. But I don’t. It forces me to feel that any and all chance I have at creating change has to be done here and now.
And lastly, what is your ideal death scenario – your dream death, a “good death” as it were?
I hope that I die in my sleep. if I am married, I hope that my husband is by my side, and it doesn’t freak him out too much!