A Mortician Debunks Your Biggest Stigmas About Death

A LA-based mortician explains why touching a dead body is safer than you think, and unpacks some lingering misconceptions about death.

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Mar 1 2019, 3:10pm

Amber Carvaly, photographed by Walter Peña.

“Working with dead bodies is probably the easiest part of my job,” says LA-based mortician Amber Carvaly. “It's a really therapeutic, solemn time where you get to offer true kindness to another human. They have no way of repaying you, so it’s like the ultimate form of love.”

Carvaly works with dead bodies every day. If she’s not overseeing their cremation, she’s bathing them, dressing them, doing their makeup, and sorting out their caskets. Carvaly has been in the death industry for five years, and now works as a director at the all-female funeral home Undertaking LA. “It was pretty much a harebrained decision,” she jokes. “I just wanted to do something unique.”

It’s a job that has all sorts of morbid connotations. Death, and particularly dead bodies, are scary to a lot of people: they’re the source of inspiration for countless horror films, and are often concomitant with mental health problems like anxiety and depressive disorders, which are often rooted in a fear of death.

As a result, life as a mortician is still shrouded in mystery, with few people understanding what the job really entails. We asked Carvaly to debunk some of the most frustrating misconceptions she’s encountered in her career so far.

All morticians were goths growing up, or morbidly obsessed with death

This is probably my favourite myth! It really couldn't be any further from the truth. I would take a guess that the majority of morticians in the industry have been touched by death in some way, and felt compelled to make a difference.

But the truth is, this industry is incredibly straight-laced. I have a couple of tattoos—my wrist reads "this too shall pass"—but I was required to cover them up at my old mortuary. They also wanted us to wear these hideous frilly scarves, and if we wore skirts we were supposed to wear nylons. The funeral industry is pretty much stuck in the 1950s: a goth kid wouldn't make it through the door (with all respect to goth kids, I respect your fashion choices!)

Confronting death every day makes you have a very serious, melancholy disposition

Melancholy isn't really a natural reaction to death, because it's not really akin to self-preservation, if you ask me. The people that last in this industry have a wicked sense of humor. You have to, or else you go crazy. You end up realising that none of this, and nothing you do, matters, because we’re all going to die in the end! So you laugh your ass off, and that sets you free. I also try to be really nice to people, because they don't know what you know: they’re still caught up in that petty, small shit.

Women stay away from the industry because they don't have the stomach for it

The industry is becoming more female (in the US, nearly 60 percent of mortuary science students are now women, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.) One persistent myth that annoys me is the idea that women do it because we are natural nurturers. It drives me crazy! When men work in this industry, it’s because they are good at business and science, and have the "stomach" for it. But when women do it, it’s because we are sweet, kind, and mothering. Um, no.

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Carvaly at work. Photo courtesy of Amber Carvaly

Funeral homes are corporate places, and there's very little creativity involved in the job.

I will say I agree with this, and with a heavy sigh. As someone who is running their own home, there is huge pressure not to fail. You want to be creative with your branding and with what you offer, but you also want to pay the bills. Make no mistake: death is a business. Often, the creative aspects of this job are things that don't bring in revenue, so it's not worthwhile to put time and resources into it. I wish that it was different, but after running my own business I can honestly say that I feel less resentful towards the corporate machine of the funeral industry.

Cadavers are dangerous

I have fought long and hard to undo the idea that embalming is required by law, and that embalming is required to protect the health of the public. It’s not true in any way, shape, or form. I’m not advocating for unsafe practices, but I am begging the public to understand that touching a dead body is safer than handling raw meat. In fact, they are so vastly different in safety that they may as well be unrelated. (I present this as an example only because handling a raw chicken breast is so commonplace that one would barely even think twice about it.)

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We routinely dress dead bodies with their family members, and my colleagues and I sometimes do makeup with them too, which feels like magic. Those are the moments that keep me from pulling my hair out. People need to know that this is safe and something they can do. I know it sounds crazy right now, but when someone special in your life dies, you want to honor them by being the last one to anoint them with these rituals. Because doing our hair, our makeup, and putting on our clothes are all rituals. I think especially now in a world that is growing less religious, it is important to recreate or reframe the things that make us human. We mustn't hand over those opportunities for healthy grieving to someone else.