Taking Care Of The Dead At Home, And Other Matters Of Mortality

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Calvary Cemetery in East L.A. (Photo by Sandy Gonzales via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)

One of the paradoxes about death is that it sets things in motion, even when the person of interest is, at most, a passive participant. There are preparations to be made. People to inform. For the bereaved, a death can mean a knotty, logistical hurdle, one that’s geared at giving the deceased a swift burial.

Undertaking LA, a progressive funeral home that’s run by morticians Caitlin Doughty and Amber Carvaly, encourages us to re-consider this. For one thing, the morticians believe that the bereaved shouldn’t feel rushed; they could, if so inclined, spend some quality time with the dead in their own homes, as well as help wash and dress the recently deceased.

"For hundreds of years of American history, death and dying happened in the home,” the home's mission statement reads, adding that “most families are not aware that they are empowered, both legally and logistically, to be involved in the care of their own dead.” And in case you think that Undertaking LA is all about some loopy, new-agey approach that flouts all considerations of pragmatism, you’re in the wrong; the home also notes that there’s plenty of humdrum housekeeping that follows a death, stuff that may perplex and frustrate people who are already reeling from a tragedy.

Which is to say that death is confusing. So much so that Undertaking LA felt compelled to plan a "DIY death workshop" for January 15 (the event has been sold out for some time, but the morticians are considering future workshops). We sat down with Carvaly to talk about what there is to know about death.

Undertaking LA encourages people to be more involved when a death has occurred. Does this encompass the whole process, from beginning to end?

Yes and no. It depends on how involved a family wants to get. Obviously, a family won’t be able to do everything themselves. I think the ideal situation is encouraging families, especially those who have dying loved ones at home or at a hospice, to not feel as if it’s an emergency and that they have to call the funeral home right away.

When someone dies in a hospice, it means it was expected, obviously. It means there was no foul play involved. You don’t need to call 911. You can just sit with the body. Most people think that once someone dies you have to call the mortuary right away because [the body is] going to start decomposing immediately. A death isn't always a state of emergency. People can sit with the body, rather than adding anxiety to an already sad moment.

Of course, some people will have a viewing of the body at a wake at the home, and the funeral home will come in only when it’s ready for burial. But we’re also saying that you can wash the body, by taking some bowls of water and using a wash cloth, and doing some light bathing of the body, as well as dressing the body. It's not as if we’re saying you can embalm the body yourself, partly because we think that’s unnecessary anyway. And no, we’re not saying you should dig a grave.

What is the benefit of washing and dressing a loved one yourself?

I’m not a grief counselor. So I’m not an authority about this. But, from anecdotal evidence, I have seen that people handle a death better, and I’ve seen that they are better able to grieve and move forward when they have participated in a hands-on manner. I think that—and these are my personal opinions—when a body is taken away from you, and it goes into possession of a stranger who will handle every thing, I believe this works against you in some ways. I think that it’s better for the psyche of the person to do it themselves. And it’s a relatively simple thing to bathe and dress a loved one.

But it’s not like I’m saying you should do everything. The funeral director does do a lot of amazing things for the family, but I think the family should consider washing and dressing the body. There’s a cyclical nature to life. If your mother passes, for instance, you know that it was she who brought you into the world, and she’d washed and bathed you. You can return this. I think people can benefit from doing this kind of activity, especially in the increasingly sterile and electronic world that we live in. It’s something that grounds you and reminds you that you’re human.

I've never moved a dead body (not yet, at least). What is there to learn that you're teaching in the workshop?

I think most people don’t know how to turn a body. But you can innately figure it out. And it depends on how many people there are in the room to help, or if you’re by yourself. We want to show people how to pick up the body. This was actually something that I didn’t learn in mortuary school. I literally got my first job working in the funeral industry, and I hadn’t moved a dead body, but I’d embalmed a body before.

Does a body feel heavier once the person has died?

Yes and no. There is a feeling of a literal death weight. But I’ve moved bodies by myself before. It’s about using the leverage of the weights of the body at different points. Like, understanding how a body moves if you pull a body by its feet. Or how a body moves when you pull it by its shoulders

What about bathing a body?

That’s definitely something that’s so much easier to show in person than to explain over the phone. It’s relatively easy, though. You have to know how to turn the body, and how to put your hand underneath the legs. But really, I think these are things that people innately know how to do already. They just need someone to give them permission and say that it’s OK. I’m like “Trust me, you got this. You’ll just know when you do it.”


The Canadian Integrative Network for Death Education and Alternatives (CINDEA) has a series of videos on YouTube that show you how to move and wash a dead body (the "dead" is a live participant, we think). Here's the first of CINDEA's videos, which gives instructions on moving a body.

And this is all perfectly legal, right?

Certainly, one big question is, “Is this legal?” People want to know what laws govern them in that situation. The answer is yes, it’s legal. Every state has their own laws, and we have pretty relaxed laws in California. For the most part, the only laws we have in place are ones that govern funeral homes. They establish how Caitlin and I handle the dead once they’re in our possession, but they do not govern the private citizen. There’s only one big law that applies to families, which is to register the dead with the state.

So, it's perfectly legal for me to have a dead body hanging around in my house? Granted that the person died of non-suspicious causes, of course.

Well, I mean, you can’t bury the dead on your own property. In Texas you possibly can, but you’d have through a whole process of establishing your own place as a cemetery. In California you’ll have to bury in a previously established cemetery.

One thing is you can legally transport a body. So you’ll have to think about which car to use for that.

You can actually just strap a body to the passenger's seat?

There actually have been people who’ve done that before. One of my teachers from mortuary school sent me a story about this guy who was embalmed in another state, and was driven into California, and there was a picture of him dressed in his linen suit and a baseball cap.

But isn't there a rule saying you have to bury or cremate the body by a certain amount of time?

The reason why there can’t be a law saying that a body has to be buried in X amount of days is because there can be litigation over how the body should be disposed of, and that process can take a while. That’s why there are no hard and fast rules. The only big rule is about registering the body.

Certainly I wouldn’t tell anyone, “Sure, you can just have the body hanging around at home.” Because it obviously won’t be very nice at some point. But again, the laws mostly govern the funeral home. And when I, as a funeral home director, take the body, I have 24 hours to put the body into refrigeration, though we usually do it immediately. But this rule only pertains to the funeral home, not a private citizen.

And what about the one rule we have to abide by as citizens: registering your dead?

It means you have to get the process started in obtaining a death certificate. There's the EDRS, or the Electronic Death Registration System, which I have access to. I go in to enter the information and submit it to alert the state that a death has occurred. That's really the one law that applies to families: to register the dead with the state. (Editor's note: the EDRS is accessible only to hospitals, similar institutions, and funeral directors.)

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Amber Carvaly and Caitlin Doughty. (Via Facebook)

You told me a little about your first workshop. And one thing I'm a little surprised about—though I guess I shouldn't be—is how practical Undertaking LA is, even as you're proposing some suggestions that may seem out-of-the-norm for some people.

The whole point of the workshop is to keep it relatively simple. We don’t want to overcomplicate things. Today, I got an email where a person who said that she wanted to come learn about grief counseling. And I let her know that it might not be the best event for her to attend, because we’re not going to talk about how to handle healthy grieving. We want to keep it short and succinct. We wanted to handle the basic parts, and the logistics. It’s a daily struggle, for example, to explain why it’s important to fill out every box on a death certificate worksheet. If you leave one out, that’ll be a big delay in getting your death certificate.

This is especially important for your funeral director. If you can do your part, you’re helping your funeral director help you. I can’t tell you how many times I get a death certificate worksheet and there are blanks on it. Many people don’t understand—and I certainly don’t expect them to—because for many it’s their first time dealing with this, and they’re grieving. But it’s important, because the government will not issue any permits until every single thing is answered. Unless that happens, the funeral can not proceed. And absolutely nothing happens until the State of California has been alerted to the death. If I don’t have the certificate, I can’t apply for a burial permit, for instance. Those two pieces of paper are absolutely everything.

You're trying to empower families in becoming more involved. But I assume that the funeral home has a lot to handle on their own end.

Definitely, when you have help with a good funeral home, that makes things a lot easier. They are professionals. Obviously, they’ll have to be involved at some point anyway.

But it takes some understanding to know that they’re working with you, and that they’re helping you. You know, sometimes people can become frustrated and say, “Why are you asking me what the [deceased’s] occupation was.” And it’s because I have to, because it’s something that we have to put on the certificate. Or they’ll say “Why are you asking about the doctor?” And it’s a stressful time because they want to think about anything else other than this, anything that's less depressing. I think when people understand it’s part of the process, it makes not only my job easier, but it also makes things easier for both parties.

It seems like a lot of people have questions about caring for the dead, as your January workshop has been sold out a few weeks in advance. Do you think you'll be doing future ones?

Caitlin and I are excited and hope that this one goes well. And we would like to do more. We hope this is our first and that they’ll get better.

I kind of have an idea of what people will be interested in [during the workshops], and it won’t always be the stuff that we’ll be talking about. The stuff we tell them is the not-fun stuff. People may ask “How long does it take for a dead body to decompose?” or “Can you shoot it into space?”

And you’re like “Hey you need to fill out all these boxes here.”

Yeah. There is a lot of not-fun stuff that they’ll need to know.

Undertaking LA can be reached at (323) 446-2233 or undertakingla@gmail.com. For a list of services that the funeral home provides, check out their website. You can follow the home on Twitter for updates about future workshops, should they arise.

The Canadian Virtual Hospice also has advice on how to care for and dress the dead.