Caitlin Doughty and Amber Carvaly might just be the most unusual undertakers in Los Angeles. According to a recent report in The New York Times, the young women start a typical day at their business, Undertaking LA, by fielding questions like, “My mom just died of cancer in our home. We want to keep her until noon tomorrow. Is that legal? Is that O.K.?”
At first glance, these young women look like so many other attractive young hipsters living in Los Angeles. Posing for a photograph in a room lined with vintage photographs, a deer head mounted on the wall, and a Dia de los Muertos painting, they’re helping families interested in unorthodox funeral rites.
Some families want to participate in the morbid-sounding “witness cremation,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Others simply want to conduct a funeral in their own home, without shelling out thousands of dollars on an expensive funeral parlor. In 2014, the average adult funeral cost more than $8,500; a home funeral can cost just $100 or less, although Undertaking LA charges closer to $1,000.
While these customs might seem strange, they’re actually part of a long tradition of funereal rites and mourning traditions. For hundreds of years, some mourners have used minute portions of their loved one’s ashes to create ash tattoos.
In a recent feature from The Atlantic magazine, writer Michael Williams documents the strange “funeral cards” that can be found in used bookstores, pawn shops, and estate sales.
Williams writes, “On the surface, funeral cards look like Catholic trading cards, adorned with religious figures like Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a popular saint. On the backs of these 4.25-by-2.5 inch cards—underneath the sincere but stock phrase ‘In Loving Memory of’—are the names of the deceased, their birth and death dates, and brief prayers or poems.”
The funeral cards come from traditional Roman Catholic funerary rites, and they also date back centuries.
Back in Los Angeles, Doughty and Carvaly are defectors from the “corporate funeral industry,” and they’re in the process of trying to turn their modest startup into a non-profit. The young women are part of a wave of entrepreneurs offering unusual options for those in mourning, from the home funeral to services that will send a loved one’s remains into low-earth orbit.