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Career Conversations: Discussion between YA Librarian Llyr Heller and Funeral Directors
LLYR HELLER: So I have the list of questions I sent you, but we'll work in other questions. So the first question is just what is your title and how did you get to the career you have?
Do you want me to use this?
LLYR HELLER: Oh, yes please that way we can record.
AMBER CARVALY: My name is Amber Carvaly. I am a licensed funeral director. Also often referred to as mortician but by licensed funeral director is the more correct term or way of saying it. And I run Undertaking LA which is a small mortuary in Los Angeles.
SARAH CHAVEZ: And I'm Sarah Chavez. I run a nonprofit organization called The Order of the Good Death. But on a one level what I really do is I'm an activist. So I'm helping to move a social movement surrounding death education, about getting people educated and comfortable about talking about death and grief move forward. So there's the nonprofit kind of businessy aspect to it and all that stuff, but it's also a social movement at the same time. So there's a lot of different levels to that.
LLYR HELLER: And what type of schooling did you need to get to where you're both at?
AMBER CARVALY: I actually to be a funeral director is very minimal education. You need essentially an Associate's Degree, and then you just take your major in mortuary science. I also have a Bachelor's in Women's Studies—very useful as you can imagine, but wonderful—I had amazing, inspiring professors. And I actually really do credit them with putting me in the position I am now because they really pushed me forward to be passionate about creating change which is like so amazing to work with Sarah and The Order of the Good Death. But just as far as being a licensed funeral director getting an associate's in Mortuary Science.
LLYR HELLER: Sorry. A quick follow up to that. I saw that Cypress College offers schooling; is there any other college in Los Angeles that one can go to?
AMBER CARVALY: No there is not. There is Cypress College and then there is American Rivers in Sacramento.
SARAH CHAVEZ: So my answer is really complicated because there is no straight forward answer, and I think that applies to a lot of the people that are order members that are members The Order of the Good Death in that these were people that are really pioneering a new path. They are inventing things, and creating things, and doing things that have not necessarily been done before. So whether it's a colleague of mine that is creating a mushroom burial suit; or our boss who is a mortician who is trying to from the inside of the industry change it to an activist like myself, there is because we're inventing something; because we're creating something that's new.
And this also applies to Amber because she it's not a conventional funeral home. Undertaking LA is a alternative funeral home. It's something very different from what is offered by the standard industry norm. So there is no kind of set pathway, but there are jobs and things that I've done that have helped me tremendously.
So I was a teacher for very many, many years. I actually intended went to school and intended on being an opera singer. I went to the High School For the Arts here in Los Angeles. I won all kinds of scholarships, and started out having a great career really young. And that's just not something that I wanted to continue on with. I wanted something that was really hands on and helped people in a different from a way that performing arts did.
So I ended up being a teacher. I taught physics and I taught early childhood. So a lot of the tools that I learned being a teacher really, really helped me a lot. Because the system that I was teaching in had a pedagogy that was very different from our normal accepted ways of teaching and parenting. So I was able in advocating learning how to advocate for different ways of doing things that are not accepted socially, and that are different or deviate from the norm of bring up our children or teach our children. I'm able to carry that over into what I'm doing now because I'm able to talk about death and grief in an extremely different way.
From then on, I went to be a museum curator at a historical site of old railroad hospital here in Los Angeles. And kind of everything that I've done on my career path has helped me, in some way shape or form, has kind of helped me shape this career that I have now.
LLYR HELLER: Thank you. For either of you, are there—since there is the one school do you have interns? Is there internship opportunities? Also do you have opportunities for high schoolers to shadow you for a day?
AMBER CARVALY: Yeah, so we don't do internships. If you go to mortuary school, part of the requirement now is do a internship. I feel like I want to say that I—well, I've looked into offering internships before, and there are so many requirements that I got a little jittery about offering shadowing. Also Undertaking LA operates differently that most funeral homes. So the stereotypical idea of a funeral home, if you've seen of Forest Lawn or Rose Hills, you think of this giant sort of place where everything is in house. In reality very few funeral homes can operate that way. And what happens is most funeral homes are shared entities.
So what we do is we have our office space, and there's myself and my partner Susanna Alba, and so what we do is we partner with a crematory. And so we are able to use their facilities for all of our storing all of our bodies, for our creations, and that's what allows us to be two, three women essentially running our own funeral home.
The problem is that having people shadow me is like a huge liability because there are other bodies, and the number one, number one thing to me is protecting the privacy of my families. So never talking about them. Never posting about them on Facebook. Never even with Sara if I've ever told her anything, I'm pretty secretive, I guess about it. It's like my utmost priority is to maintain privacy because this is such an incredibly sensitive nature. And especially with how moderately wellknown our funeral home is, it's even a greater priority to be very tight lipped and ensure that our families know that their grief isn't going to be something I'm sharing with people for like a blog or something like that.
So that was a very long answer for generally speaking—and other mortuaries operate the same way. So, if you're in mortuary school, there is a chance for internships; but in general, if you're not enrolled in school, there aren't any.
LLYR HELLER: Okay.
AMBER CARVALY: But I always tell people that the best thing to do, actually, before even enrolling in mortuary school is getting a job in the industry. The greatest common misconception is that you need to go to mortuary school to work in a mortuary. Which I know sounds funny because you would think that you need. Right now everyone in this room, once you get your driver's license and it's a valid driver's license and you're in good standing, can work as a first-call driver. And that's what you should do, and then you should see if that's something you're interested in, and go from there, and then go to school, and going down that career path.
LLYR HELLER: Thank you.
AMBER CARVALY: Yeah.
SARAH CHAVEZ: So we have a very small staff that started out with my boss who founded the nonprofit, and then I was brought on, and now we have another person. So to be clear we have three branches all together. There's a nonprofit; there's the funeral home that Amber runs, and we also run an event series as well. And last year we tried really hard to find somebody to intern for us that would run our social media accounts. Right now, I think I'm running at least eight platforms on a daily basis. It's a lot of time. And you constantly need to be on top of what the news is, what the trends are, who is doing what. And because we're talking death and grief, it's a very deeply uncomfortable subject. So it's very difficult to get the tone and yeah, how you discuss the subject done in a right way. So it makes it very difficult to find somebody. Like one piece of advice that I have is that people are always watching. And we often get to know people in our community through social media or how they interact with others.
So there were people who I had kicked out last year, who were doing just on their personal social media accounts like speaking eloquently and advocating in a way that really reflected our values and what we are trying to do. And then right before I would offer them a job with, you know, an internship with money and training from me, then all of the sudden, they would like all of the sudden go off the rails and post things that were inappropriate. So just keep in mind, people are always watching.
Part of the reason I got my job is I did such a good job with my own personal social media account, and it was gaining so much interest on its own that people were pulling me in to do theirs.
And I'm always looking at what other people are doing. What are you working on? How are you handling yourself? What kind of person are you? And that's a lot of how we find people, or offer other opportunities to people or support for scholarships things like that. So just keep in mind that people may always be watching. So be careful what you do and say.
LLYR HELLER: That is so true, and once a photo's up, it's up.
AMBER CARVALY: Yeah, I was going to say—and I didn't even think about that—but while you were talking about our social media, it's such a crazy thing to have to think about now is that you used to just create a resume and you put that out. And you were free and clear as to your resume being sort of your Avatar thing saying who you are. And funeral homes 100 percent will look at your Facebook. They will look at your social media. They will find everything they can on you. Again, a funeral home is a sitting duck for lawsuits. And they don't want anybody that is going to be any sort of liability whatsoever. So again, being really professional, knowing your trustworthy, that your not just going to—and again—I'm sorry. I keep saying and again.
People get so excited about wanting to work in the funeral industry like I'm going to drive a hearse. I'm going to work with dead bodies. And those are the people funeral homes absolutely don't want to hire. They don't want those people because you don't know what this job actually entails. It's not driving a hearse and it's not a lot of dead bodies. It's a lot of people being really sad. That's a good day. And on a typical day, it's people being really angry. And they're not happy to see you, ever. They don't want to be there. It doesn't matter how nice and kind and caring you are, they don't want to look at you.
It's kind of like the dentists, but like worse you know. I have a really great dentist, but I don't like seeing him though. I'm there and it's going to cost me a lot of money and it's going to hurt.
And the last thing that a funeral home wants you to do is: Had the worse day ever. Totally sucked. LOL. This family came in and like super yelled at me. A funeral home does not want you to put that. They don't even want you to put like had the greatest day at work. Had a good time. They want nothing on social media.
So I don't want to like sort of no pun intended but like beat a dead horse on that. But really L privacy is just this huge, huge thing because you can be that family, and someone's like: OMG. Had the best day ever. And they're like: Did you have a good day when my grandma died? Because that was the worst day of my life. My grandmother was everything. That's really great that you had a wonderful day. And you're thinking like Oh, I had a wonderful day taking care of you. Also alternatively, oh, my God, someone yelled at me. Families don't want to see that either.
Social media that's like yeah that should be the big take away from this.
LLYR HELLER: Any questions so far from the audience or I'll keep going?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: So maybe you already said this, but what is it that first attracted both of you to the subject? Obviously historically and otherwise it gives a lot of people the willies as it were. And what was it that attracted both of you to this in a positive way?
AMBER CARVALY: I think for me I like I always sort of jokingly referred to myself as like a bull in a china shop sort of person. I don't really have things don't occur to me the way they occur to other people. Death has never been something that's given me the willies. It never occurred to me that it was something that could be like that. It's always been just what it is.
A good example of why, one of my dad's favorite things was to read the obituaries every day. He'd just whip out the newspaper and be like John Chapman died today. Like, who is that? Oh, 36. So I actually think that normalized it. I don't know who's obituaries my dad would just read them on a daily basis.
And I think that my parents—that's just a litmus test of all the other weird things they probably did when I was a child surrounding death that made it just very normal. So it wasn't a weird thing. It didn't occur to me that it was an odd thing.
And then like I worked for the Downtown's Women's Center for a while. That was really healthy background in learning positive boundaries, but also how to deal with things that society doesn't want to talk about or learn about which is like homeless population. I passed like seven homeless people on the way here. To me it's like: Hi. Hello. How you doing? Have a good day. Most people don't want to look at them, and they don't want to compare the two topics as like the same. But they elicit the same response, same sort of fear response in society.
And to me it is the whole part of the painting that makes us human. And I just accept it and want to be part of it and makes it different and force other people to think about it.
SARAH CHAVEZ: So I grew up in a film and TV industry family. Everyone in my family, everyone except for my abuela, was in the film industry. So I went to work with my dad or my mom or my step mom every day after school, summer vacation, spring break everything. I was on a movie set. So that means I saw death being recreated over and over and over again.
And when a someone actually died on set during filming I wasn't there, but my dad was there it completely changed all of the adults around me. I came from a very open family, talked about everything, everything was very transparent to all of the adults around me their behavior completely changing coming very closed off. It was a very strange experience as a child not being going from something you know, a relationship that's very open, where everything was very transparent to all of the sudden the adults around you becoming very secretive and closed off, hiding how they feel, closing doors. It completely changed my life and all of the adults around us.
And so there was that, but I also grew up in a family like my grandmother who's very open about death, and planned her funeral. You know planning her funeral and asking for opinions about like Oh, hey, you know, I have these extra grave plots. And what are we going to do? What food am I going to serve at the funeral? And what color limousine? Everything was planned out beforehand.
So death was not a hidden or taboo subject. It was something that was just a normal part of life and a normal part of, yeah, the dialogue. But that experience that I had in with the adults and with the film industry, it really made me want to go: Hey, what is what is this? Why are people reacting the way that they are? And made me much more interested and curious about why people reacted and behaved in the manner that they did. And I haven't let go of that since. And that's not to say I don't know what your experience has been but something I get a lot of emails about at The Order and something that I grew up with and still deal with today is that why are you interested in this? What is wrong with you? Why can't you be a normal girl? Or you should you know, if you do this, you're not going to have any friends. But I get emails like
that a lot from young people particularly ones that identify as female, that their family is really shaming them for their interest. It's something that's a completely normal and natural aspect of our life and existence.
And how unfortunate that is. Because, whether it's Amber or myself or the doctors or the people that work in forensic science, these are the people that we depend on. We depend on our doctors. We depend on so many people that do these incredible jobs who have an interest in the things that a lot of people are afraid of. Whether it's how our human body functions, or what happens to it when we die, or how we deal with grief. Yeah.
LLYR HELLER: Thank you. Yes, question?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: So, what you said so far, do you believe that social media is to that general job? [Inaudible]
LLYR HELLER: Just to—sorry—recap the question for recording: Do you think social media is something negative that has happened in your general careers.
AMBER CARVALY: I think that social media like everything has positives and negatives. If it wasn't for social media, I never would have found Sarah or Kaitlyn or people that I work with that I'm able to create all this. And, what we do with social media is so amazing, and we wouldn't have had the chance without it, and that's the ability to put our message out worldwide. I get messages from girls and guys from New Zealand like I'm watching your funeral home, and following you, and what you're doing is so amazing. That's incredible, that blows my mind that someone in New Zealand knows what I'm doing in my funeral home. So I think that overall it's a positive thing. It's just about using it positively. And I think that all of us can use like a friendly reminder that's like everyone people are watching, and the internet is forever for better or worse. But I think that social media is a really great thing.
SARAH CHAVEZ: Agreed.
Part of my experience too, because I'm from LA, but up until just before this year started, I've been living the past 4 years in central California. You know, rural area that's very cut off and it's like 20 years behind everywhere else. It's farmland. There are no opportunities for really anything. Even the library is a very difficult place to be because you're not getting new books, or you're getting books you know in a very particular, you know, kind of mindset. So your access to information and new experiences and opportunity is very, very limited. So I only have the job that I have and the opportunities that I have because of social media.
So it's really been a huge lifesaver for me. And also because the biggest way that we get our message out is through YouTube videos. That's definitely our largest platform by far. So we've got, you know, hundreds of thousands of subscribers to our YouTube channel. And being able to educate people and share information that way has been the best. But yes, as Amber said, there's definitely a dark side to it and there's a duality.
But I think it's really important because there's a lot of, especially families that are separated by this force that we have to contend with. I have a lot of friends and people in my community that have family in a different country, and they cannot go to be part of a funeral or a memorial process or visit with a loved one in person, but social media and the internet has provided ways for them to at least in some way be present with family members, to be part of the funeral process through live streaming and things like that.
So it could be a bad thing, but it can be really, really a life-saving wonderful, wonderful thing. And I love it.
LLYR HELLER: Thank you so much. I'm going to use one of my questions now. You're very different in terms of what you do every day. What does a week in your life look like. Broad strokes if you'd like.
STUDENT: I get asked that question all the time, which I still have no idea how to answer it. It involves lots of coffee. That's the first thing nothing happens without coffee.
It's a lot of I guess sort of semi-general terms it's a lot of prioritizing, multi-tasking. Generally my day starts off going over emails, and going over the schedules. Do I have any arrangements today? Do I need to go to crematory? Do I need to go to the health office to pick up death certificates? Do I need to mail death certificates? Do I need to deliver them to someone's house? Do I have cremated remains? Do I need to deliver clothing? So all those little facets that create the entire part of a funeral from beginning to end and after.
I'm responsible for anywhere from like 10 to 15 people at a time. So sort of like waiting tables, which I've also done for many, many years. It's really is a lot like waiting tables. You have five tables with four people at each table so you've got do math 20 people to take care of, and each one of those people there need a different thing and you're responsible for making all of that happen in a certain amount of time. And somehow from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 or 6:00, I'm still answering emails or doing something or on the road just getting stuff done.
If you worked in a normal funeral home, it would be probably a little different. You would clock in and you would have just your one job you're assigned to like an embalmer, or you're an arrangement counselor, or you're a service attendant and you would do that one thing from beginning to end. But my day is definitely just sort of doing everything and just trying to keep myself focused as I make it through the week.
STUDENT: Talk about the paperwork, Amber.
AMBER: That's how much I hate paperwork. Also, if you think that being a funeral director is fun because you get to work with dead bodies, like I said earlier, you really don't. But you do a lot of paperwork, and you deal with a lot of government entities, and you're responsible for keeping all that paperwork and filing it in timely basis.
I hate death certificates. And I'll not get started on that because I'll talk about my unended hatred for them forever, but that's about 90 percent of being a funeral director is filling out the death certificates and delivering physical copies back to the family because people will start calling you immediately upon someone's death for that copy of the death certificate, and they get very mad at me when that happens. And I have no control over how quickly that comes back. It's super fun.
SARAH CHAVEZ: My impression of your job from the outside and like being on kind of the fringes is that, if you love hanging out in the DMV, then this is the job for you. It's a lot of that.
My job has a bunch of different pieces to it. So part of it is focused on supporting and helping the founder. She has a YouTube series that's popular. And she's a New York—two times—New York Times best selling author. So I get really, really busy when a new book comes out. That means I have to do meetings with her publisher, her team, help deal with tour logistics, deal with speaking engagements, new contracts, agreements you know agreements, details like what does the speaking set up look like? What kind of microphone do you have available? It's little details like that.
Then there's the because all of our funding comes from Patreon, which for those of you not familiar, it's basically like a kick starter but crowd funding source. Where people, the general public, can fund creators content creators directly. So what happens is people pledge a certain dollar amount every month to support an individual's work. So a lot of my work is creating contact so articles, editing articles, finding writers, helping writers craft their piece, finding if I want to publish an article on a particular subject, finding a writer who is suited to writing about that particular subject. So there is that.
There's handling all of the social media, which I said we do something like run eight to ten platforms. It's exhausting on a daily basis trying to find and generate interesting, new, different content that speaks to such a wide range of people. Because death, death, grief, dying is a universal experience. So I have to take what I know and try and create content and put things out there that everyone can relate to as much as possible. I have to find something to reach everyone's needs. So that can be a parent who's who has children. Their partner has been diagnosed with a terminal disease. How do you plan for that and talk to the child? To what are the rights and protections for identity for the trans community? I have to try and make sure everyone is safe and covered.
So I have to be on top of all the laws coming up, and I work with the legal team I've assembled to where we advocate and get information out there. We create action items for things that will limit or expand our death rights. We have the videos. We have a podcast. We have all kinds of things going on. So a lot of it also is, is deciding what we're going to talk about in the podcast, researching it, writing stories, going into the studio and recording my section for that, things like that. Answering emails which can be anything from hey thanks for your work to the opposite hate mails, to people who are dealing with really heartbreaking difficult things. And so the job ends up taking just a huge emotional toll on you. There are emails I've gotten from people and we get dozens, dozens every day. You know you carry their problems with you. Like what happened to this person? Are they okay? Yeah, it takes it's heartbreaking. You have to be, you have to be emotional well equipped to deal with all of the things we're dealing with on a daily basis.
Yeah, just like a million everything from writing and creating podcasts and telling stories to dealing with death laws and regulations and things like that. So it really runs the gamete on what you have to do on a daily basis.
LLYR HELLER: Are you able to make your own hours or do you have a set time?
SARAH CHAVEZ: I don't have a set time because stuff comes up all the time. So I'm really working all the time. My morning basically starts as soon as I get up. I immediately have to be aware of what the news is. So, if there has been a tragedy or there is something that the population at large is dealing with or trying to face, I have to get content out there that informs and supports people through what they're going through or what they need to know.
So like and that's another thing that's a challenge for me. I get no break from social media or the news or anything like that. I can't insulate myself or take a breather. I have to know what's going on every moment of the day and respond to that. Yeah, it's exhausting.
LLYR HELLER: Any audience questions? Should I—Yes?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: [Inaudible]
LLYR HELLER: Did you hear that?
SARAH CHAVEZ: I do because I'm Chicana. I actually travelled—one of my like research or expertise subjects is every year I actually go down to Mexico and I travel all so the rural areas, big cities, and things like that. So it's really, really important to me especially because I went through a traumatic loss that our westernized American society definitely did not support me or meet my needs in the [inaudible] or in the grief process in anyway shape or form.
I felt like my ancestors and my family and my culture supported that much more. So helping research and learn more about all of the history and everything we went through to keep those traditions and those rituals intact, and share them with my community, and helping teach them there is a different way by organizing our death practices that's really important to me, and I know for a lot of people as well. I go around and I research and talk about it.
AMBER CARVALY: I'm Jewish. So I respect everybody's traditions, but it's not something that's part of my background.
LLYR HELLER: Thank you. Excellent question. Any other questions? Yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I think I talk loud. I was a little late. You sound like you do so much, what—and you smile while you're say all this so it sounds like you enjoy what you do. But if you can say what your title is cause it seems like you do everything, marketing and—
SARAH CHAVEZ: I'm the Executive Director of a nonprofit organization called The Order of a Good Death Organization. Yeah, I do everything. I do a lot of things. Because of my past jobs, I've been able to pull a lot of things that I've learned whether it's I was a teacher. So my background in education, were educating people. Were disseminating information and I need to make it accessible and interesting and entertaining as well because—and palatable to people—because they don't want to talk about that.
So my background in education, but also as a curator and historian. I am also able to pull so many valuable skills from those things and put them into what I'm doing now. And that was one of the things I was talking about earlier. It's hard to say how you get to where, you know, work my you're my position because it's uncharted territory. That's how it is for a lot of us who are kind of working in this alternative death thing is that people want to know how do I do this? How did you do that? Nobody that's doing what we're doing now has done it. And the people who are doing it, just kind of had to just kind of fumble their way through and be really tenacious about it.
Yeah, and I love what I'm doing. But again, we're working with death and grief. It's hard and it's heartbreaking. And part of what motivates me is I don't want people to go through some of the things I had to go through or face the things that I did. And yeah, it's really important to me to keep centering the conversation and the actions that we take around the people and the communities that are most vulnerable too.
Cause I feel like the media often—because we do get a lot of media attention for what we do, which is strange but we do. And they often don't want to—they want to talk about green burial or home funerals or like yeah.
AMBER CARVALY: Titivation.
SARAH CHAVEZ: Yeah, Titivation. Or like the cool things that you can do with cremated remains ashes like turning them into jewelry or fireworks or things like that. They don't want to talk to me about the cost of human life at the US Mexico border. They don't want to talk about the child and infant death, which are the things I want to talk about. But here I am and I'm just going to keep talking about those things you know.
LLYR HELLER: Thank you. We only have about 15 more minutes. I see a hand. All right. What's your question?
LLYR HELLER: We have time for both.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question to you is: Do you think death in Los Angeles is particular as opposed, you know, is there something interesting, different, horrifying, whatever? How does Los Angeles view death?
SARAH CHAVEZ: Yeah. So interestingly enough, Los Angeles is really the birth place of our of the American way of death. And it actually started at Forest Lawn, which maybe some of you are familiar with because they have kiosks at the mall. They're—they're everywhere.
Before Forest Lawn existed, cemeteries—we had funerals at home. There were no funeral homes. There were no funeral directors. There were no morticians. There were no hospitals. When people were dying, we care for our loved ones at home. They died at home. We held their funerals at home. Sometimes they was a cemetery or graveyard at the church yard. Sometimes we buried them on our land. But death was family and individual centered.
And then the Civil War came and that changed everything. When people saw that they could make a profit from death, that's when funeral homes became created. So before this time, cemeteries were a social place. They were basically like our parks. People had first dates there. They took their families and had picnics at the cemetery. It's where they took a walk. There were these beautiful gardens that were basically considered outdoor museums. There were sculptures and beautiful flowers and trees. It was just a place to hang out. And, in fact they were so popular that a lot of the cemeteries before Forest Lawn, you actually had to have a ticket to get in. It was a way to control the overcrowding because so many people wanted to come and hang out at the cemetery.
So then, this man in the 1920's he was a door-to-door salesman. So there were these guys that tried to sell things like bibles, pots and pans, clothes, shoes, and things like that. And they would come and knock on your door and show you the things they had for sale and you would order them. So there was a guy going door to door and knocking on doors and he was trying to sell grave plots for cemeteries. He came out here to Los Angeles to Glendale. And he was going to teach these people how to sell grave plots. Instead, he came up with this whole idea where he wanted to create a cemetery without death, which sounds completely outrageous; right. Like how did it work? But it did. And it's exactly what he did.
So, at Forest Lawn, they changed the language around everything. Funeral directors became host and hostesses. It was not longer the mortuary or the embalming room. It was the slumber room. They took away all of the headstones and the gravestones that you think of, and they are completely flat so that when people look out over the cemetery they don't see the bodies, they just see these beautiful rolling lush hills. They don't even have trees in there and the plants where the leaves fall. They don't change and fall and die because this guy didn't want anybody thinking about death.
A lot like Disneyland, they piped in like happy music and birds singing and things like that. There were a lot of other things they did, but basically this guy wanted to take the death out of death. And that's what we embraced as a culture. So, yeah, we have a very unique bizarre way of doing death in Los Angeles.
AMBER CARVALY: Basically, he created the template for everybody else. It's like the onestop shop. The thing I was saying I think I mentioned it earlier that the thing you think of as a funeral home now exists basically because of Forest Lawn. They created the funeral home that has the chapel and the flowers and their own cemetery. It's kind of genius. I respect the hustle and the game. I'm like yeah, it's great. It's beautiful. I worked there because I wanted to be there. Because I thought it was so amazing and gorgeous. And I wanted to be part of it and I loved coming to work every day and seeing deer grazing in the rolling hills without the cemetery markers.
But I also really disliked that it was like working on a Ford assembly line. And I would get called into the office and be told to tone down my excitement for being at work. Because I was an embalmer very briefly I did the thing I sort of advocate against now because I needed to do a body like dress and do the makeup in under 45 minutes and I was taking too long. And it wasn't that I was being like I wasn't being scolded. It was understood that I was new, but they coach you from the very beginning that these are our standards. And you need to do this in this amount of time and this in this amount time.
And it's why I advocate now for you to taking death back in to your own hands. Because yes, there is a reverence. I don't want to say that everyone that works in a funeral home is like some a monster that needs to treat your grandma like an oil change and get the job done in 45 minutes like Jiffy Lube. But that reverence and the love you see in things like in 6 Feet Under, you can't keep Forest Lawn open and spend that kind of time on someone. It's why Fisher and Sons is constantly struggling. That show takes on a whole new meaning after you run a funeral home. You're just like oh, the struggle is real.
LLYR HELLER: Thank you. Did you have a question, sir? Oh—
AUDIENCE MEMBER: In the death care industry, doesn't it—don't you have to be to some degree—I don't want to say cold, but you can't take on the emotional side of it so much. Otherwise, you couldn't I mean, you want to kind of empathize with the family, but don't join the family in other words. You still have to be business like. The reason why I say that is because I worked at Inglewood Park Cemetery selling property. I did that for many, many years I'm an obituary writer. So my friends think I'm strange, but I enjoy it. But I also know that my enjoyment can't relay you know I can't share that with everyone cause they'll think you know like you're psychotic. So I still have to some degree a little bit removed but keep my emotions intact. It's a fine line to walk, but so I kind of get what you're talking about where they say you have to do
certain things a certain way.
SARAH CHAVEZ: Yeah, you have to compartmentalize a lot.
AMBER CARVALY: Yeah, you have to definitely have healthy boundaries. Since I know we're running short on time, I want to say that funeral homes I want to say this nicely I think that they, in trying to teach you healthy boundaries, take away a lot of the humanity. I can only speak to my personal experience and all of my friends who have quit multiple funeral homes because everyone that works there is extremely unprofessional. And again, I always want to be really careful and say it is not like this at every funeral home. But if you have to treat everyone like you're on a Ford assembly line, at some point you start to lose why you love the job.
Earlier I mentioned so I used to work at the Downtown Women's Center. It's so incredibly difficult because you're working with women who have heartbreaking stories. It's so, so hard. I'm so thankful for working there because I really learned how to have these healthy boundaries, and I was able to have these with my families, and it's what made me not go completely crazy working in a funeral home. I think it's what saved me when I watched other girls that I worked with. The reason why I don't work for Forest Lawn is because I worked with people that I thought should not be there anymore. And I didn't and they were poisoning the well, and I took myself out before I became like that because I saw what that kind of environment does to you. That's why I always suggest to people get a job in a funeral home first to see how you feel about it; to see how you yourself can handle working in that environment because you can only control your own reactions. And you'll find a lot of people get into this business for the wrong reasons. But, yeah, I think that's I don't know, I don't know if the funeral industry creates that kind of mentality.
You know, it sounds like you have really good or you probably figured out or you have healthy boundaries and were able to take that and maintain like a healthy relationship with death. Yeah, I don't know if I actually answered your question or just sort of jumped on like yes, yes. I get what you're saying. Yeah, it makes me...
AUDIENCE MEMBER: One more question, sorry. Do you think the change came about when large corporations took over funeral homes? When they were like mom and pop shops, were they more personable where they weren't an assembly line?
AMBER CARVALY: I think so. Mine whole thing is I think everyone should be responsible for their own family's death. Because I think it's an awful lot of responsibility to put on just a few people. Because at Forest Lawn, there were seven embalmers and we had at any time on the floor 50, 60 people, 35 people downstairs. Like what does that do to your mentality every day? And it's not seeing the death. It's not seeing dead bodies. They're very lovely. They're very nice, and they are not scary.
I encourage everybody yeah. I like I enjoy the serenity that it is to be with a dead body because I reflect I use it as time to reflect on my own mortality and to continually remind myself to be the best person that I can be. Because this is it, you don't know what will happen tomorrow.
I don't think we should put the entire county, country, the world I don't think we should be putting all of this death on just a small handful of people and not expect them to go completely bonkers. It's just too much. And do it at slightly above minimum wage. It's not and they're not emotionally prepared either.
So as I mentioned earlier, most of these people you're getting an Associate's Degree, and it's not preparing you for having those emotional healthy boundaries. You're not like delving into psychology or therapy or grief management. You're not having any of the tools that you need to survive in this industry. And it's, to me, no wonder so many people burnout after five or six years. So there's plenty of job openings. Every five or six years, a bunch of people get tired and there's plenty of openings for you guys.
LLYR HELLER: If it's okay, I have two more questions. If you're not in a huge hurry, but if you'd like to finish with that. I did want to take did I see a hand up? No? Okay.
My personal last two questions are, one, how is diversity in your work place? Because I know it's an all female staff, but how is just general diversity in the whole career choices?
AMBER CARVALY: Oh, like the career choice in like the funeral industry?
LLYR HELLER: Yeah, in the funeral industry.
AMBER CARVALY: I would say from what I saw it was incredibly diverse, which was something that made me really, really happy. I saw a healthy mixture of men, women. It's definitely more female oriented now and young women in their 30's which is really great. So I would say that's a very positive thing.
I know I feel like I just totally bummed out everybody about my job, which I was trying to not do when I came in here.
SARAH CHAVEZ: For us—for our organization which again is very, very tiny, we have myself and another Latinex woman and a Japanese American woman as well. It's basically half and half.
The big challenge is, again, because we deal with media a lot, they really center white voices and stories. So this can be very challenging to all the other people and all the other communities doing this amazing work. Again, they want more uplifting stories. So green burial and oh, wicker caskets, and pretty who's blowing these beautiful glass pendants and things like that, they don't want to talk about the difficult subjects that a lot of us in marginalized communities want to talk about, are advocating for.
I can't tell you how many press requests come in on a daily basis where they just want to it's a member of the press, they just want to do a story covering the movement. They will not talk to me. They will not talk to my colleagues of color. They only want to talk to certain individuals. Even though sometimes on a subject, we may be more qualified to speak about what the topic they are is covering, they do not want to talk to us. So that can be very challenging, but it's very important to keep in mind that, if you are doing work in the social realm, you're trying to change our culture and our society around something that you can't have your ego involved in any way shape or form. This has to be about helping people and changing the culture; not about you. You cannot center yourself. You just have to keep doing the work because you believe in it, because you're passionate about it, because you want to help people and change things. It cannot be about your Instagram followers or that, you know, you were in the New York Times for the third time. You're going to leave and get burned out immediately if that's why you are here.
LLYR HELLER: And because you have to help families and help other people so much, do you find this more to be an extrovert's job or are introverts welcome?
AMBER CARVALY: I think, to me, 100 percent an extrovert's job. You have to be really able to put yourself out there and talk to people and engage with them. And not be you know, when you sit down at an arrangement table with someone, I don't think that an introvert would do as well. But maybe an introvert would be good as an embalmer. I definitely encourage anyone to find the part that's right for them. But definitely to be a funeral director, you need to be extremely extroverted to sort of navigate through everything that's happening during that arrangement whether celebrating a life, mourning, incredibly angry about everything.
One of the things that I taught to Susanna, when she came in, is that in this time, families sense any sort of hesitation that you have when you're in the arrangement with them. So being really confident and kind and warm and embracing definitely helps, which I don't know that like my mom is super introverted. And I'm picturing my mom trying to do the job, and she would be terrible. She would just be I mean I stutter a lot but in a still very talkative way. She would just she's very she would be a better embalmer if she liked dead bodies and blood, but she doesn't. So she should just not do this job at all.
LLYR HELLER: That makes sense.
SARAH CHAVEZ: Hi. You're representing all the introverts because that is me to the extreme. I have to say this about our boss, as well, is that she is also very much along the lines of and presents very much as an extrovert. Again, you have to be very passionate about what you're doing, and being able to speak, and kind of get your anxiety under control to be able to advocate for the things that you think are important, and to educate people. That's a skill set. You can learn those skills whether you're introverted or extroverted. You're just going to have a different experience doing it.
But for our founder, again, was introverted. And it's very scary to put yourself out there to talk about a subject that people don't want to talk about, address, or face. But a subject like death, needs humanity. It needs a human face to it. It needs people that are relatable and flawed and vulnerable because we believe so much in what we're doing and we want so much to support you and help you and educate you. Like it's worth putting ourselves out there. So you there's a place for introverts too. I proved it.
AMBER CARVALY: No, you're I like having Sarah with me because she's really good at talking. And I always—I have like three sentence answers and I'm like here you go.
SARAH CHAVEZ: And I talk too much.
AMBER CARVALY: It's perfect. You balance it out.
LLYR HELLER: Well thank you all so much for joining us today, and thank you all out here for joining us today. And come back next month for journalism.
DISCLAIMER: This is NOT a certified or verbatim transcript, but rather represents only the context of the class or meeting, subject to the inherent limitations of real-time captioning. The primary focus of real-time captioning is general communication access and as such this document is not suitable, acceptable, nor is it intended for use in any type of legal proceeding.
CAREER CONVERSATIONS PODCAST, February 2019, CAPTIONED BY TOTAL RECALL, www.yourcaptioner.com