“The Undertaking” Outtakes: Undertaking LA

Leading up to the Civilians' production of "The Undertaking" premiering September 21-25 at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, we're featuring some great interviews that didn't make it into the play. The Civilians' artistic director Steve Cosson interviewed Amber Carvaly as part of the research for "The Undertaking."

Japanese family washes a corpse for burial. ca. 1880-1899

As you may know, the Civilians creates investigative theater, which means we interview experts about a topic, transcribe those interviews, and make them into show. This time around, we’ve chosen a very universal subject: death. We interviewed spiritualists, crime scene investigators, people who had near-death experiences, and, of course, morticians.

Morticians have the unique job of preparing dead bodies and assisting family members through the final process of their loved one’s life. Stereotypical images of buttoned up, cold, old men embalming the dearly departed spring to mind. Undertaking LA is anything but. Led by two young, vibrant women, Caitlin Doughty and Amber Carvaly, Undertaking LA helps families handle grief by including them in the dying process and care of the dead body.

Leading up to the Civilians’ production of “The Undertaking” premiering September 21-25 at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, we’re featuring some great interviews that didn’t make it into the play. The Civilians’ artistic director Steve Cosson interviewed Amber Carvaly as part of the research for “The Undertaking.” Carvaly talks about the death of a friend and how she helped the family prepare their sister’s body for burial.

We hope you enjoy this touching tale and join us at BAM in September. Tickets are now on sale.

STEVE COSSON: So a funeral…with Undertaking LA is – like there’s like a range of options? Where the people…can they do everything? How does that work?

AMBER CARVALY: Yeah. Yeah we would never force – the idea is definitely never to force anybody to do anything they’re uncomfortable with because then that becomes traumatic. But the idea is to offer the support…empower you, to make you feel confident that you can do it. A situation I always give is I had a friend who was 36. She passed away last year. She died of a heart attack. It was very sudden. I spoke with her sister. And said that I think that she should help dress Maria’s body. I spent five hours telling her everything that she would expect to see and what it would be like. She told her sisters that I had presented this offer. Her sisters really wanted to do it, but my friend – I was friends with just the one girl Ashley – said, “No thank you, I don’t want to do it.” I said, “That’s fine. I don’t want – I’m not judging you. You don’t have to feel bad. You just need to know it was an option.”

That’s the most powerful thing, is that people need to know that this is something they can do. And you might not know that it was something that you wanted to do until someone told you. I never even thought about being a funeral director until I had a friend who was a funeral director. It was never, never something I thought about until someone put the idea in my head. So, for Maria, I got to the funeral home, and her sisters were already dressing the body without even needing me there. And then Ashley sort of peeked her head in. Because she wanted to be there. She just didn’t want to be part of the process.

So Ashley kind of peeks her head in, and watches all of us doing it. Then, comes closer, and then closer, and then closer, and I, I just did nothing. I was a presence and I was an energy, and I was there. I…made my body language – as opposed to my words – let her know that I was there in a supportive way. And Ashley ended up helping her sisters fix Maria’s makeup, fix the little barrettes in her hair, fix the rest of her clothing. Maria was in a unionall, which was a plastic bodysuit, and we took the top of the unionall down so that we could photograph a tattoo that she had on her upper clavicle. So that they could get it tattooed on them. Basically, I just provided – I did almost nothing the entire time. I didn’t dress Maria; I only guided them on how to fix the body.

The point is that I believe that when people are in this situation, they will understand the strength that they have and the desire to do it. But you just won’t know until it happens. So all Caitlin and I can do, really, is continue to be here when people need us. And for me to have the confidence and the belief in myself that this is how things would happen. You know I didn’t have anything, I didn’t have any real factual scientific evidence on thinking that Ashley and her sisters would want to do it other than I think that I have a semi-good understanding of the human psyche, which I may or may not. I might have just gotten lucky. But I knew that Ashley would come in. That’s just why I didn’t force the issue. And if she hadn’t been there, then she hadn’t been there, but even when she told me she was gonna be in the back room, I knew eventually she would come in. Because she saw that it was safe, and she saw that it wasn’t scary, and everyone thinks its so much more frightening than it is.

And dying is scary. I mean, I don’t want to die, and I don’t like thinking about my own death. But helping other humans cope with someone that they loved overpowers your fear, and I think that if we came into someone’s home that didn’t want to help with the body, that…they would see me doing it – they would see Caitlin doing it – and I think that they would end up helping.

I have a friend in Berlin, and her dad will sort of trick people into helping by doing it himself, and then going, “Oh, I’m, I’m having a little issue getting the sock on. Do you mind coming over and helping me?” Then the family members will come help with the sock, and then when they touch the body and see that it’s still that person, that usually it kind of quells their fear and they’ll help dress. So I feel like that’s – I mean it’s sort of anecdotal evidence, but even in Germany, people are afraid. But even in Germany, people know that they just need to get that person there. To see that it’s not scary. And I think that that’s really deep because it sort of transcends language, it’s just being human.

STEVE: Did you, did you speak to…Maria’s sisters, after that? Did they talk to you about what the experience was like for them?

AMBER: They were extremely, extremely thankful for the experience. Obviously, they were upset that their sister was dead, but they were extremely thankful that they had the opportunity to be there. And they felt what I knew they would end up feeling, is that this was the older sister and that they should be the ones to send Maria off. That it shouldn’t be a stranger. It was definitely a very healthy, positive experience…as much as it can be, when people are dealing with a death. Especially when someone is so young. I mean, 36 is incredibly, incredibly young. She had three kids.

STEVE: Right, right. What would the people that you work with – other than dressing the body, or fixing the hair or the makeup – what, other things can people choose to, to do?

AMBER: They could definitely – the casket. If they wanted to do something like that – if they didn’t want to do hair and makeup or dressing it or bathing. I mean there’s not really a lot after that other than…they could just be present for someone else. Caitlin and I offer or suggest decorating, like if you’re using an alternative casket, which is just like a container. It’s just like a corrugated cardboard container – it’s what’s used in cremations – but like taking the lid home and just decorating all over the lid. Coloring on it, drawing pictures, sending messages. Or you could just help set up the funeral ceremony. Offer your home as a place to host it. Cooking, making up little activities for assisting the kids…there are so many different roles that people can fulfill. The funeral is such a long process. It’s not just the body. It’s the person that’s left behind.

You know, I think that, like I said earlier, I think that people underestimate the value of nonverbal communication. A lot of people at funerals get really upset because they don’t know what to say, and the truth is that people don’t remember the things that you say. They remember the way that you made them feel. By being in the living room and having that person know that you showed up. You took the day off. You cared. You were there if they needed a shoulder to cry on, you know?

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