Whether it has been your lifelong desire. Your recently discovered calling. Or just something you came across this morning on Buzzfeed, you are all probably wondering one thing. Just how the heck do I go about becoming a mortician? Well, the wonderful Amber Carvaly of Undertaking LA is here to tell you.
– Amber Carvaly –
Amber is a Los Angeles based mortician and artist. She proudly works as half of Undertaking LA, a progressive funeral home encouraging families to be more involved with the body and funeral process. In her free time she likes to sew kitschy felt toys with Harajuku flair under the pseudonym Yoshimi Dreams. She also plays bass guitar in a band called Hokusai is Alive that’s best described as, “If Prince and Radiohead had a baby.” As for her home life? Well, she has cats, she refused to say how many, just emphasized the plurality of it. They are both her reason for living, and for staying well stocked in scar gel. Her greatest struggle in life is probably the most common, desperately trying to turn off Netflix so she can get some sleep. Just one more episode. Just one more episode!
You can follow her on Twitter @AmberCarvaly
To be, or not to be, a mortician.
That is the question…
Whether it has been your lifelong desire. Your recently discovered calling. Or just something you came across this morning on Buzzfeed, you are all probably wondering one thing. Just how the heck do I go about becoming a mortician? Now, before we jump in, let’s establish a couple important things first. The word mortician, as you know it, doesn’t technically exist in today’s world. You won’t find a single job listing for it, nor will you ever. This means that if you’re serious about getting a job in the industry the first thing you should know is what the job is actually called.
Let’s fast-forward through all of the time surfing on the net for the answer – let’s be honest, you probably didn’t want to do that anyways, that’s why you’re reading this – and ask the question again with the correct verbiage. How can I become a licensed funeral director or embalmer in the state of California? Really quick, before you send me a bunch of messages saying I discriminated or forgot other states, there’s a good reason for my neglect. There are fifty states, and just one of me. This means it is up to each of you to do the necessary homework to find out what your state requires, since each of them vary. I understand that this may read flippant, but that’s not my intention. Doing the homework is half of the battle and if you really want to do this job, researching it is a great litmus test. Because, and I mean this sincerely, if by the time you get to the end of this paragraph you already think that going on the internet to research the requirements for licensure in your state sounds difficult, this is not the job for you. Really, truly, seriously. However, if you think what I say seems to be fair and logical, and maybe you’re also finding yourself thinking about how beautiful I am, then congratulations, you passed the first test. Also, thank you! Now let’s keep going!
Okay. So you did your required reading and now you know what the next step is, and if you didn’t, I’ll give you a hint, but just this once. It is the same thing you do if you want any career requiring accreditation, licensing, or professional credentials (or something like that). You go to school for it! You may have also figured out by now that there are only two schools in the entire state of California, one in Sacramento and one in Cypress. Which one you choose, and how you plan on commuting, will be dependent on your current living and financial situation. In the first couple drafts I talked about how difficult it was to obtain this degree because of the schedule and commute, but I realized you would have to make the same decisions when attending any college, and therefore it’s not a useful anecdote to help determine if this is right for you. I will add one word of caution, it’s a three-semester program, which I understand is not that long. However, the schedule is locked, and concurrent enrollment in all classes is required. Have an honest conversation with yourself about what this will sincerely require for you to survive and succeed in both your school and personal life. It may not sound that bad right now but I am still paying off my loans that I had to take out in order to pay my bills since it made it extremely difficult to work.
Some helpful advice is to check out what classes and prerequisites you need before you can apply to the program. You may be able to obtain the necessary units at a community college closer to you before you make the move to your new school. I gathered all my transcripts and made an appointment with a counselor at Cypress because even though I entered into the program already having obtained my B.A., there were still classes I lacked. So, before you even think about all the overwhelming stuff: paying for tuition, books, gas, work schedule, commute, new apartment, etc., start with the pre-requisites. Just trust me on this. It’s all about the baby steps. Baby steps around the office. Baby steps to the elevator. Baby steps.
Now you need to decide if you want to be a funeral director, an embalmer, or both. This is an important question because you only need to go to school if you want to be an embalmer.
If you want to be a funeral director the requirements are: be 18 or older, possess an Associate in Arts or Associate in Science degree, or equivalent, have committed no acts or crimes constituting grounds for denial of licensure under Section 480 of the Business and Professions Code. If you meet those requirements, congratulations, you can apply to be a funeral director. All the information needed to study for the test is available online. Also, as a hint-ok I’m giving you one more- people who have gone to school may have even posted all the study material you need on a site like Quizlet.com (cough cough cough).
If you want to be an embalmer the requirements are: be over 18 years of age, not have committed acts or crimes constituting grounds for denial of licensure under Section 480, have completed at least two years of apprenticeship under an embalmer licensed and engaged in practice as an embalmer in this state in a funeral Establishment which shall have been approved for apprentices by the bureau and while so apprenticed, shall have assisted in embalming not fewer than 100 human remains; provided, however, that a person who has been licensed and has practiced as an embalmer for a minimum of three years within the seven years preceding his or her application in any other state or country and whose license has never been suspended or revoked for unethical conduct shall not be required to serve any apprenticeship in this state. Have graduated from a mortuary science program approved by the bureau and accredited by the American Board of Funeral Service Education, or its equivalent, as determined by the bureau, and furnished official transcripts from that program or equivalent.
I thought about breaking that description down for you. But your homework is to read that all carefully and understand what that means. Because, now would be a good time to remind you that if you haaaated reading those requirements and you just want me to get to the part where I talk about dead bodies, again, just get out now.
I spend more time filling out government forms, faxing Social Security, calling Social Security because the fax didn’t go through, answering texts messages from my families about why it didn’t go through, talking to nurses about Medi-Cal, faxing papers to my crematory, driving to the doctor’s office to have him resign a form because it wasn’t correct the first time, driving to the Office of Vitals to drop off forms, driving to the Office of Vitals to pick-up forms, filling out expense reports, filing all of my family forms and ensuring I have obtained all correct signatures, printing out new forms because my family did not understand that I said next of kin is the only person who can sign and now these papers are null in void, calling the coroner’s office, calling the coroner’s office again, etc. Oh yeah, in all of that I got about fifteen minutes of dead body time when I went to go dress a decedent. Are you getting the picture here? Lots of paperwork, lots of answering to families, very very very little dead body time.
Now, let’s hit the reset button and ask the initial question again. The one that really brought you here. How can I be a mortician? I know earlier I said it wasn’t a thing anymore. But, technicalities (shrug). When people ask what I do, I refer to myself as a mortician, not a funeral director, despite my licensure status, and here is why.
I believe that we are experiencing a technological and societal rebirth. A renaissance, if you will. While the world is growing more and more connected, we as humans are growing increasingly isolated. Rather than marveling at our modern advancements and using them to continue to enhance and express the personal-self, we utilize them for mostly vapid and shallow reasons. We accept Facebook friends more eagerly than real friends, sacrificing the therapeutic value of genuine human contact. We measure the value of our worth and beauty by Instagram likes, giving away more and more of our physical selves in a desperate exchange to elevate to the gold standard that is Kim Kardashian. And we use Twitter as a way to show the world our wit and wisdom in 140 characters or less, which is still often too much for our dying attention spans. The list can go on and on when it comes to social media, and for the record, I will be the first to put my hand in the air and admit my guilt. I do my best not to get sucked in. But hey, I’m only human and social media can be used for good, after all that is the reason I am able to get this in front of your peepers right this moment.
The awful truth is, social media is a wonderful distraction from what is going on in the world. The unending sadness of war. Mass shootings, at home and overseas. Donald Trump being an actual tangerine colored human that people both listen to, and agree with. The fact that slave labor is being used to make our iPhones, and that safety nets are placed outside the workers windows to prevent them from committing suicide by jumping to their deaths. I mean Kim Kardashian’s giant rear is a wonderful mind numbing break from that. Cuz dayem girl your booty makes me forget about everything!
It is no wonder that the last thing people want to talk about is whether or not there will be enough land to bury the dead, if there will always be wood to make boxes in which to place them in, or if formaldehyde run-off will eventually wreak havoc on our eco-system. And so, we simply accept all of our death traditions at face value, chalking it up to the idea that this is the way life has always been, end of sentence. Why? Because it is so much easier. Seriously, so much easier.
That is why, for me, becoming a mortician was and is, my stand against everything that is going on in the world. It’s not just a witty turn-of-the-century callback to increase my hipster status. It’s just what I feel is, the least I can do to be a better, more empathetic, well rounded, logical human being. Death, when wholeheartedly welcomed and embraced, is less a career and more of a guiding philosophy. A reminder of what is actually real and important. I wish that I were a religious woman, because I am at a loss for words and can only liken it to one thing; a spiritual awakening. One day I just woke up. And I could never go back to sleep.
It has taken me ten years to get to this point. And, while I did graduate from mortuary school and I pay my licensing fee every year, what made me a real mortician was the life experiences and decisions that led me here. At 19 I dropped out of a nearly full ride to UC Riverside to go to makeup school in Los Angeles. I moved all of my stuff, paid for everything on my credit card and just made it happen. I eventually went back to UCR, and even went from being on academic probation to graduating on the Dean’s List. I got a job working with the homeless at the Downtown Women’s Center, but was laid off and had to work as a restaurant manager to make ends meet until I could regroup. By the time I applied for school I had already accrued most of the qualities I needed to be a successful funeral director: multitasking, self-starter, making and keeping appointments, being on time (dear Flying Spaghetti Monster/God I cannot stress how important this is), knowing when to listen and how to respond appropriately, conflict management, etc. I promise that you have probably obtained these traits as well from your own personal story, mortuary school just helps you see how to apply them.
However, the day I became a mortician was ironically the day that I quit my job as an embalmer. The bulk of the explanation is best left for it’s own story as it is long, and I am long-winded. But the moral, serves well here. I chose to leave a job that was incredibly stable and secure over my own personal ethics. What I saw in my coworkers (not all of them) were people who accepted reality at face value. They were the people of my little poetic soliloquy from the paragraph before. To them, a job was a job. New Girl was quality television programing (look, if you like it I’m not mad at you, I like Britney Spears ok, so we all got something). And the dead were trash. You pump them and you dump them. Quite literally. And so I left. Because the dead are not just dead. They are the wives. The husbands. The children. And the parents. Of the living. They are yours. And, when we do harm to the dead we do harm to the living, because someone, somewhere is mourning their loss.
I went back to waiting tables, and never was I more of a mortician than when bussing forks and knives. Clearing soiled napkins. And groveling-well what felt like it-for an uncertain tip. However, leaving my job and identity allowed me to keep my love and dignity, which would have certainly waned the longer I had stayed at a mortuary that housed workers whose values were so completely contrary to my own. It also allowed me to eventually find others in the industry who did share my passion, so that we could together redefine the word that has so much allure and mystery.
I now get to help create a mortuary! And not a day goes by that I am not aware of what a privilege it is for me to help make Undertaking LA something great. It literally moves me to tears that everything has somehow worked out. But I got that by letting go of the idea that there is only one right way to do something. And by letting go of the idea that no longer being a funeral director couldn’t take away my desire and education.
To finish, someone asked me once, what I thought I’d do when I retire, when I no longer get to practice my craft. I replied that I don’t think you ever stop being a mortician. Because wherever you go, people die and people hurt. So really, there is no end for me, until I meet my own. And that my friends, is what I believe the secret is to being a mortician. Anyone can be a funeral director or an embalmer. All you have to do is go to school and do the work. But to be a mortician, you must be more, because it’s a mindset, not a career. And that’s the beauty, isn’t it? You can be a funeral director and be a mortician. You can be a nurse and a mortician. You could even be a server- say it with me-and a mortician. It’s being there for your fellow humans. It’s knowing how to listen. It’s accepting your fate and using your time to make the world a better place. It’s putting the phone down after you realize that you have been staring at Kim Kardashian’s butt for the last ten, oh dear, fifteen minutes. There’s no test and no exam fee. No start and no stop. Simply make a conscious decision. And be.