Talk is cheap. Burials are not: Why only telling people what you want for your funeral is not enough

Amber Carvaly is back on Death & the Maiden today to discuss a subject very close to her heart. As one half of Undertaking LA, Amber encourages anybody and everybody to talk about death, dying and their wishes for the end of life. Although this is important (and she makes clear it absolutely is) Amber is here to say that talking should be the first step in an important process. One that will assist in your final wishes being met and help your friends and family meet them when the time comes. So get ready for some helpful hints, tips and tricks to start you on the path.


– 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




Part of my mission as a mortician at Undertaking LA is to get people more comfortable with the idea of talking and planning their death-hopefully-well before it happens. While letting your loved ones know what you want ahead of time is great-seriously it is-that’s just the first step. You also have to make sure you have the money set aside for those plans. It sounds pretty obvious right? But, you would be surprised by how many phone calls I’ve received from people who are price shopping for a burial, have no money to pay for it, and seem a little surprised when I discuss the real costs. While Undertaking LA is a non-profit, we are unfortunately not at the level yet where we can provide the necessary monetary assistance for burials. Also, you may not want to hear this, but setting aside grant money for burials feels like a conflict of interest.

Much of what I advocate for is simplicity and a DIY mentality, whereas the modern funeral usually exemplifies the exact opposite. The National average for burial comes in at around seven thousand to ten thousand dollars. However, a cremation with us at ULA ranges from eight hundred to one thousand dollars, with the US national average coming in at a little over two thousand.  It’s also good to note that if you’re in the LA area, you are privy to some of the most expensive and the least expensive prices in the country, where burials can easily add up to thirty thousand or more, and direct cremations can be found for as little as seven hundred fifty to eight hundred. The reason I cite all of this is to emphasize how the same amount of money for one burial could better be spent providing cremations for up to eight families.  While I am not trying to convince you that a cremation is a better choice for you, it is important to realize that the mission of any non-profit is to their resources to serve as many people as possible, which means that a majority of our money at ULA will be devoted to cremations. So, if after all that, a burial is something that you really want, let’s talk about setting some goals you can make now that will help you in the future.


Ask yourself what you want first

Before you talk to your family, ask yourself first, what do you really want? Do you want to be buried? Why or why not? Do you want to be cremated? Where would you want your ashes to go? If you are buried, do you want a natural or traditional? Don’t just make your decision based on our current social mores. Take some time to reflect on what would make you happy. I know it seems easier to just let other people deal with it after you’re gone, but I am begging you, from one human to another – do not do this. Listening to the heartbreak and confusion from my families as they struggle with the guilt of trying to figure out what their loved one would have wanted is agonizing. Figuring out what you want, and putting those plans in writing will make a world of difference for your family. And don’t forget, put them somewhere people will be able to find them when the time comes. Your death wishes don’t do any good if they are wadded up and pushed into the back of your desk.


Asking your family what they want is totally OK

Sometimes we feel pressure to plan our funeral wishes around what we think our family wants. For instance, maybe you grew up Catholic and you know it would hurt your parents if you didn’t have a full catholic service. Again, I’m not here to convince you on what the best decision is. If doing what makes your family happy, in-turn makes you happy, then by all means do that – but, do you know what this service entails? Talk about it and plan ahead. Know what church they want to use, purchase your plot now, figure out what kind of casket you would want and where you would buy it, know if embalming will be required if you are planning on having a church service. Do the homework together.

I recently received a phone call from someone who started out by saying that they “just wanted a burial”; something that we could definitely help facilitate. However, as the days went on, and the time before the service grew smaller and smaller, the family kept adding more and more items they hadn’t thought of to the funeral. And, while I was happy to oblige, it made giving the level of service I feel all our families deserve incredibly difficult as I had to plan more and more out for them with increasingly less time. The problem here, aside from the obvious, was that the mother had died of a long-term ailment, indicating to me that they had ample notification that having “the talk” was unfortunately going to be necessary. Instead they waited until days after she had passed to decide that they wanted a full catholic service, something that requires vastly more planning than a simple burial. In the end everything was pulled off smoothly enough, but that is not the ideal way to plan the funeral of a loved one and causes a great deal of stress for everyone involved; including your dear funeral director.


Talk openly about the costs and what you can actually afford to spend

As I mentioned earlier, the cheapest option for a traditional burial starts around seven thousand dollars, which includes the cheapest option for a casket. However, in my time at Forest Lawn the average casket I saw ran anywhere from one thousand to about seven thousand, with a couple twenty-five thousand dollar caskets; like the one Michael Jackson was buried in. It’s also important to note that the seven thousand dollar average does not include all the little extra things you are likely to purchase, such as: prayer cards, memorial folders, memorial videos, headstone, flowers and a flower van to transport them, police escort, music, dove or balloon release, money for an officiate, food, beverages, etc.


At Undertaking LA I help facilitate natural burials at Joshua Tree Memorial Park, and while they don’t require embalming or a casket, they still start at about six thousand five hundred dollars. While we are excited to offer this, it’s important to realize that we, like all the other funeral homes, can only control so much of our expenses. This means it requires that everyone helps out in order to keep costs to a minimum. Little things, like sewing your own shroud can save you anywhere from two to five hundred dollars depending on where you would have purchased it. This requires minimal sewing skills, takes around three hours to complete and could also be used as an experience to bond with your family. Next, in order to shroud, and or casket your loved one, we have to rent the time and space at our crematory, which currently costs two hundred dollars. While we are always happy to help do this, our Mission Statement is about bringing death back home, so we want to see our families taking the initiative to do this themselves. It’s not because we do not want to do this, but because this is the most important part of doing your death work, and I believe it overwhelmingly helps with the grieving process.

Another way to save money is by using your own car for transporting the body. If you were to do that with us you could save a total of four hundred dollars in mileage and employee charges. Ask around now and see if anyone has a truck or van they would be willing to lend you, and don’t worry it’s not illegal; I have already worked with a family to do just this thing. So see! With the few tips I’ve given, you have already saved anywhere from eight hundred to a thousand dollars. Sure, this requires extra planning, but it saves you a lot of money and a lot of stress in the long run. However, if you still don’t think that its feasible to save the necessary amount then you need to have an honest conversation about having a cremation, which is still a dignified and wonderful way to say goodbye to your loved one and allows for much more flexibility when it comes to planning where you want to hold a memorial service.


Start saving

Now that you’ve had the conversation with yourself and your family, and decided what you want and are willing to spend, it’s time to start saving. Begin by putting a little away every month, even if it’s only five or ten bucks, that is still something and it will add up over time. There is no hard and fast rule about whether or not you should open an account or if you want to start hiding it away somewhere in your home, just make sure you let someone know where it is so it’s available to them when the time comes. Do the math now and figure out how much you’ll need to save and divide that up into what you feel like is a reasonable amount of time.

This concludes our service

So remember, Little Deathlings, nothing makes me happier than reading all the Facebook comments about you feeling empowered to make sure that all of your family and friends know what you would like. After all, it’s your funeral and you deserve to have whatever kind of service you would like, so long as it’s legal! Don’t forget, leaving a Facebook comment saying that you want everyone to know that you want a natural burial with a huge party to follow it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will have to cost a lot, but it will still cost something.

So please, do your homework, talk to your family, and start saving now. I know you won’t be here to see all of the good that it does, but your friends and family will thank you – and so will my ulcers.

Further Reading

Are You Ready to Die? A Funeral Checklist

Funeral Service Questionnaire

3 responses to “Talk is cheap. Burials are not: Why only telling people what you want for your funeral is not enough”

  1. Awesome advice. My mother recently passed and while she did have a couple things she wanted the rest was left up to me..but I was prepared!. Not having a lot of cash I opted for not having a wake. We had a simple service at the cemetery chapel, cheaper casket, better vault, and spent the few remaining bucks for a brunch at her favorite Italian restaurant. Afterwards I only had one person complain because of no wake. I told them it still cost the estate six grand and that I would take donations…lol. Everyone else loved the service and especially thought the brunch meant far more as the family is far flung and we broke bread together for the first time in years.

    I am glad that I preplanned in my head what I was going to do and began saving money for it a few years ago. This was painless….now taking care if the estate….that’s another matter…lol

  2. […] in the preparation of their deceased loved ones for burial or cremation. I particularly enjoyed this piece she wrote for Dead Maidens in 2016 about planning ahead for funerals – plenty of food for […]

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