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Serving life at the altar of death

Student morticians learn to use their own grief and fear to lead others to solace.

October 10, 2011|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times

Not long after she began studying to become a mortician, Amber Carvaly started to dream about death.

In one dream, she found herself in an embalming room surrounded by gleaming silver tables. In another, she found herself in a cemetery, and in a third, her grandmother had died and, as her mother stood by, Carvaly let out an ear-piercing, heart-wrenching scream.

Each time she awoke in her studio apartment in Eagle Rock scared, yet strangely reassured. Weeks into a demanding curriculum on such topics as the cultural history of undertaking, preparation for embalming and funeral ceremonies, she hadn't grown numb.

Carvaly, 27, has experienced her share of loss — a great-grandmother, a cousin who took his life, an uncle who died in a car crash, fathers of friends in high school — nothing inordinate but meaningful nonetheless, and she is afraid of what lies beyond the last breath.

But fear is what drives her. Somewhere amid the smell of formaldehyde, the sweet taste of energy drinks and pages of anatomy, accounting, counseling and law, she is searching for a profession and an identity that will transcend the ephemera of daily life and show her how to live undaunted by mortality. She believes she has found it.

"There is something beautiful about being part of the ritual of death, performing the most ancient of jobs," Carvaly says, "and the possibility of serving my life this way is the motivation for the days when I just want to lay my head on my desk and cry from stress."

Commuting nearly 80 miles each day, to and from Cypress College in Orange County, she works evenings waiting tables to help pay for school, and she studies well past midnight — all for the chance to work in a field known for its long hours and low pay, on average starting at $31,000 a year.

Carvaly has a bachelor's degree in women's studies from UC Riverside, was a make-up artist in Hollywood and worked with the homeless at a Los Angeles nonprofit. She considered becoming a nurse but found the schools too crowded to get the classes she needed. She wanted to do something noble and remembered a friend who learned undertaking in the Navy and had found a job at a mortuary in Corona.

She listened to his stories about going to the morgue, setting up for a service, picking up the deceased — babies from families, husbands from wives — and she was amazed that someone her age could do this work.

Classes started in August and are designed to give students an edge when they take the state and national licensing exams. If Carvaly graduates in three semesters, she will have paid a little more than $5,000 to learn how to embalm and to arrange a funeral. Some have called the profession "the dismal trade," but she sees nothing dismal about it.

"We can't appreciate life without appreciating death," she says. "I want to help people realize this."

Diverse curriculum

On a Tuesday morning, Carvaly joins her study group — Chris Folger, Nina Mendoza and Theresa Wenning — in the Mortuary Science School's library. Their first anatomy exam begins in less than two hours, and they need to drill.

On a wall above them hangs a black-and-white photograph of a young man with wavy hair and Poindexter glasses. He was one of the first students of the school in 1929 when it was in Boyle Heights and primarily taught embalming. Today the accredited curriculum, one of only two in California, is more diverse, and the mortuary program has an enrollment of nearly 125.

"What are the four tissues of the body?" Folger asks.

"Why do you hate me so early in the morning?" Wenning says.

The four met the first week of class and realized they had a better chance making it through the next 18 months if they worked together. They have grown close, gathering before and after classes, calling one another at night with questions and encouragement. The women tease Folger as they might a brother.

Carvaly's other friends don't understand. They think undertaking is all about handling dead bodies and selling caskets and headstones. She might as well carry a scythe, and when they say they don't fear death, she hears in their voices an apathy that saddens her.

Her professors had warned her. "After a while," Jolena Grande says, "many of your old friends will magically disappear."

Grande, who has been teaching at Cypress since 1995, has been in the funeral industry since 1989. "I cannot begin to describe the number of people who are disgusted with my chosen occupation and my 'sunny' outlook on death," she says. "I suppose we are all supposed to shun death and fear its place in our lives."

Students say they came to this school to be of service, but beyond the altruism lie deeper currents: a fascination with human anatomy, a pride in performing a task others find repulsive, a chance to work where emotions are often so keen and a delight in the cocktail-party shock factor. You do what? What's that like?

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