With increasing regularity, people are looking for alternatives to traditional funerals and burials. In response to that movement, there are some innovative funeral homes opening up in Los Angeles and elsewhere in Southern California. One of these is LA Undertaking, which bills itself as being a “progressive” funeral home.
LA Undertaking is owned by Caitlin Doughty. Caitlin has been in the funeral industry for a decade. In addition to founding A Undertaking, Caitlin is active in working with the public in becoming less uncomfortable with death. She speaks internationally on death culture, rituals, and the funeral industry.
In 2011, Caitlin established the Order of Good Death. She describes this organization as being a “death acceptance collective.” She notes that the Order of Good Death has been featured on NPR and BBC as well as in the New York Times. Caitlin also produces a web series entitled Ask a Mortician. She has written a pair of New York Times best sellers on the “American death industry.”
Her activism is reflected in her own description about what she likes best about her profession. “My favorite part about being a funeral professional is giving back to the community. Helping those who are truly in need while going through a death,” Caitlin explained.
In addition to Caitlin, LA Undertaking has two other primary team members. Amber Carvaly is the Director of LA Undertaking. Susanna Alba is the Funeral Arranger.
In establishing LA Undertaking, Caitlin developed a simple, and yet powerful, mission statement:
“The mission of Undertaking LA is to allow families to reclaim rightful control of the dying process and care of the dead body.”
Natural Burial at LA Undertaking
One of the services offered at LA Undertaking is natural burial. This type of internment is also called green burial or direct burial.
Natural burial involves the internment of a deceased person’s remains without prior embalming. The burial must take place fairly soon after a person passes on. California law mandates embalming within 24 hours after death unless the remains are refrigerated or internment will occur within that time frame.
The team at LA Undertaking explained that there are natural burial or green burial alternatives in Los Angeles that are cheaper than traditional funerals and burials. The team reports that the most basic traditional burial in Los Angeles costs about $8,000, and that price does not include the cemetery plot or other place of internment.
There are three cemeteries in Los Angeles that have space for natural burial. They are:
- Joshua Tree Memorial Park
- Woodlawn Memorial Park
- Hillside Memorial Park
LA Undertaking partners with Joshua Tree Memorial Park. LA Undertaking partners with Joshua Tree Memorial Park because it is the most affordable natural burial option in Los Angeles. The interment costs at the three cemeteries that permit natural burial are:
- Joshua Tree Memorial Park – approximately $7,000 (including plot)
- Woodlawn Memorial Park – $16,000 and up
- Hillside Memorial Park – $16,000 and up
As part of the green burial process, biodegradable materials are used for the casket or shroud. These biodegradable options typically include:
- Renewable wood casket
- Woven willow or wicker casket
- Unbleached cotton or linen shroud
- Paper shroud
No burial vault is used in a green internment.
The elimination of embalming, and the use of biodegradable materials for burial, has a direct, significant, positive impact on the environment. This becomes patently obvious when a consideration is made of the economic impact of traditional burials in the United States:
- 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, which includes formaldehyde
- 180,544,000 pounds of steel in caskets
- 5,400,000 pounds of copper and bronze in caskets
- 30 million board feet of hardwoods in caskets
- 3,272,000,000 pounds of reinforced concrete vaults and 28,000,000 pounds of steel in vaults
This data was provided by Mary Woodsen of Cornell University, who serves on the Green Burial Council Advisory Board. She performed one of the most extensive examination of the environmental impact of traditional burial practices.
“We only encourage the family to take a little more time with the body at home,” Caitlin noted. Both through the green burial process and cremation, the team at LA Undertaking encourages families to spend more time with their deceased loved one. This includes things like having a funeral at home or bathing and preparing the body for burial or cremation, a practice long-undertaken in some cultures and by some faiths.
Cremation at LA Undertaking
In addition to green burial services, LA Undertaking offers direct or natural cremation services as well. What this means is that embalming doesn’t take place. In addition, the body is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a simple container as part of the cremation.
There are a number of essential reasons why a growing number of people are selecting cremation over burial in this day and age. According to the Cremation Association of North America, these reasons include:
- People are dying older and choosing cremation for themselves
- Migration to retirement locations is increasing
- Cremation has become acceptable
- Environmental considerations are becoming more important
- Level of education is rising
- Ties to tradition are becoming weaker
- Regional differences are diminishing
- Religious restrictions are diminishing
- Greater flexibility in memorialization services
According to Caitlin, LA Undertaking offers a variety of different types of options when it comes to natural cremation. She made clear that LA Undertaking is thoroughly committed to ensuring that the disposition process, whether it be cremation of internment, meets the specific needs of the loved ones of the deceased person.
The cremation options offered by LA Undertaking are:
- Simple cremation: the remains are directly taken from the place of death and cremated. There is no viewing. The cost is $995.
- ID viewing and cremation: Up to 10 people can gather for 10 minutes to view the body. Cremation occurs at a later time. The cost is $1,500.
- Witness cremation: Up to 10 people can witness the beginning of the cremation process. The cost is $1,710.
- One hour viewing with no witnessing of cremation: This is said to be ideal for people who want to spend time with the deceased person. The cost is $1,820.
- One hour viewing and witnessing of cremation: Up to 50 people can participate in a viewing in a private room. The cremation follows and can be witnessed by anyone who so desires,
A final note on cremation. The remains cannot be taken by a loved one, or loved ones, on the day of the cremation. California regulations necessitate a bit of delay. The remains can be picked up about a week later.
Bringing Death Rituals Back Home
For generations in American history, including during the colonial period, death and dying occurred in the home. In the past century, this practice slowly gave way to the disposition of a deceased loved one taking place behind closed doors by so-called “professionals.” According to the team at LA Undertaking, this process has become so solidly complete that families have no idea that they have the legal right in being involved in the care of their own dead. One of the goals of LA Undertaking is empowering people to in fact become more involved with what happens to their loved ones after death occurs.
This includes funerals in the home followed by a natural cremation or burial. The ultimate objective is to create a more nurturing and kinder death experience for all involved in memorializing and celebrating the life, and passing, of a loved one.
The National Home Funeral Alliance provides a wealth of information about home funerals.
Privacy at LA Undertaking
When asked how many deceased individuals are served at LA Undertaking each year, Caitlin simply stated: “This answer is unfortunately private.” Although Caitlin, and the other team members, are highly active in sharing burial options with the public at large, they are equally deliberate in protecting the privacy of those they serve.
Owner’s Motivation to Work with Grieving Families
When asked why she got into the “funeral business,” Caitlin provided a direct, and yet comprehensive, answer:
“This is a very unexciting answer. I had a friend that was a mortician and I thought that it would be something I am good at. I started my own funeral home because I disliked the callous attitude of my coworkers at my old job and disliked how confusing they made everything for families. So again, I defer to not liking to use the word alternative here, as it distances us from mainstream mortuaries, as what we really do is offer transparent and easy to understand prices, as well as a working knowledge of what you can and cannot do within the conﬁnes of the law, as well as encouraging people to sit with the body at home for a few hours or days after they have died,” Caitlin explained.
LA Undertaking Locations
5300 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90029
If a death has occurred please call 323-446-2233.
13800 Saticoy Street
Van Nuys, California 91402