Locals walking down any street in Small Town USA, are likely to be greeted by name by their neighbors, or introduced to strangers before being asked what it is they do for work. Not Jzyk Ennis. When he takes a stroll near his Birmingham, Alabama, home, his occupation precedes him. “Hey!” shout passersby. “It’s the undertaker!”
Ennis has worked in the mortuary business his entire adult life, for more than 26 years. Early on in his career, he served as a funeral director and embalmer at establishments throughout Georgia and Alabama, where he currently sits on the faculty as part of Jefferson State Community College’s mortuary science program.
“I’ve been in the funeral profession since I was a senior in high school, ” he said, in a soft twang affirming his Southern upbringing. “It wasn’t a family business, but something that I felt would be rewarding and fulfilling. You’ll find first generation-funeral directors, especially in the Deep South. Many, like me, feel that it’s a calling.”
The use of cosmetics and painting or decorating the body after death dates back to ancient times. Ancient Egyptian funerary practices included burying some men with weapons, and women with palettes of makeup. One death ritual still practiced in some remote parts of Indonesia involves family members periodically removing relatives from their graves (often years after their death), dusting them off, and changing their clothing before drying them in the sun and reburying them.
Ennis calls embalming, however, “a unique custom,” one that’s not a predominant part of the death ritual in many cultures. “It’s only been since the Civil War that America has really embraced embalming as a culture,” he said.
Anna Dhody, the curator of the Mütter Museum, a medical history museum in Philadelphia, told BuzzFeed that the procedure took off after President Lincoln and his wife viewed the embalmed body of Elmer Ellsworth, widely regarded as the Civil War’s first casualty. “Mrs. Lincoln remarked on how natural he looked and that he appeared to be enjoying a nice nap,” Dhody said. “The combination of the resident’s interest in the procedure — along with so many troops dying — kind of spurred the whole craze.”
At the time, embalming was performed using a number of dangerous materials — everything from arsenic to turpentine. Some embalmers advocated the use of a red-colored solution, which they would inject into the body to give skin a “rosy, lifelike, glow,” Dhody said.
These days, generally speaking, many funeral directors do the embalming (which now requires a mix of solvents, including formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde) and apply cosmetics to people who have died. If it’s an especially large funeral home, there may be a cosmetologist on staff, though that’s rare. Ennis estimated that he’s done the makeup for well over 1,000 deceased people.
“From a cosmetics standpoint, what we’re really doing is enhancing the main three colorations: hemoglobin [the red pigment from blood], keratin [the protein that makes up the outer layer of skin], and melanin [a dark brown to black pigment occurring in the hair and skin],” he said. “We remove the blood and replace it with an embalming chemical. ... Through death and the embalming process, what we see is a discoloration, and often a lightening or graying of the skin depending on the formulation of the chemicals.”
With cosmetics, morticians can, in a sense, reanimate someone, making them look closer to the way their family remembers them. Because of muscle relaxation, however, dead bodies don't always look peaceful and at rest. Before the cosmetics are applied, the deceased’s facial features are set: Eye caps (similar to contact lenses, but with a small divot) are placed on top of the eyeball to keep the eyes closed, and the mouth is secured, sometimes with a suture, but often with just a little bit of glue, to keep the lips closed.
Morticians can work with cosmetics geared toward the funeral industry. Hizone Brands, for instance, was developed in the 1960s by an undertaker; the company claims its products cover everything from burns to birthmarks and don’t streak or soak into skin tissue. “The industry cosmetics tend to have more pigmentation in them and are designed specifically for what we’re looking to do — masking or concealment, for instance,” Ennis said. “If there’s discoloration or something like that, a drugstore makeup might not offer enough coverage.”
Many funeral directors prefer to use over-the-counter cosmetics, though. At the funeral home she worked in prior to co-founding Undertaking LA (a progressive funeral home in Los Angeles), Amber Carvaly used Maybelline. “To be honest, it worked really well,” she said. “It was the ‘whipped’ foundation, so it was really nice and light and soft and swept onto the face really easily without much tugging at the skin. As far as blush, it sounds old-ladyish, but I like dusty rose. Anything that is a warm rose color. I tend to stay away from anything too pinky.”
It’s a fine line, though, as too much concealer or foundation can make for an artificial look.
“Take a farmer, for instance: They’re generally ruddy-complected, don’t wear makeup,” Ennis said. “Now, if you walked in a funeral home and saw your farmer father caked with makeup, you’d think he looked like a mannequin.”
Ennis will usually talk to the family before he prepares a body for viewing, asking for photos along with the type of makeup and hairstyle the person typically wore. “Was she more of a pastel palette? More of a primary palette? You don’t want a family to walk in and see fire-engine red lipstick if she never wore that,” he said.
And even in death, everyone is striving for that perfect, no-makeup makeup look. “The least amount of makeup we can use is optimal,” Ennis said.
Bodies that have wounds, however, present their own unique challenges and must undergo restorative art as part of the embalming process. “There are different waxes and cosmetics we can use to fill in those wounds, to try and erase lacerations or abrasions that might be present,” said Ennis, “The goal is to present the deceased in a pre-traumatized state.”
Carvaly takes a similar approach to applying makeup to the dead, using a light hand to preserve a more natural look. “We are very minimalistic and accepting of however the body looks,” she said.
For a recent service, a family brought their loved one’s own makeup — lipstick, blush, foundation — for Carvaly to apply. “I also got to do her eyebrows, which I loved,” she said. “She had blush, lipstick, eyebrows — she had passed away over a week prior. She still looked really pretty.”
Her practice is a decidedly more modern operation than many funeral homes, though, with the family of the deceased invited to participate in the process. “It takes me less than 15 minutes to dress a body,” she said. “With families, it usually takes 45 minutes — I want to give them time to be with the body and utilize the experience as the beginning of the grief process.”
Sometimes, family members will speak to the deceased, expressing their love or just speaking in general terms, as if the person were still alive. “They might want to take photos of their son’s tattoos, or hold his hand. Other times, it’s just me sort of directing: ‘Okay, you lift his foot. Now let’s put his shirt on,’” Carvaly said. “I try to read the room and make sure there isn’t a lot of awkward silence. There’s a fine line between trying to fill the void with noise and keeping someone occupied so they don’t feel too overwhelmed.”
Many embalmers seek the assistance of a paid, outside hairdresser, especially if rinses and colors are requested by the family. According to Ennis, some funeral homes employ hairdressers who come in as needed; other times, the family opts to use the hairdresser the person used when alive. (Carvaly does hair at Undertaking LA, but said it’s typically just washed and air-dried rather than styled.)
Facial hair requires a bit more caution. “Shaving a dead body takes off the top layer of skin and dries out the skin,” Carvaly said. “That’s really bad because the face can get discolored. I learned that the hard way when I was an apprentice and I felt absolutely terrible.”
Like Ennis, Carvaly said the industry was just something she always had an interest in. After being laid off from a nonprofit during the height of the Great Recession, she enrolled in mortuary school and went to work at a funeral home before helping found Undertaking LA with her friend Caitlin Doughty.
“I actually don’t tell a lot of people what I do,” she said. “People ask so many questions. I had someone call me from the Census and, when she found out what I did, she kept me on the phone, just asking what it was like. My friends never want to talk about it because it makes them think about death.”
Contrary to what some of her friends (and popular culture) may imply, Carvaly said there’s nothing squeamish about her line of work. “The most shocking part about it is that it’s not at all shocking,” she said. “It’s a really calm and cathartic sort of thing to be with a dead body.”
Ennis echoed those sentiments, admitting he’s even prepared the bodies of family members — including his maternal grandmother. “It’s nothing like what’s been sensationalized in media,” he said. “It is a very clean surgical process, similar to having an outpatient surgery.”
As clean and surgical a process as embalming may be, the cosmetics aspect of the funeral industry is a deeply personal one. Carvaly, for one, remains unflinchingly passionate about her work, speaking highly of the people she sees when she comes into the office. “Even without makeup, the people I work with now are beaming rainbows of love — beautiful corpses.”
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