I was offered what I thought was going to be a standard restorative art job – a young child who had died of cancer, had already been embalmed, and who was showing signs of desquamation; meaning her skin was peeling off her face (common in bodies with heavy edema caused by extended chemotherapy treatments) and her viewing was the next day. I drove to the funeral home to look at her, after having been awake for 36 hours doing other funeral stuff. I knew immediately I would have to change her clothes and I hoped her parents wouldn’t mind. She was wearing spaghetti straps, probably a favorite formal dress of her family, but laypeople do not realize that exposed skin rarely looks good in a casket. If you have seen an embalmed body prepared for viewing and fully dressed, odds are the decedent’s arms, legs and stomach look nothing like the face. Embalmed skin is very discolored and mottled; usually gray-tinged with pink blotches if the person was Caucasian or had light brown skin. Even on a dark-skinned black person, there will be some bright pink staining from the embalming fluid in odd patches.
We do a lot of work on the face to make it look lifelike. We don’t give this attention to the arms. But no one knows this, so people bring in t-shirts and shorts and crop tops for their loved ones to wear. During an arrangement I will explain to the family where the embalming incisions are, where the autopsy incisions are, where the bandaging is; that clothing must not be sheer or tight or low-cut, and most of the time this is promptly disregarded by grieving people who can’t be expected to remember. Sometimes I have to send the clothes back and tell the family it’s unacceptable. Sometimes I buy other clothes, or raid my own closet, as I did with this girl. I found a dark turtleneck that she could wear under her dress and the director assured me her parents were not picky and that he trusted my judgment.
(Note: not all funeral directors are embalmers; perhaps the majority. Becoming a funeral director who does not plan to embalm is a much easier career path. It can be very frustrating being hired to do a job for such directors but it can also be a good teaching opportunity.)
I told the director I estimated it would be a three-hour job and stopped at the grocery store to pick up some other needed items – plastic wrap for her arms, since they were also losing skin and starting to ooze; some tape to hold the plastic; some nail polish to freshen up what she already had on. I was so excited I only managed to sleep for an hour. I love restorative art.
Early the next morning I messaged a couple of interns letting them know I had an interesting case and that I likely would not need assistance, but they were welcome to observe for education. One of them showed up, and I soon realized this was not going to be the easy, smooth teaching opportunity I thought it would be. I ended up putting the intern to work and paying them, and any learning was probably incidental.
The body was already in the casket, a simple lined wicker cremation tray. I lifted the head and torso to slide off the dress and immediately, embalming fluid streamed from her nose and mouth and got all over the dress and the casket liner. She had either not been aspirated post-embalming, or had not been aspirated enough, and this particular funeral home was very strict about not allowing anyone other than their own employees to use their prep room. There was nothing I could do but pack the nose and mouth with cotton. It worked, but sometimes it’s not enough. You just take cotton and forceps and pack both nostrils until nothing more will fit. I did the ears too. Then you have to look at the body from different angles to make sure the cotton won’t be seen no matter where the viewers stand. If you can see white up the nose, sometimes you can take some skin-colored makeup on a brush and sort of paint the cotton.
Mercifully, the dress was dark-colored and the casket liner was treated with some fluid-resistant matter, so nothing was stained. We lifted the body out of the casket and put her on my gurney, removed all clothing and jewelry, and saw that her whole body was losing its skin and would need to be wrapped in plastic before being dressed again. We cut up some bodybags and created a makeshift undershirt, which we secured with tape around her body several times. I do this a lot with bodies who are losing skin over the back and stomach, and I much prefer to do this with the body suspended on a lift, but I didn’t have one available.
We probably spent an hour just covering her with plastic and tape, then dressing her in my turtleneck, before we were ready to start on her face. A few employees of the funeral home were eager to see my work, because airbrush cosmetics are not commonly used around here, and were bummed it was taking me so long to get started. They, like every funeral home these days, were swamped. I could barely find room to set up my equipment; I ended up doing this work in their garage, surrounded by old broken caskets, and I had to whine and complain just to be afforded this amount of space.
I noticed she was leaking a little bit of fluid from under the eyelids, most likely due to the pressure caused by the embalming fluid when it reached her head. Embalming swells tissues, and in a chemo-treated body, the tissues can already be waterlogged and great care needs to be taken to make sure the embalming techniques don’t make it worse. I looked at the embalmer’s injection method; she had injected the legs and arms, but did not isolate the carotid arteries. I explained to the intern that when I get a case that I think is going to have problems – or even on a routine case – it’s a good idea to isolate both carotid arteries in the event the face starts to take on too much fluid. This way, the carotids can be clamped off and this will greatly lessen the amount of fluid reaching the head. In this case, all I could do was work some cotton swabs under the lids and try to soak up the fluid breaking through the skin.
Next I had to treat the areas of the face where the skin was coming off. The most common problem in a case like this is the tendency for oozing and seeping, which means cosmetic will not adhere. So you have to try and “dry” the area with cotton or cauterize it with chemicals. After this, I usually go in with mortuary wax. It’s tricky to blend it so there isn’t an obvious line of demarcation. I have a small electric spatula, which is actually a woodburning tool but is very useful for heating up the wax to a spreadable consistency. The spatula can also “iron out” swelling in the eyelids, but this is best done before embalming. I probably spent another hour heating up wax, painting it on, and smoothing the end result with metal sculpting instruments.
After the wax work, I could ready my airbrush equipment and do a few test passes. It’s not as simple as picking a color and spraying the face (or maybe it’s supposed to be and I’m just not that good yet). I probably spent well over an hour just fine-tuning the machine, going back and forth between a fine mist and a concentrated spray, mixing colors, and playing with different distances to create the level of coverage I needed without causing the makeup to bead and drip off the face.
We also started working on her hands, which were swollen and bruised but not nearly in as bad of shape as the face. Some embalmers forget to color and cosmetize the hands to match the face. If you have a body with a glowing pink face and neatly coiffed hair and well-fitting clothing, the entire image will be thrown off by grayish, dried hands. There is a mortuary product that is similar to a reddish-orange Vaseline, and it works for all skin tones; men and women. If you have a case that looks near perfect, a tiny dab on a cosmetic brush will really make them glow.
I had to call the director and let him know it was a bad case, much worse than I thought, and that we would be working right up until viewing time. He was just glad I was doing anything at all, saying he had heard good things.
What will the viewing room look like? What are the lighting conditions? Who are the viewers? All of this can determine whether or not a viewing is a good experience. Some people can’t be viewed in natural light, but will look good under the pink lights some funeral homes use. Some can’t be viewed by the general public, but close family – who knew the person from the course of their illness and understand its effects – will be understanding of what conditions exist. Some bodies can be viewed, but not touched or hugged or picked up. I like to prepare children with the expectation that the parents will be picking them up, but I had to tell the director this could not be one such case.
After a couple more hours of various cosmetic colors and formulas and techniques, I decided to call it good. It wasn’t my best work, but the parents’ expectations were very low. We situated her in the casket, after making a lot of adjustments. Nearly all casket pillows arrive overstuffed. I usually remove about 2/3 of the stuffing, and if I have the time and space, I save this stuffing for use in autopsied bodies. One common mistake I see, especially in child viewings, is placing the body with either the head too low on the pillow, which forces the chin to lie on the chest; or placing the shoulders very high on the pillow, making the body look like a diagonal board. When in doubt, unstuff the pillow, lie the body flat, and then prop up the upper back or the arms if necessary. I could probably write a whole piece on casketing a body alone; it’s a bit more work than just putting a person in a box.
The child was bald, but I didn’t know for how long; if her parents had become accustomed to the look or if they missed seeing her with hair. But I have an advantage not many embalmers do: a huge array of headscarves in many colors and textures and fabrics; with sequins and beads and appliques and rhinestones and tassels and pompons and glitter threads. I have black beaded, blue shiny, pink sequin, red velvet, tan cashmere, flowered, fluffy, sheer…it’s actually more fun than hair. So I brought along a selection of twelve to try out on this girl. I ended up picking four. Obviously I don’t want to wrap her head up like mine; I just wanted to give the look of a girl cradled in beautiful silks. I put one in the bottom of the casket to drape over the sides, the one that was a wedding present, and one to wrap around her shoulders, and one to drape around her head sort of like long hair, and then a big fluffy purple blanket to cover the ugly metal platform the casket was on, and then a long purple scarf with lots of rhinestones to go over the blanket. I made sure to make careful notes to the director about what I wanted returned; she could keep the turtleneck but I wanted everything else back. I also brought a Spanish bible I just happened to have – this was a Hispanic Christian family – and some little sun and moon and flower trinkets to use as props around her. And it was done. Not my best, but the parents were very happy with all that had been done, because they were expecting the bare minimum. So in a way, for me, it was still a “best” kind of experience. I gave them what they wanted. I gave them what they didn’t think they could have.
The total job ended up taking six hours. I reached out to an embalmer who gives national presentations about restorative art techniques and explained the case to him; he FedExed me a free box of new types of waxes and restorative materials and gave recommendations about different types of airbrush machines and cosmetics; he said to stop buying those cheap models from Amazon that are meant to be used on living skin. I already upgraded my super-cheap kit to a mid-cheap kit and gifted the former to an intern, so now I feel ready for the moderate-priced unit and I can give another intern another cheap starter kit. I’m kind of missing that turtleneck; it fit me perfectly.