Dead Men Wear Great Lash Mascara
More and more young women are going into the funeral business. Our writer learns all about pink caskets, exploding excrement and the nastiest makeup kit ever. Story and photography by Claudine Ko.
"Smells like home," mortician Jenni Bryant says. We are midway through our tour of the Dodge Company, the world's largest supplier of embalming chemicals. As lines of empty plastic bottles pass by on a conveyor belt to be filled with a rainbow assortment of dyes and preserving fluids, the odor of formaldehyde permeates the air. I scrunch my nose and think, "Dude, not my home." We're in Boston for the annual National Funeral Directors Association's Professional Women's Conference, which includes this side trip and various networking seminars on embalming, bereavement and, yes, brand loyalty.
Until recently, the death industry was your typical ol' boys club, but these days, for the first time, women are graduating from mortuary school at a higher rate than men. When I look around, I'm surprised at the number of designer-jeans-wearing twentysomething ladies who look like they'd be more comfortable working in an office like mine than prepping bodies in a funeral parlor.
"Death has never bothered me," says funeral director Jackie Scheel, a petite, pigtailed 25-year-old who looks about 16. For the record, I had absolutely no desire to write this story when it was assigned to me. Ever since I was 3, when my pet frog croaked, I've spent hours upon hours fixating on the horrifying fact that one inevitable day, I'll cease to exist. But scary, unfamiliar subjects are the things that one should be reporting. And you only live once, right? Unless, that is, you have Buddhist tendencies like I do and are karmically destined to be reincarnated as a sad little ant.
"Is it hard for you guys to think about your own funerals?" I later ask a group of the morticians, who all say they believe in God and the afterlife.
"No," they each answer.
"I just don't want any country music played at mine," one says.
It's cold, dark and rainy by the time I reach the New England Institute funeral service program at Mount Ida college in the affluent town of Newton, Mass., two weeks later. After hearing all about embalming at the conference, I figure it's time to see for myself what it's like to prepare a body. The American tradition of embalming began during the Civil War, when dead soldiers were preserved in chemicals so they could be sent home for proper burial. Now it's part of a $15 billion funeral industry that promotes the idea of saying goodbye to your loved one face-to-face, without any rotting bits getting in the way. The U.S. happens to be the only country where this expensive practice (about $500 a pop) is standard.
As soon as I enter the lobby, I notice that smell again. Only in addition to the formaldehyde sweetness, there's also something vaguely off, like a cross between a glue factory and a butcher shop. It gets stronger as I head downstairs to the lab were instructor Nathan Corl Minnich, 26, is holding an embalming final exam for his graduating students, half of whom are women. In the bright room, his pupils are swathed in protective medical wear (surgical masks, face shields, gowns, booties and gloves) and are huddled around a porcelain embalming table. I glimpse two bare legs, thin and dark, on the table. They belong to a sixty-something woman who died from heart disease. As soon as a suit up, I cautiously move in for closer examination: her mouth is wired shut and her eyeballs are covered by convex plastic caps, to hold the lids closed. A cloth covers her pelvic area.
The students search around the woman's clavicle of her artery. One picks up a scalpel and cuts an incision along her collarbone. "Are my other aneurysm hooks somewhere?" Nathan asks before using the L-shaped metal tool to pull apart her skin, revealing some muscle. I get the heebie-jeebies and have to turn away.
"There's the artery," Nathan says. The students crowd in closer. "I hate to bring up food, but it looks a little bit like linguine." He slides a metal clip underneath it with two pieces of string to hold the embalming nozzle in place. It resembles a mini gas pump, and it's been inserted into a small puncture they made in the artery. "Because she's black, we'll need more brown tones and red tones," Nathan instructs. A few students begin dumping bottles of pink fluid into the cylindrical glass container of the embalming machine. "The more dye, the less cosmetics you'll have to use." They top off the solution with water and hit the "on" switch. It begins to click while the rosy liquid froths up, and I immediately think of one of those mall fruit-punch machines. Blood streams out of her vein, down over her shoulder and into the gutter of the table. Four students massage her legs and arms. The veins on her forehead protrude. So does her stomach. Nathan takes a pointed metal instrument connected to a clear hose and jams it into her belly. Dark viscous matter drains through the tube.
For his final trick, Nathan whips out a hypodermic needle and a special liquid that turns into gel on contact with water. He injects the fluid into the hollower spots on her face. And like magic, she inflates back to her normal self. Or her normal dead self anyway. I feel kind of numb at the time, but over the next few days, I find myself overwhelmed by a strange loss of innocence, and I'm unable to talk about any of these details. Not that anyone I know wants to hear them.
Traditionally, funeral home careers have been passed down through generations of the same family. But several of the women I interview got into the business after dealing with a lot of death at a young age. Erin Hastings, 27, from Hamden, Conn., tells me that in high school, she went to a bunch of funerals -- mostly for older relatives -- in a short period of time. "I wasn't happy with the way the lips were," she says. So she decided to become a mortician and "come up with a way to make everyone look better."
"Holly Houston, a 24-year-old mortician, grew up in small-town Cottage Grove, Ore., where the only thing to do was party. "By the time I was 8, I'd been to 11 funerals," she says. After her classmate died in a car accident during her sophomore year in high school, she saw a school counselor. "I was like, 'Why does this keep happening?'" Later, when Holly had a rotation at a funeral home for an anatomy/physiology class, she decided it was the job for her.
Jackie Scheel, the 25-year-old with pigtails, knew she wanted to be a funeral director ever since she was 14. "I lost my very good friend when I was 9," she says. "I was confused why someone my age died. They let me touch her. I'd never seen her in bright pink lipstick before. When you're 9, you don't wear makeup."
I ask Jackie if I may shadow her for a few days at the Voran Funeral Home in the Detroit suburbs, so I can see the more "glamorous" side of death -- makeup and caskets. She agrees, and a few weeks later, I'm watching a very professional-looking Jackie rearrange a pillow under a dead man's head so he sits up higher in his casket. When she's satisfied, she pulls out a cart stacked with bottles of hairspray and a Caboodles organizer filled with various gunky cosmetics like Wet n' Wild lipstick, Maybelline Great Lash mascara and a bottle of --er, lighter fluid?
"To soften up the cosmetics," Jackie explains as she coats the man's pasty face with French Rose Tint, a special solution for a healthy-looking pallor.
"I love the embalming," she says, "and how you can take a person and make them look pretty good." Jackie got her first funeral-home job, as a door greeter, when she was 15 and now has her mortuary science degree from Wayne State in Detroit (her favorite class was on serial killers.)
Jackie has always been into science and sculpture. "This is a nice way to meld the two, and a nice way to help people say goodbye," she says. It's also a nice way to pay the bills. Jackie pulls in about $40,000 a year. If she were manager, she'd earn $60K. But the schedule is intense: Besides her regular hours, she's on call Monday nights and every other weekend. You never know when someone's going to die, like on last Halloween Eve, when she was prepping a body until 3 a.m. -- alone.
Next, she swabs the man's nostrils clean with a disinfectant-soaked gauze. "You don't want a fly to go up there and decided that's where it's going to have its children," she explains.
Meanwhile, I can't help but notice how often Jackie rubs her own nose with her bare hands in between blending various concealers into his face. She tells me that the embalming process disinfects the bodies, but if a person were known to have had HIV or hepatitis, she'd be more careful. This guy died from natural causes. Suddenly, I sense something shifting.
"Ooh, he's moving!" I shout as the corpse's hand slips down his waist. I'm about to run, but Jackie simply readjusts his arms to be more stable.
"What does his skin feel like?" I ask, my heart still pounding.
"If you want to touch him, you can," she says, "but wash your hands after, 'cause there's lighter fluid on everything."
I nervously laugh, shaking my head. "Sooo not ready for that."
Jackie later tells me a story about aspirating (like lipo for the chest and abdomen area, only removing gases and fluids instead of fat) a woman with extremely blocked bowels: The nozzle connected to the hose flew off, showering Jackie in shit.
"It was kind of embarrassing. I was sitting there in this poor woman's waste, and I just decided to stay in my suit because I still had to clean it off the walls," she says. This is a fun tale her friends like to bring up at dinner parties, and now you can, too.
Jackie happily gives me a tour of the casket showroom, where I am surrounded on all sides by boxes made out of different woods and metals. I'm shocked at how elaborate and pricey these death containers are. They are clearly marked with price tags ranging from $550 to about $7,000. The Royal Oak, with a removable interior lining, retails for $2,330 and can be rented for $900 for open-casket viewings before burial or cremation. And the Pink Mist, a steel case with a lorraine pink finish, shades of alameda rose and a light pink pebble crepe interior, is the No. 1 selling casket for women. It costs $1,760.
"It's a little pink for me," Jackie says, "but they like it." She gets a 50 percent discount on caskets for her spouse and parents. Her mom's been coveting the Pieta Oak to use as a coffee table. Then, when she kicks, she wants to be buried in it.
I wonder if it's easier to imagine your own demise when death is your day job -- or if that just makes you fixate on it in an unhealthy way. Jackie is Lutheran and believes in heaven. "It's reassuring to know there's someplace you'll be going afterward," she says.
But when the "Are you afraid to die?" question comes up, she answers quickly: "Hell yeah." Then she adds, "I do believe in the afterlife, but there's also a shred of uncertainty in me. Mostly, I'm afraid of dying a painful death."
Jackie already has her own funeral details worked out. "I want to be shake-and-baked," she says. "I want the visitation, the long obnoxious service, a nice wood casket, and then they're going to fry it. You see so many neglected grave sites; I don't want that to happen. I've also seen people who've been exhumed, and I really don't want to be in that shape. It doesn't seem natural."
It's 1:45 p.m. on Tuesday, and I'm starving. Jackie has just finished a two-hour appointment with a family arranging services for their 64-year-old mother. I notice that Jackie is toting around a plastic bag and wonder if it's her lunch. Nope, it's the deceased mother's underwear. "Want to grab some food?" Jackie asks.
We hop into a minivan that has its back seats taken out to make room for body transfers. Over our take-out burritos, Jackie tells me a story about a distraught girl at a visitation who started rubbing her grandmother's arm so intensely, she ripped off the plastic sleeve protecting the fragile skin underneath, at which point the skin came off and the woman started leaking. No more creamy chipotle sauce for me.
A couple days later, I help out with the funeral for the deceased mother. Her high-school-aged daughter arrives, accompanied by a group of girls who are dressed in Phat Farm tank tops and low-rider jeans that expose their thongs. As the daughter sobs uncontrollably in the back of the chapel, unable to confront her mom's body at rest in the Pink Mist up front, the heartbreak sinks in. I have to struggle to control my own tears. Then I realize it's not decomposing corpses that I can't stomach, it's this kind of overwhelming grief. I can sense that it's even bothering Jackie. This reminds me of something I've been hearing over and over: Once a funeral directed becomes inured to death and bereavement, it's time to quit.
"A lot of people assume you work only with the dead," Jackie tells me later, "but you actually work more with the alive."
By the time I'm done shadowing Jackie, I do manage to touch one body (through her clothes) without freaking out. She's firm, yet a little squishy. I'm still agnostic, but one thing I'm sure of is that I need a drink. So I find a pub, order a martini and ask for a menu. While there were many moments when I thought I'd never eat again, I know that's not how I want to live. So I get a cheesesteak with melted provolone and layers of fried onions, green peppers and savory sirloin. However, in a highly unusual decision, I trade the fries for a salad. After all, heart disease is still the No. 1 killer in the U.S.