Mortuary Cosmetics And Their Grim But Fascinating Applications: A Primer  

Lisa A. Flowers
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Mortuary cosmetology is not only an art, it's a trade that's been around (in one form or another) since society started engaging in death rituals that entailed the presentation of corpses. While most cosmetics are designed to complement the ever-changing contours, angles, expressions, personas, and personalities of living people, funeral home makeup artists have a far more difficult task to perform: they have to somehow make the deceased appear to be alive and merely asleep. And, while that might seem like (and, arguably, be) an impossible task, there are actually a lot of mortician beauty secrets and techniques that are designed to achieve just that effect.

To find out why corpses and stage actors alike prefer non-thermogenic makeup, what hue of foundation is best for masking greenish and mottled skin, how to get a posthumous makeover (without actually being dead), and other tricks of the trade, read on: these mortuary makeup techniques might just be for you.

Morticians Use Non-Thermogenic Foundation To Cover Up Discolored Skin
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Photo: Yvonne De Carlo/Wikimedia Commons

Foundation is generally designed to interact with your body temperature and complement your natural skin tone. But once you cross the corpse barrier, your skin undergoes a series of mottled, rapid-fire changes that can be extraordinarily hard to disguise. That's why mortuary cosmeticians generally prefer to use non-thermogenic makeup, which is impervious to warmth and blends easily on ice-cold surfaces. (Because they don't melt easily under hot lights, such brands are also sometimes favored by stage actors).

Alternately, one can use a funerary "airbrush" system, such as this one sold by the mortuary cosmetics company Derma-Pro. The dispenser itself is sort of reminiscent of the kind exterminators used to use on insects, but it achieves the kind of elegant, flawless, corpse/not corpse effect that would have made Lily Munster herself proud.

Masking The Hues Of Decomposing Skin Is An Art In Itself
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Photo:  Distributors Corporation of America/YouTube

Decomposition, like Skittles, comes in a rainbow of colors. A corpse can be afflicted with any number of skin hue inconsistencies, and there's not always a universally effective way to restore a body to the complexion it was known for in life. Mortuary cosmetician Daniella Marcantoni, however (who was recently the subject of a feature in Vice) has some useful tips: she claims that death-biz cosmetologists use something called "orange juice" to help moisturize the skin. There are also dyes that are specifically designed to mask the effects of jaundice, and dyes that "kind of give a little pink hue." (Sort of like Paz Easter egg kits).

Sometimes Post-Death Beauty Involves "Sewing, Stitching, And Reconstructive Surgery"
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Photo: Universal Pictures/Amazon

While makeup artistry (at least on a surface level) involves using cosmetics to change someone's look, the nuances of funerary makeup, as a trade, are a bit more complicated than that. After all, if you want to paint a face, you've got to have a face to paint - and when a subject has been decapitated, that can be problematic. But a consummate professional can usually get around the problem. As this undertaker puts it:

"Restoration is as much an art form as it is a science, and with a good mortician, there's very little that can't be fixed. ... Decapitations [can be remedied] by using a wooden dowel to rejoin the head and body, then suture the neck back together. With a little wax and cosmetics [corpses] can even wear a normal shirt or dress."

In other words, you utilize the style choices of Frankenstein's monster and his bride: stitch together first, beautify later.

Mortuary Makeup Has Ties To The Ancient World
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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

According to Carla Valentine, an award-winning mortician, most mortuary makeup techniques have roots in the ancient world. Egyptians of both sexes, for example, regularly wore elaborate eye makeup that consisted of "dark grey or black lead ore (galena) and green copper ore or malachite." Such paint was considered "crossover makeup," so to speak - because it was used on the dead to ward off the same kinds of evil spirits that were apt to attack the living. (The Egyptians believed that the eye turned into a form of spiritual protection in the afterlife, so lining the eyes was an important ritual in death-proceedings) .

Ancient funerary cosmetology didn't stop with just one viewing, either: some bodies were "exhumed periodically for remembrance rituals, during which the priest would add more cosmetics." (These unearthings weren't quite as grotesque as one might think: filling corpses with sawdust, linen, aromatic spices, and beeswax to make sure they stayed fresh usually did the trick).