Saturday, April 18, 2009

Embalming: Part 3, Stagecraft

Ross Hollywood Chapel, Portland, Oregon

In the two previous installments of this series, I discussed the transformation that takes place in the appearance of the deceased with embalming, and the temporary preservation that embalming allows.  Now, in part 3, I'll discuss 'stagecraft'.  Although not part of the embalming procedure, these finishing touches are an essential and often misunderstood part of the preparations for viewing the deceased.
At the funeral parlor, careful steps are taken in presentation for a family's viewing of their departed.  Usually the day before services are held, it's time for 'hair, makeup and wardrobe', or as is listed in a funeral home's federally mandated General Price List, 'Other Preparation of the Deceased'.
When we look at a person, a whole host of factors make them recognizable to us, and when any of these pieces don't match our memory, the rest don't quite fit together right.  Hair is a big one for women, and often, even for men.  Whenever possible, the funeral director arranges for the hair dresser who worked on the person in life, to prepare their hair for the funeral.  If this is not possible, we rely on photos.  It is not unusual for family members to come in to prepare hair and makeup.  This can be a difficult thing to do, but I don't think anyone ever regrets having done it.

Busby Berkeley-Stagecraft

Makeup is one of the most misunderstood aspects of preparation, and heavy handed funeral directors and embalmers are largely to blame.  In some communities, people have come to expect a 'funeral pallor' of caked foundation, waxy orange lips and greasepaint in the Broadway tradition.   I think that the fear of bad makeup is often a factor in families choosing a service that does not include viewing.   
In most cases, when the embalming work has been done well, very little makeup is needed.  Good embalming practices include the use of pigments that replace some of the reddish tones that the circulating blood provides in living tissue.  A light layer of foundation and some highlights complete this effect while leaving the texture of the skin, and natural variations in skin color and freckles visible.  Certainly there are times when more opaque makeup must be used to conceal trauma and jaundice, but good makeup work should be as invisible as possible. 
Many women have told me that when they die, they would like us to use their favorite makeup brands and colors.   This sounds like a good idea, but we are not starting with the same skin tones in death that they start with in life, so adjustments need to be made.  The majority of our work is just bringing back the original appearance of the skin as it would have looked in life before any makeup was added. Because of this difference, the foundation we use often has more pink than they would use to achieve the same effect. Similarly, a light brush of foundation and touches of red on the lips, nose, ears and eyes will make a man look like he did in life with no makeup on. 

In addition to hair and makeup, wardrobe and scene construction are a part of presentation at the funeral home.  These preparations take a surprising amount of time and skill to achieve a comfortable and well turned out appearance.  Clothing that the family brings in may or may not have fit recently, but in either case, good preparation involves alterations that make those garments appear comfortable and well fitting.  I have been told that news anchors have their suit coats altered (sometimes only temporarily,) so that they appear to fit correctly in a sitting position.  Similar steps are taken with collars and lapels for people lying in state.  Sleeves and cuffs are carefully positioned prior to placing the deceased in the casket so that the folds stay neat and attractive. 
Arranging for a comfortable appearance in the casket is another task that takes more time and skill than most would guess.  More than just a box, the casket is the setting in which a person is viewed.   Padding, mattress levels, the drape of fabric and arm supports are adjusted until the deceased is shown to their best advantage.   The skills of the undertaker create the appearance of the deceased lying at rest and comfortable in a setting that is soft, dignified and exactly the right size.

If done well, all these aspects of stagecraft go unnoticed, and the viewer is allowed to focus on their loved one.  They are not distracted by unusual skin tones, unfamiliar hair styles, ill-fitting or uncomfortable looking clothes, a stiff, awkward posture, or a setting that looks unnatural.  They see what they have come to see- not makeup, casket or artifice, but the familiar face of the person they miss the most, and the arms and hands they recall hugging and hugging them back.  They see that person at rest and at peace, and if the undertaker did a good job, they might never guess how much work went in to making everything look so natural.   


Bill said...

You have flair for writing; I think you have very eloquently stated the passion that an embalmer/undertaker has for this art. The peace that came from seeing my mom one more time in her party dress, her hair done, not in pain, not on her death bed, not with the trappings of the dieing process gave me and my family that last piece that we needed to say goodbye. It's important to give the undertaker pictures, recent ones and ones before they took ill. It can really help them, especially if the undertaker doesn't know the deceased. Bill

briank said...

Well-written as ever, Patrick. I have enjoyed this series of posts; your ability to explain the entire process as understood by someone in the funerary business has shed a completely different light on it for me.

Megan said...

That was a delightful surprise and a joy to read. I had once considered a career in your profession and spent a day shadowing an undertaker. It was one of the most fascinating days of my life. How wonderful it is to see evidence that care and craftsmanship are still valued. Your tone is both professional and empathetic towards not just the reader, but the deceased as well.

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