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This mortician beautifies corpses for a living

TextDominique Sisley

We speak to Lauren LeRoy about the role beauty plays in the death process

From the individuals extracting earwax from your eardrum to the quiet crusaders shaving skin off your feet, in our monthly series The Professionals we meet the people taking pride in the nitty gritty side of beauty.

What happens to our bodies after we die? For most people, it’s an uncomfortable thought. Skin slippage, rigid limbs and rotting flesh are fine if they’re making shock appearances in horror films, but when they’re being confronted as part of our own personal future, it all starts to feel a bit too real.

For morticians, though, these grisly truths are barely worth a second thought. Their job is to keep corpses fresh and appealing – masking death’s telltale signs through embalming rituals and elaborate cosmetology. To keep grieving loved ones happy, cadavers need to be cleaned with disinfectant, shaved, moisturised, and made-up to look as alive – and peaceful – as possible.

Of course, making a corpse look dewy and healthy is no easy feat, and each mortician has their own unique ways of getting there. Some use facial fillers, similar to Restylane, which plump up the features and smooth out any wrinkles; while others stick to tried-and-tested make-up tricks (mostly using high-street brands or left-over products from the deceased).

To find out more about the role beauty plays in the death process, I spoke to Lauren LeRoy – a New York-based funeral director who has been in the industry for nine years. Her blog, Little Miss Funeral, speaks candidly about the day-to-day reality of her job, as well as offering tips on the best ways to handle grief, negativity, and even funeral admin.

What inspired you to get involved in the death business?
Lauren LeRoy: My great uncle owned his own funeral home. My grandfather, who was not a funeral director, worked for him and he passed away when I was 12. That was my first real experience with death and loss. After his funeral was the first time I told my parents I wanted to be a funeral director.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?
Lauren LeRoy: The best part of my job is getting to know all about the amazing lives that people live. Everyone has their own story and I get the honour of getting invited into them, even if it’s the ending. I love the people that I meet, and getting to help them – I just meet them during the worst time in their lives. The worst part of the job is the hours and lack of schedule. I work long days, weekends, and holidays. It can make family life difficult and planning things sometimes impossible.

Do you remember the first time you worked with a dead body? What was that process like for you?
Lauren LeRoy: Since my great uncle owned his own funeral home, I have been around dead bodies my entire life. The first time I saw the actual embalming process was when I was 17 years old. I do remember that because it was before I went to mortuary school. I took it as a learning experience, so I don’t think I fully understood in the moment that a dead body was in front of me. I was asking questions and trying to understand the science involved with embalming. The first time I really remember seeing a dead body that wasn’t embalmed was in mortuary school. I was a little taken aback because I was used to seeing people in caskets. Even with my first embalming, the funeral director had already closed the person’s eyes and mouth so they seemed like they were resting even as they were being embalmed.

How much of a role does beauty play in the death process? In what ways do you have to “beautify” the bodies?
Lauren LeRoy: Beauty plays a huge role. When our bodies die, there is this raw state to them. But we are so used to seeing their eyes closed, resting in a casket with make-up on in their best clothes. For most people, death is such a foreign concept – they want to make it look like “grandmas just sleeping” which can be a positive final mental picture but can also be confusing to younger family members.

Are there any body parts you have to pay more attention to?
Lauren LeRoy: I had one funeral director tell me that as long as the person’s mouth and hands look good, then everything will be ok because that’s what people see. When closing the mouth you want it to look natural: not open, but not puckered either. That can take time to do and a lot of skill. Besides that, everybody is different, and the illnesses and deaths are different so there may be areas that need attention but they will differ on everyone. If a person died in a tragic way than restorative work has to be done.

What about beauty trends: are there any kind of looks that families tend to ask for?
Lauren LeRoy: People typically give me a photo from a happy memory, like a birthday or wedding. The outfits and hairstyles tend to be the same as the photos, although it doesn’t always work out perfectly. If the hair is a little longer we have to work with it. But basically everyone is the same: if their loved one was sick, they want to remember them before their illness.

Have you had any unusual requests?
Lauren LeRoy: Actually not really. I had one family ask if they could have the outfit back that their loved one was in, but I never put anyone in anything inappropriate. People want to bring happy memories into a sad time.

What are the most frustrating misconceptions about your job?
Lauren LeRoy: There’s a saying that circulates in the industry: ‘we are morticians and not magicians’. There’s a lot that we can do to make a person look better in death than when they died, but sometimes there’s just nothing we can do. For example, I did a funeral prearrangement for a woman a few years ago. She was so fun to meet with, and it was nice because we were setting things up before there was a loss. She made a comment that she had ‘been fat all her life’ so when she died she wanted to ‘die skinny.’ Now, this was a beautiful woman, and I had to explain to her that we can do a lot of restorative work when people pass away, but weight is something we can’t change.

What advice would you give anyone interested in becoming a mortician?
Lauren LeRoy: If it’s possible, try to shadow a funeral director for a few days. This job can be hard, but very rewarding. It’s not a nine to five job, but working for others and being able to provide a service to them that they can’t do themselves is something so amazing that you just can’t put it into words. You’ll have to make certain you have a great self-care routine as well. Burnout is very common, so putting your physical and mental health first is important to guarantee a long career.

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