Life

This Mortician Wants Your Old Makeup to Beautify the Dead

“I want my clients to look radiant, as close as possible to the way that they did when they were alive.”
Elaine Chong
London, GB
May 12, 2021, 10:23am
Wendy Loo is a beautician mortician from Malaysia
Photo: Courtesy of Wendy Loo

Wendy Loo, 38, was surprised at the response to her callout for expired beauty products on social media. Boxes upon boxes of makeup began arriving at the mortuary where she works in the city of Alor Setar in Kedah, Malaysia. Her beauty donation program went viral. 

“People are even donating premium beauty products, brand new makeup that haven’t even expired,” Loo told VICE. 

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Items such as liquid lipsticks, BB cushions, eyebrow gels, and eyeshadow palettes are among the things that have arrived – all of which are useful for Loo whose job it is to make her deceased clients presentable at their open casket funerals. As a mortician, she washes and embalms their bodies, dresses them in an outfit special to them, and styles their hair, before finally applying their makeup.

“If people threw away all this unwanted makeup sitting at home, it would be such a waste,” Loo said, adding that most families don’t mind that she uses old makeup on their dead loved ones.   

Expired beauty products are not good for living skin, but they perform as they usually would on those who are deceased. Not every donation is practical though. 

“Please stop donating sheet masks and double eyelid stickers,” Loo implored. “The deceased have their eyes closed, so the double eyelid stickers are pointless... we would all be able to see them.”  

Wendy Loo, a beautician mortician from Malaysia, wants your old makeup donations

Makeup products in boxes. Photo: Courtesy of Wendy Loo

Loo explains that the application of makeup on the deceased is pretty similar to living people. She uses the same products as she does on herself: concealer, blush, eyeshadow, and eyebrow pencils. 

“I want my clients to look radiant, as close as possible to the way that they did when they were alive.” 

“I want my clients to look radiant, as close as possible to the way that they did when they were alive.”

It usually takes up to an hour to do the hair and makeup of each client, depending on the complexity of the cause of death. Some are more straightforward, while others have complications like visible wounds from an accident. As a qualified embalmer, Loo attempts to restore her clients’ appearance with a combination of embalming and makeup.

Loo’s business remains more or less the same during the pandemic. Hospitals take the bodies of COVID-19 victims directly to the crematorium, whereas the other deceased go to the mortuary where Loo can work on them in preparation for a wake. 

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When people die, their faces and bodies slightly change shape. For instance, eye sockets sink deeper into the face and spherical eyeballs flatten. Loo injects embalming liquid to inflate the eyeballs, sometimes using “eye caps,” which are rubber disks, to create the domed shape under the eyelids. Lastly, Loo brightens the area with concealer and sets the makeup with face powder, so the eye sockets appear higher than they are. 

Blush on the cheeks makes the biggest difference in Loo’s makeup looks. With no blood circulation, the pink in the cheeks gives the deceased a warm “lived-in” look. 

“I want to do the makeup so it looks like they are just sleeping,” she explained. “Most of the family members are usually afraid to look at the deceased in case they look unsightly with wounds or different to how they knew them alive… it’s not just the children who are frightened and cry, the adults are terrified too.”  

Loo gets a lot of satisfaction knowing that she can help provide dignity to the deceased. 

“Doing the makeup restoration for them will give the family members one last good impression of their loved ones,” she shared. 

Wendy Loo is a beautician mortician from Malaysia

Photo: Courtesy of Wendy Loo

In the funeral industry, the service is more commonly known as “restoration” and makeup application is more of an afterthought. When she was starting out, Loo said that the makeup looks she came across were usually clumsy and garish, with the wrong color foundations, heavy blush, and red lipstick. 

As a former makeup artist, Loo takes a different approach as a mortician. 

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“I ask the families how their loved ones might have liked to wear their makeup when they were alive, and they say ‘Oh she liked her eyeshadow like this’,” she said. 

Generally, Loo prefers a more natural makeup look for her clients. Amongst the donations are items such as false eyelashes, but she only uses those on clients who would have worn them when they were alive, or for those whose families chose a very glamorous outfit for their last outing. 

Loo honed her craft by watching a lot of makeup tutorials on YouTube. “There aren’t exactly videos there that teach you how to do makeup on the deceased, so I watched to see if any of the tips can be useful for me.” Once, a beauty vlogger used mascara to hide the gray roots of their hair, so Loo started doing that to some of her clients too. 

Wendy Loo is a beautician mortician from Malaysia

Photo: Courtesy of Wendy Loo

When Loo was starting out as a mortician, she noticed that there were drops of water appearing on her clients’ cheeks and was confused about where they were coming from. “I thought this condensation was going to melt off all the makeup I had done, and scare the family members the next day at the funeral.” Eventually, she realized that due to Malaysia’s hot and humid climate, morticians sometimes place dry ice in the coffin to preserve the body. “The weather cooled during the night and thankfully, the makeup set in place. Morticians are always coming up against new problems to solve.”

Loo never considered becoming a mortician when she was younger. Before moving into the funeral industry and getting her mortician’s license in 2019, Loo worked in retail, and then in the hospitality industry as a waitress and a manager of a nightclub. 

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“The hours were so long, I could never put my children to bed. There was also a lot of sexual harassment from drunk, noisy, customers so I had enough,” she said. After over a decade of working in customer service, Loo moved into the funeral business. “It is so much more peaceful now. No one touches you. Best of all, my clients are silent.” 

Nowadays, her job as a mortician means that she works as a freelancer. The hours can be unusual. Loo might be traveling to various mortuaries for work or going to accident sites to pick up clients. But this way, she has been able to see a lot more of her children, and drop them off at school in the mornings. Her children, especially the younger ones in grade school, are all used to coming by the mortuary with their mother. 

“It started because once, I couldn’t find someone to watch my kids. For them, the mortuary is completely normal and their friends think that it’s cool their mother does this for a living.” 

Her new career still requires her to do a bit of customer service. She is often sized up by her clients’ family members, fielding complicated questions about her abilities as a mortician. With the ongoing pandemic, the families also request for a quicker turnaround of three days, compared to the usual five. 

“They are demanding a lot because they are grieving and nervous about how their loved ones are being taken care of. I’m sympathetic to how they are feeling so I don’t mind at all,” Loo said.  

Wendy Loo is a beautician mortician from Malaysia

Photo: Courtesy of Wendy Loo

Within the Chinese Malaysian community, there are a lot of taboos and superstitions surrounding death, especially among the older generations. When Loo was starting out as a mortician, her mother was upset at her career change, telling her not to come home if she’s going to be “smelling like a corpse.” 

Some people believe that death is “catching,” so they don’t want a mortician like Loo approaching their older family members. They also believe that when people die, their souls will come back and haunt the living. Once, Loo was disinvited from a child’s birthday party because of her job. 

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“The mother said that I was ‘dirty’ and worried that I would bring a group of ghosts with me and scare the kids,” she said. Loo doesn’t really mind this exclusion though. “If there’s a party I just won’t go. No big deal.” 

Loo does not believe in any of these taboos and superstitions. From the generous response of beauty donations, it seems some of the beliefs held about the dead in Malaysia could be culturally shifting as well. 

“This generation of young people on social media aren’t so superstitious about death anymore,” said Loo. 

She continues to ask for makeup donations and the response so far has been extremely generous, so much so that Loo is sending parcels of expired makeup to other morticians to use. 

“Old beauty products are something that everyone feels good about getting rid of, especially if they are going to a good cause.” 

She hopes that people will continue to donate makeup. “As a mortician, there will never be enough. I will always need more eyeshadow palettes for as long as I am working. I am so grateful for the donations, they help me take care of those who have passed on. We give them one last good send off together.”