Inside the Funeral Homes Posing the Dead Like They're Still Alive
We talked to the head of one of New Orleans's oldest funeral homes about why some families are drawn to "extreme embalmings".
Two weeks after Renard Matthews was tragically shot and killed in his New Orleans neighborhood, the 18-year-old looked exactly how he had in life. At his wake, he lay slumped in an office chair in front of a TV "playing" NBA2K with his hands wrapped around a PS4 controller. Clad in sunglasses, socks and flip-flops, and a Celtics jersey, he even had his favorite snacks—Doritos and root beer—within reach. And that’s just how his family wanted it.
Matthews’s wake was the latest in a string of what funeral directors call "nontraditional" memorial services. Instead of displaying their loved ones in a casket, some families choose to pose the bodies in life-like scenarios to see them as they were in life before they’re laid to rest. The practice first appeared in Puerto Rico in 2008 as a more celebratory send-off to the deceased, with the Marín Funeral Home posing bodies propped up on motorcycles or standing in a makeshift boxing ring.
In 2012, "extreme embalming" funerals hit New Orleans, when the family of Lionel Batiste—the drummer in the famed Treme Brass Band—asked the Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home to lean him next to his bass drum, his hand resting on the cane he always carried. When Mickey Easterling, a New Orleans socialite known for her extravagant parties, died two years later, her family tapped Jacob Schoen & Son to throw her a final blowout, posing her in her signature feather boa with a cigarette in one hand and a champagne flute in the other. And then there was Miriam Burbank, a Saints fan whose daughters had Charbonnet deck her out like they’d always seen her: sitting at a table in black and gold, with a menthol cigarette between her fingers and a can of Busch beer at her side.
At a time when you can actually launch cremated remains into space, these nontraditional embalmings are just another creative way people are choosing to celebrate a person's life, and changing the narrative around death. VICE spoke to funeral director Patrick Schoen—who arranged Easterling’s memorial—to find out how these kinds of nontraditional services are put together, why they're gaining popularity specifically in New Orleans, and why families are choosing to have them.
Can you tell me a little bit about who Mickey Easterling was?
Patrick Schoen: She was a New Orleans socialite, and she was always the center of attention. She really enjoyed life. She entertained many of the Hollywood movie stars when they came here, and just—you always saw her in the newspaper, always having a great time. She had a beautiful home on the lakefront here, and she had very extravagant parties.
How did her memorial service come together?
It was her wishes. She shared them with her daughter, and so when she passed, her daughter called me, and kind of explained what her mother’s interests were. She and I worked together on everything. The premise of the whole memorial, basically, was that she was hosting a party. It was a champagne party, and the [idea] was that she went out into her garden and basically sat down on her bench after the party, and went into a slumber. That was the idea. With the champagne still in her hand, which was in Waterford crystal. In the other hand she had a cigarette. She actually had a pin on that reads “bitch” on it—those are real diamonds.
One of the famous restaurants here in New Orleans is Galatoire’s restaurant, and they served her favorite meals. And then of course—New Orleans—they had a jazz band playing. It was a very nice party, actually. She was kind of set back a little bit from us, almost like a stage setting, with orchids all around her and flowers that were all selected by her florist, to make it look like she was in a garden. She had a little bucket next to her with the champagne bottle in it, and a pink boa on her. Her hairdresser came and did her hair. She was in all her designer clothes.
Had you ever done a nontraditional service like that, where the body was posed?
No, we had never done one exactly like that.
How did you react when her family approached you about the service? Did you have any reservations about it?
Well, the point is, our job is to satisfy the families. In this case, it was basically to satisfy Mrs. Easterling. I mean, these were her wishes, and she came to us for that, and so we gave her what she wanted. That was the most important thing for us to do, was to make sure that we followed through.
I didn’t know I even had the ability. I was like, “We need to get this done, regardless of how it’s done. We need to do it.” And everybody figured it out. So it was a huge challenge, at least for my funeral home, to do that.
How did people respond to the funeral?
It was very well received, believe it or not. No one was shocked, or thought it was inappropriate, or anything like that. I mean, you’ve got to realize: Services like that don’t happen every day. So it was quite a surprise for anyone who did come. But we essentially wanted to make sure that her service was going to be remembered, and it was. It went all around the world. I did place a hearse out in front of the theater, so people wouldn’t be so shocked, and so it actually looked like it was a funeral. Just to make everybody feel a little bit more comfortable, even though she didn’t get there in a hearse. Everything was done here at the funeral home, and of course she had to go there in a regular van, basically, because she was in position already.
Was there any backlash after putting it on, and what problems did people have with it?
I think people were just surprised. People who don’t understand it, or get the chance to see it, of course you always have that: “Oh wow, that was very different." That kind of thing. But I wouldn’t say anybody said anything derogatory. They just thought it was so—outlandish?—but I guess the point is, it was Mickey Easterling. And that’s the way she lived her life, and that’s what she chose.
In what ways is putting together that kind of funeral more challenging than a traditional funeral?
First of all, people who go to mortuary science school don’t go to school to learn how to sit someone up on a bench. That’s not taught in school. So that’s a huge challenge. They figured out how to do it, and did it. I remember getting a call back saying, “Oh my God, are you out of your mind? How do you expect us to do this?” And I said, “Look, this is the deal. We’re going to satisfy this family regardless, so we’re just going to figure it out, and that’s it.” I can’t get into too many details, because I don’t want to upset the family, but yes, it was a huge challenge.
Is there a special sort of embalming technique you use?
It’s not really the embalming so much, it’s more just finding a way to stabilize her. The embalming technique is the same way that we always do embalmings.
What are your thoughts on some of the nontraditional funerals that have been done in Puerto Rico, where the deceased have been posed riding motorcycles or propped up in a boxing ring—what do you make of those?
If that’s what the family’s choice is, then there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as everybody is satisfied after the funeral’s over with—and maybe it was the deceased’s wishes—I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all. Different cultures are going to go different ways with it. That’s obviously their culture, and they really enjoy that. The people that you’re seeing too, I think those are younger people. The ones that you saw on the motorcycle, and stuff like that.
When we did our service, Ms. Easterling was sleeping, basically, was the premise. All the other ones, they’re doing people like live-action, which is a little bit different. It just seems a little more realistic to have someone who’s deceased appear like they went into a slumber, than someone who’s on a motorcycle, or singing, or whatever else. I mean there’s nothing wrong with these other services, that’s fine too—if those were the wishes of the family, then I agree with it 100 percent.
What were your thoughts on Renard Matthews’s arrangement?
It made the family happy, and everybody was very pleased, I’m sure, with that service. And that’s what he did. It was just trying to represent him—it was about him, and not about everybody else. What they did is what he always did—so it doesn’t make any difference what other people think. I feel like you always need to follow the wishes of the loved one.
So having been at Ms. Easterling's funeral, how would you say the mood of a nontraditional service differs from a more traditional remembrance?
It wasn’t very somber, you know what I mean? It’s not like you walk into the funeral home, you see the casket and all that—when you see a presentation like that, you don’t have the same feeling. It’s more like a happy feeling, to be honest with you. Like, “Look how nice she looks.” It kind of makes you feel like you were all just at a party. And that’s what she wanted. She wanted a celebration of life.
What do you think families get out of these memorials, in which they’re seeing their loved ones as they were in life, that they can’t get from a more traditional service?
It represents the person who they’re having the funeral for. Like, Lionel Batiste—he was always in the public eye, and so was Mickey Easterling. It was their life, and that’s the way they wanted to be represented at their memorial.
My family’s been in this business for 144 years. For the first 120, all funerals were exactly the same. Every single one. I mean you just had different clergy walking in, and that’s it. And now—I would say in the last 15 years—now, it’s getting very different. I did one in this beautiful old mansion, with beautiful old gardens, and we laid the person out in the gardens. They had a quartet at their funeral with an open bar, and that’s where we did the service. We have a sculpture garden in our City Park, and the [deceased] was an artist who did famous artwork, so he was laid out in the sculpture garden with a piece of his artwork right in front of his casket. So now, you can experience more—make it more about the person themselves, [rather] than just very generically doing the same thing over and over again, which was done in the past.
Do you think that these kinds of funerals are going to start becoming more popular?
It could very well become more popular as time goes on. You just have a different option now that people didn’t have before. Some people who want to express their passing in a different way, this is a way that they can do it that was never done before. I can’t say it’s a fad that everyone will do, it’s just going to be certain people, people who are generally very unique in their life.
Have other people approached you about having nontraditional funerals like Easterling's?
I’ve had people ask about [nontraditional funerals] for themselves. They didn’t think that was an availability, whereas now, people are thinking outside the box.
Why do you think those kinds of services have become popular in New Orleans? What is it about the city's culture that’s allowed nontraditional funerals to take off?
New Orleans has a different spirit. We love to celebrate here, and just because it’s a funeral, it doesn’t mean that you can’t celebrate, and you can’t have a good time. A lot of those [funerals] are probably just the wishes of the people who were from here, who are deceased—that’s what they wanted for their final services. To make sure that everybody was still having a good time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.