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The Art and Science of Making Dead People Look Alive Again

We talked to Daniella Marcantoni, a licensed embalmer and makeup artist for the deceased, about how she works to make corpses look a little less lifeless.

An arsenal of embalming tools to make dead people look alive again. Photos courtesy of Daniella Marcantoni

If you've ever looked into an open casket at a funeral, your loved one was probably wearing makeup. Makeup application isn't strictly part of the embalming process, but most funeral homes will offer the service to families who want to have a viewing; after all, without cosmetics dead bodies can look a little lifeless.

Daniella Marcantoni is one of the people who performs this service—a makeup artist for the deceased, if you will. Marcantoni started out plying her trade on living people before becoming a licensed funeral director and embalmer. Having this dual background provided her with training in both of the skills required for this delicate art, which she did for several years before leaving the funeral industry recently. I reached out to Daniella to chat about the ins and outs of posthumous makeup application.

A video of the embalming process. Warning: contains graphic images of the dead

VICE: How did you get involved in this trade and what drew you to it?
Daniella Marcantoni: I always had an interest in forensic pathology. I always had a fascination with serial killers, with the psychology of what causes people to kill, with death, and things like that. The funeral industry was a marriage of all these different things: It's art, it's science, I still get to be around the death. I finished my classes for my degree in administration of justice, and then I went straight to mortuary school. Embalming for me was therapeutic. I liked it because it was a very calming energy. I find a lot of people to be very overwhelming in terms of the energy that they put out. A lot of people are obviously scared of dead people, but you have a lot more to be scared around a live person than you do a dead person.

Makeup application is something that embalmers usually do, right?
Yes. It's very rare that they would hire a makeup artist. There are some funeral homes that have a lot of men who've been there a long time, and they don't know how to do makeup, so they'll have one person who has experience doing makeup, but it's very rare. A lot of the people who are embalmers in California—in my experience—are doing everything, so they're doing the makeup as well. Then there's larger mortuaries where everything is separated. Where I did my apprenticeship, I did everything, which was nice because it allowed me to have a very full-circle experience.

When people learn embalming, is makeup a big part of the training? Or did you learn more from your own background as an artist?
I was a freelance makeup artist and had a lot of experience doing that prior to going into the funeral industry. In California, if you want to be an embalmer, you need to go to school, and you take your national board exam and your California exam. I don't remember them teaching us makeup in school. I think maybe there might have been an optional workshop or something, but I didn't need that because I had tons of experience on all types of different people from my makeup artist years. So it was never something that I struggled with. But it's obviously very different from live application.

Makeup and restoration products

Is embalming helpful for applying makeup?
Yes, absolutely. [People] start decomposing immediately. It's not like once they pass away they they turn purple. It takes time. It's just that the color and the tissue fixation... they're harder, they're more pliable. It's really hard to apply cosmetics to unembalmed tissue. On occasion we'd have to do that if a family didn't believe in embalming or if they couldn't afford embalming and they just wanted to do what we call a quick "ID" viewing.

A lot of people would ask us to put a little makeup on, but it was always really hard because it's really soft. The coloring is off. Not to say that embalming really restores the color, but there are dyes that kind of give a little pink hue. It kind of livens up the color a little and doesn't make them look so "dead," if you will. It's an easier foundation for makeup application.

Daniella's makeup brushes for the dead, which are exactly the same as makeup brushes for the living

I know people's skin color can change after they die. Is there something you use to counteract that?
There's this stuff—we called it orange juice, because it literally looks like dark orange juice. It's like a tinted liquid, and it has a little bit of a moisturizing property in it. That worked really well. It's so old. Nobody likes it. I personally really liked it on darker complected skin. It's called Glow Tint. We had the really thick cadaver makeup. But a lot of it was just regular makeup. People just give you makeup—Oh, this is mom's favorite makeup, can you use this on her?—which is always great, because it was already matched to their color and everything. And they would just leave it with us, so you could just add that to the collection. Sometimes we get really great stuff.

Are there fluids in your arsenal for other ailments?
There's fluids that are specified for someone who's jaundiced—that was really heavy dye. Or you want what we call a "hot fluid," which was a really strong fluid to dehydrate somebody who was really edematous. And then you get people who are really dehydrated. There's all these different types of fluids you can use to kind of correct these issues. You're basically cooking up a recipe based upon whatever you know about that person. There's certain things that you can tell. After doing it for a long time you can look at somebody and see how they're reacting to the embalming and say this person must have this going on. It's just experience.

Do you sometimes get requests from family that you can't honor?
Sometimes we get a picture of mom from 1945, and it's 2000-whatever, and you're like, What am I supposed to do with this? That's always a challenge.

We also can't do anything that's considered mutilation. Well, we can and we can't—because technically when you embalm someone you're mutilating them. We can't remove teeth. We can't cut or excise tissue. We're not supposed to cut hair. For hair removal we have to have explicit written instructions, because that's something that's considered irreversible. And anything that's considered irreversible, you're supposed to have explicit instructions from the family—with good reason. I mean, you can't just assume the beard is just scruffy and shave dad or grandpa clean. Maybe that's how they wore their face. That's why I personally like as much instruction as possible. But there's some things families think we can do like, "Can we have grandma's teeth?" And it's like... No, we can't remove those. The only thing we can remove are pacemakers.

Wait, you mentioned requests for skin removal?
Like, if somebody has a neck tumor or something, we can't just cut it off. We can cover it but we can't remove it. You can add but you can't take away. The only thing you can take away is hair.

A restorative "death mask" made from clay

What are the types of things that a good embalmer could reconstruct?
Pretty much anything. We are literally taught in school to build someone's face out of nothing. Whatever the family requests is what we're gonna do. Decomposition is very hard to work with. It's not even the trauma issue there. The foundation is not stable. I never recreated someone's face, but we never had a case where we had to. I had several cases that were shotgun wounds, where obviously the upper half of their face was missing and we had to repair it. Every embalmer will tell you that they have a different technique, or they have some secret. As long as it's not considered trash, you can use it. In some states the coroners don't return the organs, so some people will stuff newspaper in there. We are not allowed to do that in California. I don't think anyone would come out and say that they did that [here], but it has happened before. Embalming is like art and science. And that's what makes it so great.

What are some of the most cumbersome or challenging reconstruction cases you worked on?
I had this guy who had a shotgun wound to the head and the family wanted a closed casket. I worked on his head and it was super smooth and you couldn't even tell. Not to toot my own horn, but it looked really phenomenal. They ended up having an open casket so I was really happy about that.

Another story is this case that we had—I think she was murdered—and they found her after three weeks in a field. So she was pretty much just kinda parts at this point. The family wanted to have her body in the casket—obviously not open. The smell was so bad. We had them sign an embalming authorization so we could put fluid and this stuff called paraformaldehyde. It's in powder form and [is] a really strong deodorizer. So we did that, and the day that I had to come it was a weekend and I woke up with the stomach flu. That was a really long day. It was spent doing one step, going to the bathroom, then coming back. It's really hard to work on a severely decomposed body when you're already throwing up! But nobody could ever say I wasn't dedicated to my job. Even with the closed casket, the smell was terrible. So what I did was I put her in two body bags with the deodorizer in the one bag, then another with formaldehyde. And then put more deodorizer in the casket. If there's a decomposed body, a closed casket doesn't mean it doesn't smell.

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