“It’s such an honour” – what it’s like to be a mortuary makeup artist

You’d think working with the deceased would be pretty terrifying but one make-up artist in the US says it’s more of an honour than a fright.

Fawn Monique Dellavalle, an aesthetician based in Pennsylvania and California, has worked on the red carpet, but her skills have found themselves of much use to those who will be receiving their final makeover.

Not sure what being a mortuary makeup artist means? Let us enlighten you.

The job generally involves preparing dead bodies for burial by doing things such as applying makeup, doing manicures, fixing hair and reconstructing disfigured faces.

Fawn owns two makeup and skin therapy studios and has worked in many different areas of the makeup industry including retail, the red carpet and the runway.

Although she’s not a trained mortician, she was personally called into a funeral home because of her expertise in makeup.

Formally known as ‘desairology’ (or cosmetology for the deceased), it’s an important service offered by funeral homes. Training and experience in cosmetology as well as using cosmetic products designed for mortuary use is definitely a bonus if you want to be one.

But what do mortuary makeup artists generally deal with? Fawn said: “I usually take care of the skin balance, makeup and nails. A hair stylist will come in for the hair. I do these services randomly throughout my career and there’s really no way to time it.

“I typically get called in on difficult/challenging applications, or if a family has specifically requested me.”

Believe it or not, there are actually specific products you need to use on dead bodies, you can’t just stick on some blush and bronzer and be done with it.

Fawn said: “I have a kit that is just for the final beauty/appearance ritual. It consists of skin care to prep the skin to accept the makeup, nail polish, and a full makeup kit, with specific brushes just for these applications.

“I have many levels of concealer coverage and correction colours. It all depends on the cause of the death on how the skin will appear so you must be prepared for anything.

“If the person wore makeup, I ask to see their makeup bag to find their most used colours and replicate their makeup from there. To make them look as close to their normal appearance, I try my best to make sure they look like they’re just resting peacefully.”

Of course, a career like a mortuary makeup artist is never going to be a walk in the park, even Fawn who has had many years of experience still remembers her first application on a body – which was a particularly difficult one.

“My first application ever was extremely hard, there was a lot of skin/head trauma/bruising to balance, the viewing was to be a closed casket.

“I was preparing the deceased for the family to personally view them one last time. I try to keep the family in my mind on the hard ones. It’s really for them to have that closure of seeing their loved one before the burial ceremony.”

"It all depends on the cause of the death on how the skin will appear so you must be prepared for anything”
“It all depends on the cause of the death on how the skin will appear so you must be prepared for anything”

Usually, application of the makeup takes around one to two hours depending on the needs, and the body will be dressed and placed in the viewing area.

In terms of a standard ‘day at the office’, Fawn said: “I’ll check the lighting in the area the body will be on display, and drape the body to make sure I don’t disturb the clothing. I play some peaceful music and start to paint the body that is shown to appear as if they’re just peacefully asleep.”

Granted, this job isn’t for everyone, but maybe it’s not as creepy as you might think. There’s definitely a stigma that it’s a frightening job, but Fawn says “it’s such an honour.”

“In my daily career I get hired for all the most important times in people’s lives to make them feel and look beautiful, why should the final viewing be any different other than it won’t be for them as much but more for the ones that are celebrating their life?

“I don’t think it’s creepy, I feel it is a closing ritual of the being’s time here on earth and it is something that should be honoured in every way.”

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