It was Almost a Shame to Bury Her
As promised, dear readers, I recently rewatched Robert Zemeckis’s 1992 film Death Becomes Her. My friend Devin describes it as “the best movie I’ve ever seen about makeup for corpses. Also the only movie I’ve ever seen about makeup for corpses.” With the exception of some unpleasant fat jokes, the film has aged surprisingly gracefully (cue rimshot).
The movie stars Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as childhood rivals Madeline and Helen, and Bruce Willis as Ernest Menville, the hapless plastic surgeon-turned-embalmer caught between them. Madeline and Helen each discover an elixir of immortality, which grants eternal youth and beauty—synonymous in this film, set in appearance-obsessed Los Angeles. As with all such devil’s bargains, there’s some fine print. What the potion doesn’t grant is the ability to regenerate damage. When Helen and Madeline’s antagonism turns murderous, eternal life becomes eternal undeath, trapped in bodies with significant depreciation. Both women originally regard Ernest’s change of careers—necessitated by alcoholism and unsteady hands—with contempt. As walking corpses, however, they quickly realize just how useful his new skills can be.
Though played for comedy, Ernest’s cosmetic reconstruction is surprisingly accurate. Or at least less inaccurate that I was expecting. (One particular scene in which he brings his embalming equipment home fills me with questions, but I’m suspending my disbelief to stay on topic.) When asked what his secret is, he responds: “Spray paint. You see, you can’t just use regular makeup on dead skin. The pores are too dry. You’ve gotta use a palette and grind the stuff in. One day I’m in the hardware store and I think to myself, ‘What about mannequin paint?’ It’s got its own chemical adhesive, comes in an incredible variety of flesh…”
It’s true: regular makeup doesn’t work well on an embalmed body. Formaldehyde dries and firms the tissue, so the texture is no longer the same as that of living skin.* Formaldehyde also greys the skin, leading to a mottled purple-grey color if not corrected. With a little dye, good circulation, and the favor of Anubis, an embalmed body may have a pleasant, even color that requires almost no cosmetics. It’s not uncommon, however, to be left with some discoloration; bruising, uncleared lividity†, liver spots, jaundice, and various postmortem stains are the usual suspects.
It’s not unusual for a family to bring in their loved one’s cosmetics with their clothing, if the deceased was someone who cared about makeup. When this happens, the embalmer will sigh and do their best, but frequently that best means color-matching name brand foundation with special mortuary makeup, which comes in a variety of tints, creams, powders, and sprays. I can’t vouch for mannequin paint personally, but airbrushing does work on corpses, although I’ve never had the chance to watch it done.
In cases of trauma or skin lesions, morticians use wax to smooth and even out the face. Embalming textbooks are full of tips on coloring and texturing the wax so it looks like skin. Trial, error, and tears of frustration will likely be necessary.
Feature builder, or tissue builder, is another mortuary tool. When injected under the skin, it fills out sunken or emaciated features. Temples, cheeks, lips, and eyes are the most common areas of application. When used skillfully, it’s as subtle and effective as the best Hollywood face-lift. When misused, the result is equally striking. Apprentices practice on the non-viewing side while they’re getting the hang of it.
Live as fast or as slowly as you please, and I discourage dying young. But rest easy in the knowledge that a mortician somewhere will do their best to make sure you’re a good-looking corpse.
* The firming can be mitigated or enhanced by the strength of the solution, and by accessory chemicals. Cream or oil is applied to the face after embalming, to slow dehydration.
† It’s not always the right ear that doesn’t clear, but it sure feels like it.