This Is What It's Really Like To Do Makeup... On Dead People

Amber Carvaly is the mortician, service director, and co-founder of Undertaking LA, a funeral home in L.A. The following story was told to Alix Tunell and edited for length and clarity.
Photo: Getty Images.
Making A Mortician
I grew up in Southern California and went to UC Riverside for college, but took time off when I realized I wanted to be a makeup artist. I moved to L.A. and enrolled at MUD, or Make-Up Designory. I worked as a makeup artist for a bit, but it wasn't as much fun or as stimulating as I imagined it would be.
Advertisement
I had a friend who was a mortician and that job option had never occurred to me before, so I just kind of did it. I thought being an embalmer and doing makeup on the dead sounded really cool, so I went to mortuary school. Two years later, I graduated and got the job at the place I wanted: Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills. It's super iconic and so beautiful. Lucille Ball used to be buried there (she was exhumed) and there's Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson... If you're going to be a mortician and live in L.A. and not be an actor, what is the most Hollywood thing you can do? Work where all the celebrities are buried.
The embalming business is very heavily made up of women, which is surprising, because it wasn't always. People always say it's because women are nurturing and kind and caring, but I think that's completely wrong, because then why were men doing it for so long? Men did it because it’s a really great opportunity to one day run your own business, it's very science-based and hands-on, and you have to have a strong stomach, empathy, and compassion; I think that's why women do it. We're just starting to see women branch out and realize there are so many more jobs they can do than the ones they were told about growing up. I think we're the first generation of women that are like, “Oh shit, did you know you could be a mortician? That’s kind of badass.”
Advertisement
But I say I'm a waitress at parties because I get overwhelmed with people being like, “Oh, I bet you like dead bodies, don’t you?” or “I bet you like blood and guts!” No, I actually don’t, I fucking like Barbie and The Little Mermaid. I like going to the desert and sitting by the pool and all my clothing is inspired by Cher or Lady Gaga. You should be the opposite of dark and fucked-up and reclusive in this industry.
The Business Of Being Buried
The way that it would work at my former jobs, the funeral directors would take down any notes with the family and discuss whether it was going to be open casket. They'd push for that because open casket means more money because they’ll do a viewing and then a cemetery service and then they’ll probably pick a nicer casket. So, embalming, which is where I come in, was always heavily pushed. Once they decided on that, they would give us photographs of the decedent, which was always my favorite part because it’s the one time we get to see what the person looked like when they were alive. Then we get the body.

I say I'm a waitress at parties because I get overwhelmed with people being like, “Oh, I bet you like dead bodies, don’t you?”

The very first thing we do is wash the body from head to toe. Then we embalm, then wash again, and then shampoo and condition the hair. Sometimes people had horrific knots because they had been lying in bed for a long time, so they would get dreads in the back. You'd sit there and brush everything out until the hair was manageable enough to style it.
Advertisement
The makeup can be done anywhere from right before the viewing to one day before. We like to embalm the body and give it a little time to chill out, but sometimes you can embalm, do their makeup, and send them to the viewing in two to three hours. Usually, though, we’ll put the makeup on, then use a heavy moisturizing cream on the decedent so they don’t dry out. Then, we put a piece of plastic over their face to set the makeup and make sure no dust is settling on them. Right before they go out, you do last looks and make sure no foundation has slipped off.
The Ethics Of Embalming
You have to be really careful not to do anything that would set off the family. Parting the hair the wrong way can make people upset. When you've lost someone you love, you're not on the same playing field as everyone else and that’s okay, you're grieving. We heard a story in mortuary school that someone's great aunt had passed away and she had a mole with a huge hair that grew out of it and the embalmer plucked the hair out. The family got really upset, saying, “But that’s what she looked like! Why would you do that?”
We use something called feature filler, which basically does the same thing as Restylane; it's a chemical you inject into facial features and it plumps them up. It's super amazing and I'd get so excited to use it because if someone's features had sunken in, you could inject a very small amount and it would put life back into their lips or cheeks. You can also use it to take out wrinkles and that's where it becomes tricky. Some embalmers get really excited about making someone look 50 again, but if she was 80 and didn’t fix the wrinkles when she was alive, you should probably just leave them when she's dead. It's an ethical gray area. Even cutting fingernails; I understand that it’s a tradition in Armenian culture to always keep the pinky nail really long and if you cut that, you could horribly offend them.
Advertisement
Inside The Makeup Artist's Kit
There are very few instances to get super fancy and whip out all your makeup because most people didn’t wear a lot, so it's like, “Please don’t make grandma look like she worked for MAC.” Honestly, we mostly just used a lot of Maybelline. We used Maybelline Buff Beige foundation on almost everyone and it worked fine. No contouring, no highlighting — no one is going to worry about grandma's cheekbones — and if we did blush, it was just a pale pink or dusty rose. Same for the lipstick. We painted almost everyone's nails a shade of mocha, like a sandy cappuccino. We always asked the families first, but nail polish makes them look so much better because the hands are getting crossed on the chest, so aesthetically, it completes the painting.

You have to be really careful not to do anything that would set off the family. Parting the hair the wrong way can make people upset.

My friend Maria passed away and she always wore this really specific shade of MAC red, so I was like, I either need to find red lipstick in the back room or I need to ask her family if they want to bring in her makeup, which sometimes families did. Unless they wanted it back, which they usually didn’t, it would get thrown away or put in the bin to get used on other people. But most people didn't have beauty requests.
If they were jaundiced, you could do normal color-correcting, the same way we've been taught at Sephora — if you're red, put green over it, you know... One time after I embalmed someone, he turned gray and that took layers and layers of color-correcting, but I felt bad because then he looked like he was wearing a lot of makeup and that was also weird. You're not gray anymore, but you're definitely in makeup.
Advertisement
But most of the time, people looked pretty great. A lot of skin discolorations are because of blood, and when you're dead and the blood stops flowing, you stop having those issues. All that blood gets replaced with formaldehyde, which can be mixed with tints, like a rosy pink hue. Think of putting food coloring into water. Then, that rosiness shines underneath the skin and brightens someone who might be kind of sallow.
The Big Picture
I always think of this one story: The mother passed away and I got this stack of photos and noticed she always wore an amazing bouffant — in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, she never stopped doing her hair like that. I knew there was no way I'd ever be able to recreate it and I didn't want her daughters to see her and think that she didn't look like their mom and be really upset. So, I brought hairspray and a comb to the viewing room and I said, “I saw all your mom's pictures and I could see how much she cared about her hair and I did the best I could, but I know it's not right. I wondered if you would help me?”
They were a little nervous at first, but I assured them they could touch her and gave them the combs and hairspray and they ended up doing their mother's hair for her viewing. They were sharing all these stories about their mom with me and it was amazing. It was as perfect of a moment as you could hope for in a world in which your mother is dead.
Editor's note: Carvaly currently runs Undertaking LA, a funeral home which does not offer embalming and aims to de-commercialize death. Read more about it here.
Advertisement