Daniella Marcantoni, Mortician, Chino Hills, California

“In college I was like, Med school or mortuary school?” says licensed funeral director and embalmer Daniella Marcantoni. With her background as a freelance makeup artist who worked weddings and school dances to pick up cash in high school and college, it’s no wonder she chose the latter. She’s worked in the funeral industry for six years and was recently promoted within Rose Hills, the largest mortuary and cemetery combination in the world, to hospitality service supervisor. In her current role, she oversees the visitation area, and while she appreciates the experience of learning to serve grieving families, her deeper passion remains in working with the deceased. “You’re helping someone who can’t help themselves,” she says. “And embalming is very quiet, and I can be very introverted, so I found embalming therapeutic.” She’s also a spokeswoman with Funeral Divas, a social group for women in the funeral industry. We talked about postmortem makeup techniques, the silent clues we leave behind about our attitude toward cosmetics, and the responsibility the caretakers of the dead take on to make each of us look our best at the very end. In her own words: 

On Postmortem Makeup

You start decomposing immediately, so the skin on an unembalmed body is very soft. It can be a little difficult to cosmetize. Although embalming is not required by law, the law does allow mortuaries to require embalming for a public visitation, as a health precaution. From a cosmetizing aspect we’d prefer that the person is embalmed because it just looks better.

Whenever I’m done embalming I put massage cream on—my personal favorite is this stuff called Kalon, which is like a white massage cream, and I like to mix in a formula called Restoratone. It’s a liquid that kind of looks like pink slime, and you mix it with Kalon to prevent the skin from dehydrating overnight. Some embalming fluids can dry out the tissues, so the Kalon is just another way to keep the appearance as natural as possible. When you take it off the next day, the skin won’t be all dehydrated and hard; it’s kind of natural-looking. 

I don’t like to use a lot of makeup. We have this thing called Glow Tint, which kind of looks like dark orange juice, and it’s a liquidy tint you can brush on the face. I’d always use that as my base. And from there you can use any kind of makeup. Cadaver makeup is very thick; it’s comparable to theater makeup. Some people’s skin can be very ashy, or maybe they have wounds or bruises—obviously the cases that need restorative work are going to require lengthier and more intricate processing to conceal, and that requires thicker makeup. So in those cases cadaver makeup is very effective, but in general I don’t like it. I like to dilute it with either a massage cream or what we call a dry wash, which is like a dry shampoo, and it kind of breaks down the molecules of the makeup and makes it a little bit smoother. So I’d do the Glow Tint first and then put the makeup on. Some embalmers want to use wax all over the mouth, because if the mouth is really dehydrated and you can’t fix it with a humectant or a massage cream, the lip wax helps smooth the pockets that are created when you glue the mouth shut. So in some cases the lip wax is wonderful, but I usually don’t like to use it because it takes away the natural lines of the lips and makes their lips look really smooth. But everyone is different. Embalmers tend to have egos; they all think that their way is the best way.

On “Natural Appearance” 

Rouge, mascara, and lipstick is pretty much my cocktail for every person, unless the family has specific requests. Like, “Well, Grandma wore red lipstick every day and she always wore cat-eye eyeliner,” or “You know, my mother always wore blue eyeshadow.” I love to get requests for families because I want to do what they want. We take as much direction as possible. A lot of times people will bring in pictures, and sometimes they’re pictures from the ’60s and I’m like...Okay, what am I supposed to do? I can only do so much! But sometimes people won’t bring in pictures, so we just sort of go for what, in mortuary school, we called a “natural appearance.” We try not to say the word sleeping, because they’re not sleeping—they’re dead. But you sort of want to make it look like they are sleeping. They’re in eternal rest. 

It can be difficult sometimes. If you have an elderly lady who fell, you have to work very hard at covering the bruises on her face, but maybe Grandma never wore makeup. So it’s kind of a struggle between what the family wants and trying to make the person look good so the family doesn’t freak out when they see them in the casket for the first time. I personally have never had any complaints from families, but I have a lot of experience doing makeup as a freelance artist, and doing weddings gave me an opportunity to work with different ages. So in terms of age, I know the clues that tell me what the person might have done on their own. I mean, I had an older woman come in with short hair and no ear piercings and her nails were short with no polish, and I knew that person probably didn’t wear a lot of makeup. But if I see a woman the same age come in with a perm and ear piercings and acrylic nails, I could tell that she probably wore makeup. 

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I do kind of pick up on what a person might have been like, what they might have wanted. I’m one of those people who’s overly aware of everything, and I pick up on people’s energies just from walking into the room. Maybe it’s a gift or something, I don’t know. But the biggest thing is that you have to communicate. You have to trust that the funeral arranger will be realistic with the family and not promise them the stars and the moon. The arrangers have never been back there embalming. Some are very realistic and are like, Well, we don’t know exactly what we can do.So every case is completely different—sometimes the person looks amazing and the family gets mad! And sometimes you don’t think the person looks that great and you’re upset because you’ve been working so hard on the person and aren’t happy with it, and the family is like, Oh my God, thank you so much, my mom looks amazing.

In some mortuaries you do everything: You’re the arranger with the families, you’re the embalmer, you do the makeup. In those cases you have so much more of an advantage, because you’re connecting with that family and getting information directly from them. And then you can just go straight to the loved one and work your magic. 

The males are usually really easy because they don’t wear makeup. So with males I kind of did the same thing—the Glow Tint—and a lot of times they wouldn’t need makeup. It’s interesting to see racial differences too. In my experience, Asian cases tend to have very smooth, wrinkle-free skin, and their skin tone is beautiful. And I rarely have to put anything on African American skin. There’s a richness there; I don’t know how to explain it. But I usually only need to put massage cream on their face, and the next morning I would take it off and it would just be beautiful. There were only a couple of times that I had to put on makeup, because they had a wound on their face. I think it’s because darker skin doesn’t show the postmortem stain or the gray tone that can happen after embalming, which someone with a lighter complexion would show. 

On Life Outside the Embalming Room

I’ve always been pretty well-kept—I’m not super high-maintenance, but I’m particular about my appearance. None of my friends would say that I’m sloppy. I heard this quote once: Dress every day like you’re going to run into your worst enemy. You never know who you’re going to run into, so I always make sure I look presentable. I groom myself, I get my eyebrows waxed, and I try to make sure everything’s ironed. I don’t really think my work has changed my views on my appearance. If anything it’s like: If I died today and they picked me up, they’d be like, Man, she didn’t shave her legs! You think of silly things like that. 

I always look at people and am like, I wonder how they’ll embalm. I pay attention to people’s features because when you’re embalming you’re paying constant attention to features. Features don’t necessarily change postmortem, but sometimes if the person passed away in an awkward position, the features can be compromised or not in their natural form, and you’ll have to reset them and make sure everything looks natural. The face is aesthetically the most important part of the body. So being a makeup artist gives me an advantage because I’m used to studying faces. 

On Helping Those Who Can’t Help Themselves

In 2007 I lost my aunt to breast cancer. My aunt and I were extremely close—she’s like my mom. She was the most gorgeous woman ever, and at her funeral I was really disappointed. It looked as though they didn’t put any effort or anything into her makeup. There was no personal innovation or care. And I was like, I know I’m in the right industry now. Because I don’t want someone to sit there and stare at the casket and see the most important person in their life, and see what I’m seeing and feel what I’m feeling right now.

When you have a more personal connection to your motivation, it really shows in your work. I’m being fairly compensated, but when I was doing freelance makeup work it was like, Cool, this is great, give me money! I liked educating people with makeup, but I feel like this is doing more. It’s more selfless doing this sort of preparation. A girl going to senior prom can do her own makeup. But a grandma who passed away from cancer who couldn’t help herself for six months—her hair has grown out, her eyebrows are grown out, her moustache is showing. I feel like it’s my responsibility to really make her look her best, so when her family sees her they’ll be like, Oh, I’m so glad my mom doesn’t look like she’s had cancer for the past six months. I think that’s the kind of goal to have.

When you’re doing the preparation—doing the calls, going and seeing where the decedent is at—you see how they’re treated. There are some families who will be with their mother until her dying day, and those bodies tend to be in amazing shape, and it just touches you. And I know families can’t always physically take care of their loved ones, but I’ve seen terrible things from some convalescent homes, seeing how their bodies are when they come here. There’s cysts because they haven’t been washed in months, just getting sponge baths. When you see abuse or neglect, you take even more personal responsibility to really just take care of that person. Because it’s like, Well, no one else cared for them for the past year. They’re going to be in my care for four hoursI might as well do the best that I can with the limits I have and the amount of time that I’ve been given with themOnce they’re dead they can’t do anything. You’re helping someone who can’t help themselves.


For more beauty interviews from The Beheld, click here.