Making the dead drop dead gorgeous: a novel vocation

By Thuy Quynh   November 1, 2020 | 02:20 am PT
A comment overheard during a funeral opened up an unusual vocation for a woman: applying makeup for the dead.

Once the thought of doing this job entered her head, Dinh Thi Phuong Loan was beset with doubts, but she has never shied away from telling others what she does for a living.

Holding a cosmetic box, she enters a room about 10 square meters wide with no windows. She bows her head, paying her respects to the dead woman in front of her. Next, she bows to the relatives of the dead person before donning a pair of gloves and getting to work.

Carefully using moisturizer, primer and foundation to using the eyeliner and lipstick, she applies makeup just as she would for a living person. For styling the hair, she asks family members to gently lift up the head to brush and uses hairspray before filing nails and applying nail polish, putting on earrings and brushing off the excess makeup powder from the clothes.

Dinh Thi Loan puts on nail polish for a deceased body. Photo by VnExpress/Thuy Quynh.

Dinh Thi Loan applies nail polish for a deceased woman. Photo by VnExpress/Thuy Quynh.

During the makeup process lasting 1-2 hours, Loan is meticulous, not only about doing her job well, but also adhering to all taboos, not passing any item over the dead body, not moving the head to the side and neither cutting hair nor shaving any hair.

After she’s done, she bows three times to the soul of the departed person, packs up and leaves the room.

The 32-year-old woman from the northern province of Phu Tho works regularly as a mortuary makeup artist for the Lac Hong Vien Cemetery Park in the mountainous Hoa Binh Province.

It was less than a year ago that Loan switched to applying makeup for the deceased after four years of working as a "normal" professional makeup artist. She said her current job was not a regular profession in Vietnam, the usual practice being to let people in the funeral home take care of things.

Loan’s career has taken a few twists and turns before getting to where she is now. After getting a degree in physical education pedagogy, she went through quite a few different jobs before becoming a professional makeup artist more than four years ago.

Then, when attending the funeral of a close friend's sister, she heard her friend complain: "It was so hard to find someone to make up for my sister. The funeral home only applies a bit of lipstick. I am not happy with it. All I wanted was to help my sister look good on this day."

Her friend's words rang in Loan’s mind for a whole month and sowed the seeds of an idea in her head. "Can I work as a makeup artist for corpses? Why can't I do this to make them more beautiful? Will anyone hire me? Will I be shunned by everyone if they know I am doing this job?" These questions buzzed incessantly in her thoughts.

A portrait of Dinh Thi Phuong Loan. Photo by VnExpress/Thuy Quynh.

Dinh Thi Phuong Loan at the Lac Hong Vien Cemetery Park, in Hoa Binh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Thuy Quynh.

Finally, she decided to go ahead and put her idea into action. With her connections, she struck up a partnership with the Lac Hong Vien Cemetery Park.

"At first, I was afraid people would think I am crazy, and I did not expect to be allowed to take on this job. But now, people can contact me directly or through Lac Hong Vien for my services."

She knew before starting out on her new job that although she was already proficient in applying makeup, doing it for a dead person was going to be different in some big ways. So she began to research and learn about facial skin texture, contouring and how to choose appropriate colors. She signed up for online video tutorials by foreigners. She noted down and learnt the dos and don’ts of interacting with deceased people.

Loan says the face skin of a dead person is typically very dry, wrinkled and purplish because it is kept in the cold room, so it is important to choose the correct colors and shades so that the end result looks good and natural. In particular, the makeup must be done while maintaining the dead body's posture and keeping the head still, which also makes this task a bit challenging.

Loan is not shy about saying she was brave and had no fears of the dead once she decided to join the profession. She is also brave about not following too many superstitions. She believes that she shouldn't be afraid when she is doing her job with a kind heart.

About a year into this profession, she has done makeup for hundreds, most of them people dying of old age and diseases.

She has not dared to accept cases of death caused by traffic accidents and deformed faces because she feels she is not skilled enough.

Loan (R) and an apprentice put on gloves before doing makeup for the deceased.

Loan (R) and an apprentice put on gloves before beginning to apply makeup for a dead person. Photo by VnExpress/Thuy Quynh.

"I am not afraid, but always feel tormented and agonized because many people die very young."

Of the hundreds of bodies she had done makeup for, one that stays fresh in her mind is that of a 15-year-old girl who died of some illness.

"I knew that I was going to apply make up for a little girl, but when I entered the room, I found her lying on the bed as if she was sleeping. It pained me so much... as if I had lost a loved one. "

Looking at the little girl's elegant features she tried hard to focus on her work and not get emotional, not to let her tears flow.

The girl’s face haunted her even after she got home. "I even dreamed of her. She smiled and turned her eyes to me."

The really scary part

Loan laughs as she talks about the difficulties and fears she confronted when she chose her current vocation. "I was not afraid of the dead, only of people talking behind my back, slandering and ostracizing me.

"But, even then, I laughed such comments off because I knew I was doing the right thing."

Loan’s team has three other young women, 22 to 30 years old, who are apprentices. Wary of how people would judge them, the three do not want to appear in public.

One of them, a 24-year-old girl from Phu Tho, has been studying makeup for the deceased from Loan for nearly a month. After graduating from a university, she worked as a saleswoman for several businesses but felt it did not suit her and began looking for a new job.

Although she has decided to pursue this career, she has not shared this with her parents or told other people because she is fearful of the opinions she would be subjected to.

"Makeup for corpses is a new profession. Few people know and most people are scared about such jobs. So I am reluctant to share this information," the apprentice said.

She also admits that her choice was influenced by the low level of competition and sufficient remuneration.

The cost of this service ranges from VND1-10 million ($43.15-$431.47). People pay Loan directly or via the cemetery, depending on who they contact for the service.

Despite the difficulties, Loan and her apprentices are confident they will pursue this career in the future. They are encouraged by the continuous positive feedback they get from the deceased’s relatives.

Loan says: "I do not hesitate to tell anyone what I do. Everyone has his or her own opinion, but no matter what people say, I am proud of what I am doing."

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