A mortuary cosmetologist is a licensed cosmetologist who performs a variety of cosmetic services to prepare a deceased person for funeral services. Sometimes called desairologists, mortuary cosmetologists are trained to use products to style or alter the hair, face, and nails to prepare a deceased person for viewing and/or burial. In doing so, mortuary cosmetologists may provide comfort to grieving family and friends by making their deceased loved one appear as they wish them to be remembered. Mortuary cosmetologists are primarily cosmetologists who provide this additional service when requested, although full-time careers can be made of mortuary cosmetology. Approximately 670,000 cosmetologists, hairdressers, hairstylists, and barbers work in the United States.
Mortuary Cosmetologist Career History
Mortuary cosmetology as a career choice is fairly new, according to Noella C. Charest-Papagno, a practicing mortuary cosmetologist and author. Cosmetic preparation of the deceased is not a service that has evolved only with the mortuary cosmetologist. Funeral directors and embalmers have traditionally provided these services. As part of their licensing requirements, these professionals must be able to perform all preparations necessary—including applying makeup and styling hair. In many cases, the standard flesh-tone makeup is all that is needed. Those who had simple hairstyles, especially men, may not require the specialized services of a cosmetologist.
Mortuary cosmetology as a specialty was really only recognized in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Thanks to the efforts of Charest-Papagno and other cosmetology professionals, the funeral and cosmetology industries have come to realize that there is no reason why people who were particular about their appearance in life shouldn’t have the same service available to them in death.
Today more schools are offering classes on mortuary cosmetology; they were unheard of in cosmetology schools a few decades ago. Charest-Papagno has published a book, Handbook of Desairology for Cosmetologists Servicing Funeral Homes (J J Publishing, 1996). In that book, Charest-Papagno coined the term desairology (from the words deceased and hair), and many in the field prefer it to mortuary cosmetology.
Mortuary Cosmetologist Job Description
Making the deceased appear as they did in life—the way their families want them to be remembered—is no small task. Occasionally, mortuary cosmetologists are asked to perform cosmetic services on a person they knew, often a client. But more frequently, mortuary cosmetologists work from a photograph provided by the family. Each situation is different—the quality of the photograph, difficulty of the style requested, conditions of death such as illness or trauma, and chemicals used in preparation of the body can all make the mortuary cosmetologist’s job easier or more difficult.
Sterilizing and embalming chemicals used by funeral home personnel add to the dehydration process that occurs on a body, making the hair very dry and brittle. Also, the hair of decedents who were on medication before their deaths can be very thin and fall out easily when the cosmetologist attempts to cut or style it. In addition to these factors, the simple fact that the person who is being styled is in a horizontal rather than vertical position can be a challenge to a beginning mortuary cosmetologist. Denice Lafferty, a mortuary cosmetologist for more than 14 years, recalls that learning to roll hair the opposite direction to get it to set right was one of her biggest early challenges.
Getting over her uneasiness around the deceased was another challenge, Lafferty says, but it was something she grew accustomed to quicker than she expected. Her first mortuary job was for an elderly client she had grown close to. She styled the woman’s hair regularly and visited her in the hospital before she died.
“I was scared to death the first time I was asked, but you have to keep in mind that this is the last thing you can do for this person. They [or the family] have put their trust in you,” Lafferty says.
Despite the seemingly gloomy nature of the work, Lafferty notes the job is not without its rewards. “It’s something you can’t be prepared for, working with the dead. But after a while it doesn’t bother you when you see what a valuable service you are providing. I get cards, thank you’s, personal phone calls, and it makes you feel good that you were able to do that for somebody,” she says.
As with most health care and funeral professionals, the initial experience dealing with the deceased usually evokes uneasiness. However, as mortuary cosmetologists gain more experience, the knowledge of the comfort they may provide to a grieving family generally helps offset their own discomfort. Also with experience comes a natural focus on the task at hand. Most mortuary cosmetologists are too busy to dwell on morbid thoughts; rather, their focus is on doing their job well for the sake of the family and the memory of the deceased. In general, mortuary cosmetologists do not handle the deceased beyond the preparations they are asked to make to the hair, face, or nails.
Requests for desairology services for deceased men are infrequent. On occasion, mortuary cosmetologists may be requested for a deceased man, based on the family’s request or a trauma or illness requiring camouflage makeup.
Because the pores open after death, a transparent pancake makeup is applied to all deceased—men and women alike—in preparation for viewing. This makeup is generally applied by funeral home personnel, not the mortuary cosmetologist.
Most jobs are paid on a commission basis. In many cases, the funeral home bills the deceased’s family for all services provided, even if the funeral home didn’t directly provide them—including cosmetology services—so the family has just one bill to worry about. This also is done because the Federal Trade Commission requires funeral homes to disclose their fees to consumers on a general price list. The list includes the category Other Preparation of Body, which means any preparation made to make the body presentable, including dressing, placing in casket, hair cutting, styling, and makeup.
Mortuary cosmetologists find clients in many different ways. If a mortuary cosmetologist has a relationship with a funeral home, the funeral home director may recommend him or her to a client who inquires about such services. Other clients may hear about a mortuary cosmetologist from their own beauticians, who may not provide such services. Also, mortuary cosmetologists seeking clients may find that listing their services in the yellow pages under funeral services is helpful, as well as leaving their business cards with salons who don’t have their own mortuary cosmetologist on staff. Mortuary cosmetologists often work as traditional cosmetologists in salons, malls, department stores, nursing homes, and beauty supply stores.
Mortuary Cosmetologist Career Requirements
People outside the field of cosmetology are often surprised at the diverse subjects that cosmetology students must learn. High school classes that are also part of a college preparatory curriculum will help you if you plan to pursue this career. Science classes, such as physics, chemistry, and biology, will give you a background that you will find valuable years down the road—both in cosmetology school, when you learn specifically how those disciplines apply to the trade, and as a practicing cosmetologist, when you will use your knowledge to solve problems independently. In addition to science classes, mathematics courses such as algebra and geometry will give you preparation in working with numbers and formulas. Again, these are skills you will use in your later career. Of course, classes such as English and speech will allow you to practice communication skills that will be important when you deal with a wide variety of people, some of whom will be experiencing a range of emotions. Also, because there is the possibility that you will be dealing with grieving families and friends of the deceased, consider taking psychology courses that will give you a greater understanding of people’s reaction to stress and grief. Finally, if you have the opportunity, take art classes that give you a chance to work with design and color.
Several high schools in the United States offer cosmetology programs as part of their vocational curriculum. At one such school, South Garland High School in Texas, students study bacteriology, electricity, and geometry to help them prepare for this work. Any student planning to pursue a career in cosmetology should keep in mind that most cosmetology schools require a high school diploma or general equivalency diploma and set a minimum age of 16.
Cosmetology schools, still popularly known as beauty schools, prepare students for different careers in cosmetology. Cosmetology schools generally require 1,000 to 1,500 hours of training, which generally can be completed in a year. Many schools have classes starting throughout the year. According to the National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences (NACCAS), no schools currently offer specific program sequences for mortuary cosmetologists. Many schools offer classes on mortuary services as part of their cosmetology curriculum, but states don’t require special licensing for mortuary cosmetologists beyond the standard cosmetology license. Cosmetology schools offer training that leads to licenses in cosmetology (the full range of beauty services, including hair, skin, and nails), esthetics (which is limited to skin care, facial hair removal, and makeup), or nail technology (which is limited to care for the nails and cuticles on the hands and feet). Students of cosmetology can expect their curriculum to include classes in hair cutting and styling, permanent waves, tinting, eyebrow arching, facials, corrective makeup, manicuring, and pedicuring. These classes generally have students practice their new skills on mannequins or observe demonstrations. As students advance in their skills, they often practice on each other. Theory classes may include state law, chemistry, salon business management, and sterilization and sanitation. There are cosmetology schools in every state. Currently NACCAS has accredited approximately 1,000 schools that serve more than 100,000 students.
As a rule, general cosmetology internships are part of postsecondary schooling, although they usually are not called internships. Students advance to hands-on training only after they have completed the classroom and theoretical courses. Many cosmetology schools operate their own salons and offer discounted cosmetology services to the public, provided by cosmetology students in a supervised setting. Students observe and perform a specific type and number of procedures on clients to fulfill requirements of the school and the state they wish to practice in. In addition to passing a written exam, most states require a minimum number of hours of training on live subjects. During school “in-salon training,” cosmetologists can expect to work at least 100 hours per month. Situations vary, but many cosmetologists-in-training receive a percentage of the fee for their work. Instructors, in addition to supervising techniques, use this time to give hints on building clientele, such as handing out business cards and explaining other services to the client. This practical experience is vital to launching a successful cosmetology career.
Certification or Licensing
All 50 states require cosmetologists to be licensed. A person must be licensed—as a cosmetologist, funeral director, or embalmer—to perform cosmetic services on the deceased. In many funeral homes, unless the family requests special services or a certain cosmetologist, funeral home personnel do the necessary cosmetic preparations. Most mortuary schools require a class on restorative art that includes basic hair styling and makeup techniques. Restorative art also covers more difficult body preparation work for bodies that have suffered a trauma, such as makeup to camouflage bruises and scrapes or techniques to rebuild a nose.
Only those who have completed the recommended training are permitted to apply for a cosmetology license. Although requirements vary by state, each state requires an application, generally with a minimal fee, and passage of a written examination. The exam determines the applicant’s knowledge of pertinent areas such as product chemistry, sanitary rules and regulations, sanitary procedures, chemical service procedures, knowledge of the anatomy of the skin, provisions and requirements of the state in which they wish to practice, and knowledge of labor and compensation laws.
Cosmetology can be a physically and mentally demanding occupation, and the same applies to mortuary cosmetology. Cosmetologists are on their feet much of the day and their work is very hands-on. Because of the hands-on aspect of the work, mortuary cosmetologists must overcome any fears they may have about working with the dead. Mortuary cosmetologists need to have physical endurance in the shoulders and arms and finger dexterity because much of the time is spent cutting, trimming, or styling hair. Although the mortuary cosmetologist will not be expected to do strenuous physical work, carpal tunnel syndrome, which occurs when damage is done to nerves in the wrist because of repetitive hand motion, is a concern for any cosmetologist. Other helpful attributes for a mortuary cosmetologist to have include a sense of form and balance, the ability to imitate styles if a family has provided pictures of how they want the deceased to appear, and tact and understanding when dealing with families. The mortuary cosmetologist should also have a strong business sense. Since much of this work is done on a freelance basis, the cosmetologist will need to manage his or her finances.
Exploring Mortuary Cosmetologist Career
You can learn more about mortuary cosmetology by checking with local funeral homes, cosmetology schools, and salons. Most professionals are willing to take time to explain their work to students who show an interest. However, the extent to which they can show you the work they do may be limited. In order for an individual to observe cosmetic preparations on the deceased, the decedent’s family must give permission. Many families may not be willing to do this. Families are especially reluctant to grant permission to a class, whether it is a high school vocational class or a cosmetology class, to be present for their loved one’s preparation. You may have better results approaching a mortuary cosmetologist or funeral home director individually and stating your interest in the field.
Mortuary cosmetologists are rarely employed directly by funeral homes, particularly on a full-time basis. Since this area of cosmetology is relatively new, there generally is not yet a strong enough demand for these services to support full-time mortuary cosmetologists. Most are cosmetologists—either self-employed or employed by a salon—who provide mortuary services on a freelance basis. Many provide services to several funeral homes, especially in more rural areas, where there are fewer people who specialize in this work. In larger cities, one or two large funeral homes that see a high volume may provide enough business for a mortuary cosmetologist to make a part-time or even full-time income. There are approximately 670,000 cosmetologists, hairdressers, hairstylists, and barbers employed in the United States.
Few workers are directly involved in preparing the deceased for funerals: directors, embalmers, and cosmetologists. These professionals are the only people who can legally perform these services. Those interested in mortuary cosmetology should consider which aspects of the field appeal to them most in deciding whether to pursue funeral home or cosmetology training. Funeral home training takes longer than cosmetology training. Embalmers generally are required to complete two years of preprofessional college work—often resulting in an associate’s degree. Funeral home directors are required to complete two years of college and then enroll in mortuary school for another year or two.
Those who have completed cosmetology training and are interested in this work should begin by aggressively marketing themselves to local funeral homes. Once the funeral homes know of a cosmetologist in the area who provides these services, they will be able to recommend the cosmetologist for work.
A January 1998 article in the salon trade magazine Techniques discussed growth areas in the field of cosmetology, including mortuary cosmetology. The article noted that desairology may not hold the glamour of other cosmetology specialties, such as a stage or film artist, but it offers other attractions, such as the opportunity to perform humanitarian services. Mortuary cosmetologists who make funeral homes, salons, and the general public aware of the valuable service they provide can help their businesses grow. Mortuary cosmetologists who build a reputation for providing a valuable service can carve a niche for themselves in their area. Becoming a funeral home’s or salon’s designated desairologist can lead to steady work, which because of its specialized nature, generally pays more than regular cosmetology services.
The nature of the field of mortuary cosmetology, and indeed the field of cosmetology in general, is that earnings grow only as clientele increases. In any aspect of cosmetology, that means low earnings and hard work in the beginning. As cosmetologists develop client loyalty, their earnings will rise. In the mortuary cosmetologist’s case, proving the value of one’s services to a funeral home or a salon is the key to higher earnings. Mortuary cosmetologists charge more for their services to funeral homes than services in a salon. For example, a haircut and style may cost $20 to $40 in many areas. In the same area, a cut and style done on a visit to a funeral home will bring $40 to $60 because it is a specialized service. However, anyone planning to enter the field should remember it is a relatively new and highly specialized career and demand is still somewhat limited. Mortuary cosmetology is not well known to the general public, and with the higher earnings comes the responsibility of marketing one’s services to generate business.
Although specific information on earnings for mortuary cosmetologists is not available, the U.S. Department of Labor does have earning figures for the cosmetology field in general. Median annual earnings in 2004 for salaried hairdressers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists, including tips and commission, were $20,500. Salaries ranged from less than $13,100 to more than $37,140. Earnings are affected by factors such as number of clients, experience, and even location of the business.
Cosmetic procedures are generally done in a well-ventilated, sterile preparation room. Mortuary cosmetologists generally are not left alone with the deceased; a member of the funeral home staff will generally greet the cosmetologist and be present throughout the services if the cosmetologist desires. Mortuary cosmetologists are not expected to perform cosmetic procedures to a body on a table; rather, the body of the deceased is generally dressed and placed in the casket by the time the mortuary cosmetologist arrives to provide services.
Morticians, of course, work all hours. Their work depends basically on a person’s time of death. Mortuary cosmetologists, on the other hand, may take an occasional call at an odd hour, but generally perform their services at their earliest convenience. A cosmetologist usually has only a day’s notice of services needed at a mortuary, but can perform cosmetic services during day or evening hours, whatever is convenient.
Sanitation is of the utmost importance in funeral homes. Many of the extra steps funeral personnel take in preparation of the body and cleanup of the work area are for sanitary purposes, and mortuary cosmetologists must follow the same standards. Denice Lafferty uses basic equipment provided by the funeral home, such as a hair dryer, curling iron, and combs or brushes. This equipment is used only on the deceased and is thoroughly sterilized in a solution provided by the funeral home. On occasion she has to bring special equipment, such as a small curling iron or a bottle of temporary color. This equipment must be sterilized before she removes it from the funeral home. By the time mortuary cosmetology services are performed, the body has been embalmed, cleaned, and treated with chemical preservatives. Because of these chemicals and for sanitary purposes, mortuary cosmetologists always wear disposable gloves when they are performing cosmetic services.
Some widely held beliefs about bodies of the deceased may concern mortuary cosmetologists, who soon learn that such beliefs are unfounded, or at any rate, have little to do with their services. One commonly held belief is that the hair and nails continue to grow after death. Actually, the skin around the hair follicles and nail cuticles begins to shrink because of dehydration caused by death and the embalming process. Thus the embedded portions of the hair and nails are exposed, giving the impression that they have grown. Another belief—that the deceased move—is not a myth. Rather, it is a rarity that some health care or morgue professionals have witnessed as the body is being handled. Morticians may also notice a rare movement, usually a small twitch, as the body is being prepared with chemicals—generally muscular responses as the chemicals used to preserve tissues are absorbed. The nature of the procedures mortuary cosmetologists perform means that they should not see such movement.
Mortuary Cosmetologist Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts the job growth for all cosmetologists to be about as fast as the average through 2014. The rate of growth for the specialty of mortuary cosmetology is dependent on two factors: how well those in the cosmetology industry market their services and the age of the population and number of deaths. According to statistics compiled by the National Funeral Directors Association, the death rate per thousand in the U.S. population is expected to increase significantly, from 8.82 deaths per thousand in 2000 to 9.9 deaths per thousand in 2030, and 13.17 per thousand in 2060. As the large baby boomer population ages, all careers that provide services to the elderly population are expected to experience steady growth.