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.