A Different Kind of Makeup Artist

March 31, 2010  

by Laura Noble

On a sleeting but sunny Saturday morning, 59-year-old Maria Garza rests eyes-closed on the table as three shades of Norcostco lip colors are expertly blended to match her favorite self-portrait. Matte concealer is meticulously massaged over every blemish and a flat iron is run through her hair one last time before her debut in front of family and friends.

Sure the big reveal will be tear-filled, dramatic and may even elicit a few friends saying, “Oh wow, she looks great.” But there will be no applause, envy or questions afterwards from those wanting a similar look. Makeup artist/hair stylist/mortician Rolando de los Santos does not wake Mrs. Garza when he’s finished prepping her. Rather, he scoops her in his long-reaching arms and softly lays her day old corpse on it’s final resting bed of lilac satin in her $1,920 Aurora Casket Co. coffin fashioned from 20-gauge steel.

Mrs. Garza died on Thursday evening at Parkland Hospital of esophageal cancer. Operating under a strict policy of no pickups after 4:30PM, Parkland moved her remains to be iced in the morgue until Rolando and funerary director Albert Anthony Gonzalez, of his eponymous Gonzalez Funeral Home, could come by for her body on Friday at 10:00AM.

That morning Rolando and Albert share a cup of coffee in the office, catching up on each other’s kids and wives, before heading out for the Garza removal. They make it back to their Stemmons freeway-side office, home and crematory in time for lunch and to learn that the Garza family has approved the embalmment for preservation during the viewing, funeral and burial over the next couple of days. With that, they let Mrs. Garza thaw for a few hours before beginning the embalming process.

Rolando, an eighteen-year mortuary veteran, kills the time between lunch and Mrs. Garza in solitude. He retreats back to the embalming room, putting the finishing touches on another corpse that’s going up for viewing in Chapel Two (of three) this afternoon. He adjusts the lighting to accurate chapel brightness and straightens every wrinkle on both clothes and face, before wheeling the deceased out and rolling back in another: Mrs. Garza.

As if in a hybrid episode of Nip/Tuck meets the opening credits of The Big Chill, Rolando cues up his iPod to the Neil Young/Jackson Browne/Tom Petty playlist, pushes “play,” snaps on his rubber gloves and slowly assesses the rigid body on the operating room table in font of him. Surrounded by sterile, white-slatted walls and steel shelving, he peruses the jugs of embalming fluids, trays of hemostats and needle injectors and takes a good look at Mrs. Garza’s clothing hanging in pristine order at the foot of the bed.

Step One: “Breaking Rigor.” Rigor mortis is the chemical that sets in and freezes the body in the exact position in which it ceases to live. Sometimes, the chemical can even cause a fresh corpse to seize, flashing into a new contracted joint position, often mistaken for continued life after death. In order to comfortably showcase a corpse for a wake or viewing, this chemical must be manually manipulated through the joints. Slowly taking hold of Mrs. Garza’s stiff, crossed arm, Rolando systematically extends and retracts the elbow joint until it freely moves in a Barbie-like wave. The more he moves the body, the more easily he will be able to dress her and pose her peacefully in the casket. As he washes and conditions her long, brunette hair, he comes to feel what her body was like in life and with a sixth sense premonition, begins pulling the right chemicals to preserve her body’s composition.

Step Two: “Embalming.” First the body is re-aspirated (pumped with air) and the all bodily fluids and blood are removed from the corpse via the arterial vein on the side of the neck right under the ear. Through the same cannula tube instrument that drained the body, the embalming fluid is then pumped through every vein and capillary. As the three gallons of fluid pour through Mrs. Garza at a medium rate of flow and three to four pounds of pressure, Rolando discerningly monitors. Too much pressure or flow and body pockets like the eye socket and stomach will begin to bulge and inflate, too little pressure or flow and the fluid will pool and ooze, failing to journey through the entirety of Mrs. Garza’s petite frame. With natural gases escaping and chemical fumes being produced, the smell is nauseating at best but to Rolando, it’s part of his sculpting process. It’s a means to the angelic and peaceful end product.

Step Three: “Facial Setting,” aka “The Fun Part.” Where death becomes art, this is the part that keeps Rolando coming back to work. For Mrs. Garza, this just meant pulling back a few wrinkles here and there, gluing her lids shut and needle injecting her gums together for a closed mouth effect. In the case of a shooting victim a few weeks ago, it meant artfully filling each bullet hole with theater wax and reconstructing the brow line to recreate the wholesome, angelic face his mother remembers and photographs portray. After the setting is complete, Rolando pulls a sheet over Mrs. Garza and turns the light out for the day.

Step Four: “The Dressing and Final Touches.” It’s Saturday, and the date of the family viewing, Rolando arrives to the embalming room a few hours before noon and begins the dressing ritual, preparing Mrs. Garza for the presentation. He lifts her legs and slides on her pants, lifts up her chest and maneuvers her into an oxford and jacket. With clothes on, she lies in a seemingly nap-like state as Rolando paints a clear coat of polish on her nails and brings her hands to her chest, wrapping rosaries from her husband around her hands in a pious pose. He straightens her hair, he layers her face with a natural finish makeup and carries her groomed vessel to the coffin. He props the padded mattress up so only a few degrees of the face are exposed out of the casket’s opening. And that’s it.

Prepped, primped and primed, he rolls the casket to Chapel One and stands back at the viewing, waiting for that one phrase he lives for: “Wow, she almost looks better dead than alive.”

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One Response to “A Different Kind of Makeup Artist”

  1. The Mortician « Laura Noble on March 31st, 2010 3:43 pm

    [...] the story HERE. A [...]