SHIFT Magazine: A Different Kind of Makeup Artist

June 24, 2010  

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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
its 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 4:30 p.m.,
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 a.m.

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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