Jamie Reed, known on the blogosphere as Embalming Queen, takes her job as a caretaker seriously. Except this Glee-loving, Lady Gaga–worshiping embalmer-mortician-in-training, is a caretaker of the dead.
When I catch Reed on the phone on Friday, she is on her way from mortuary school to the coffin races, a Cool Runnings–like event for the funeral-industry set, where participants race in handmade coffins and dress up in costume. "It'll be a really good time!" she explains. Like the race, Reed has the ability to make her day-to-day job, restoring and beautifying dead people using cosmetics and formaldehyde, sound not morbid, and well, sweet. She's more similar to Jamie Lee Curtis's Shelly in My Girl than Rainn Wilson's Arthur in Six Feet Under. I mean, how many morticians get excited about a Hello Kitty Edible Arrangement for their birthday? Here, she talks about the art of contouring a dead body, that time she used Chanel makeup for her work, and the importance of a "memory picture."
How did you get started in embalming?
My background is in biology. I was actually set to go to medical school and I did go, but it turned out not to be right for me. I asked my college adviser, “Now, what do I do? I have a biology degree and interest in human anatomy.” And he said, “Why don’t you become an embalmer?”
I ended up going to school in Kansas City and graduated last year. You have to apprentice for a year. I just got my embalmer’s license, but I’m still working on my funeral director license.
What was your reaction when your college adviser suggested you become an embalmer?
[Being an embalmer] is not something very well known. But I’m going to start promoting it more. It’s a really great marriage of art and science. Even now, I like doing makeup. I like fashion. I like those types of things.
But I also love taking care of dead people. I did an internship at a medical examiner’s office where I did autopsies. I love seeing the human body from the inside out. I have this odd, quirky personality and have always felt a little socially awkward. I feel so much more comfortable with twenty dead bodies than with twenty people who are alive.
This has actually helped in dealing with families. This wasn’t my life’s dream, but it is slowly becoming it. I think to succeed in this industry, you have to have this sense of empathy or this drive to really help people when they are at their lowest and most sad. Because, you run into a lot of sad.
What is your day-to-day like?
I work at an embalming company, which is different than a traditional funeral home. We are the go-between. Funeral homes contact us. For example, they call and say, “We had a patient pass away at a nursing home. Can you go and pick that person up and embalm them?” Our job is completely on call.
We use machines that cut into the neck, near the collarbone area. They're hooked up to the carotid artery, out of the jugular vein, which is how we push all of the blood out of the body and push formaldehyde and embalming fluid into it.
I don’t know if you’ve seen a lot of dead people or have touched their hands before, but they’re firm. Embalming firms the skin. We want to get as much blood out and as much embalming fluid into the skin.
What techniques do you use to make the body look, well — not dead?
Applying makeup on a body is different than putting it on living skin. I have used regular cosmetics for embalmed bodies, but the skin is so firm, there’s no way to work in your foundation. Using an airbrush gets you streak-free, nice coverage.
I took a class from an embalmer about airbrushing on a body and learned about shadows. Normally, you look at people standing straight up. They have natural shadows on their face. When people are dead in a casket with their eyes closed, they don’t have their natural shadows.
I use something called hot chocolate — it’s a dark-brown powder that looks just like what it’s named for, and you use it to add in shadows. I’ll shadow in crevices around the nostril, upper lip and nose, and chin. All the places where there would be natural shadows.
So sort of like contouring for live people. How do you determine the vision or look for your bodies?
You always want to ask for a picture. Most of the time, you get a picture circa 1960. Or get one that is extremely small and grainy. Or literally, I got one that was in black and white. I don’t know. I’ve had good luck just going with my gut.
What is the goal or desired look when you work on someone?
I want them to look as natural and as peaceful as they can. You don’t want anyone to look strange, harsh, or uncomfortable. As much as possible, you want them to look like they’re sleeping.
A memory picture is the internal snapshot of the moment when you go to the funeral home. It's when you see your loved one in the casket for the first time. If you didn’t do a good job as an embalmer, that family will have this horrible memory picture. I want my families to walk up to the casket and say, “That’s my husband. He looks at peace. He looks like himself.” That’s what I shoot for.
But it’s a weird balance. When you do makeup on yourself, you want to hide certain things and make them go away. But if I’m working on someone that’s 82 years old, I don’t want to make their imperfections go away. You have to be careful about what you take away, because sometimes you get in trouble with the family. You want to give them their color back and still look like themselves.
How do you approach the challenge of adding color?
We use some type of mascara that will add volume. The black and the eyelashes help the eyes to stand out. We also pencil in the eyebrows to give it some life. I haven’t used eyeliner just because the people I'm working with — those old ladies are not eyeliner ladies. But I’m sure if eyeliner was important to them, I would do that.
For the lips, we tend to use just regular lipsticks and lip glosses. Every funeral home has a lot random makeup. We have that bucket. It’s usually things families have brought in that we can’t give back. I try to look through there. I’m trying to figure out how to do lips better. Embalming can make their lips look thin or like you lost your lips altogether.
Right, you can’t exactly use a lip-plumping product on them.
Right. It doesn’t have any effect.
Do you have a preference for color cosmetic brands?
I don’t have a favorite in particular. Some families are very particular about their makeup and will bring it in. For one lady, they brought in two bags of makeup and it was all Chanel. I was like, “Hot damn, lady!” That was exciting.
What is the restoration process like when someone died under traumatic circumstances?
We’ve had a couple of those. There was a pastor that was doing a good deed and someone shot him in the chest and he died. That one was really hard. This was a man who had done so much for everyone else. I did a little restoration on his face and spent three days with him. I got attached to him.
At the showing, his wife and kids were there. Finally, the wife came up to me and told me I had done a good job. She was pleased with the way that he looked and I just … broke down. In mortuary school, they tell you that you aren’t supposed to cry in front of the family. But I don’t know where these tears came from.
She talked about how he always collected people throughout life. For her, it was special that even in death, he was still collecting people. She was almost glad I got that attached to him.
I’m sure that people have this misconception that embalmers and people who work in the death industry are creepy and cold. But from your blog and speaking to you on the phone, I can tell you’re a warm person. Are people surprised when you tell them you’re an embalmer?
A little bit. I mean, I have a purple Mohawk. And I love it! At the small funeral home I work for, the man I work for is Mormon, and he’s so nice and great. We’ve gotten to know each other. He thinks my purple hair is beautiful. I never would have thought. I know the hair can be a little out there. But the families, they're in good hands if they do stick with me.
Most people when they initially find out, just start in on the questions. Common reactions are, “ It’s scary. Aren’t you afraid that there is a dead body in the back?” I’m like, “No. It would be scary if something sat up under that sheet.” I haven’t run across anyone repulsed by what I do. I do get a lot of people that say, “I’m glad you want to do that because I don’t think there are many people that would want to do that.”