Monday, October 24, 2011

Daniella Marcantoni, Mortician, Chino Hills, California

“In college I was like, Med school or mortuary school?” says licensed funeral director and embalmer Daniella Marcantoni. With her background as a freelance makeup artist who worked weddings and school dances to pick up cash in high school and college, it’s no wonder she chose the latter. She’s worked in the funeral industry for six years and was recently promoted within Rose Hills, the largest mortuary and cemetery combination in the world, to hospitality service supervisor. In her current role, she oversees the visitation area, and while she appreciates the experience of learning to serve grieving families, her deeper passion remains in working with the deceased. “You’re helping someone who can’t help themselves,” she says. “And embalming is very quiet, and I can be very introverted, so I found embalming therapeutic.” She’s also a spokeswoman with Funeral Divas, a social group for women in the funeral industry. We talked about postmortem makeup techniques, the silent clues we leave behind about our attitude toward cosmetics, and the responsibility the caretakers of the dead take on to make each of us look our best at the very end. In her own words: 

On Postmortem Makeup 
You start decomposing immediately, so the skin on an unembalmed body is very soft. It can be a little difficult to cosmetize. Although embalming is not required by law, the law does allow mortuaries to require embalming for a public visitation, as a health precaution. From a cosmetizing aspect we’d prefer that the person is embalmed because it just looks better. Whenever I’m done embalming I put massage cream on—my personal favorite is this stuff called Kalon, which is like a white massage cream, and I like to mix in a formula called Restoratone. It’s a liquid that kind of looks like pink slime, and you mix it with Kalon to prevent the skin from dehydrating overnight. Some embalming fluids can dry out the tissues, so the Kalon is just another way to keep the appearance as natural as possible. When you take it off the next day, the skin won’t be all dehydrated and hard; it’s kind of natural-looking. 

I don’t like to use a lot of makeup. We have this thing called Glow Tint, which kind of looks like dark orange juice, and it’s a liquidy tint you can brush on the face. I’d always use that as my base. And from there you can use any kind of makeup. Cadaver makeup is very thick; it’s comparable to theater makeup. Some people’s skin can be very ashy, or maybe they have wounds or bruises—obviously the cases that need restorative work are going to require lengthier and more intricate processing to conceal, and that requires thicker makeup. So in those cases cadaver makeup is very effective, but in general I don’t like it. I like to dilute it with either a massage cream or what we call a dry wash, which is like a dry shampoo, and it kind of breaks down the molecules of the makeup and makes it a little bit smoother. So I’d do the Glow Tint first and then put the makeup on. Some embalmers want to use wax all over the mouth, because if the mouth is really dehydrated and you can’t fix it with a humectant or a massage cream, the lip wax helps smooth the pockets that are created when you glue the mouth shut. So in some cases the lip wax is wonderful, but I usually don’t like to use it because it takes away the natural lines of the lips and makes their lips look really smooth. But everyone is different. Embalmers tend to have egos; they all think that their way is the best way.

On “Natural Appearance” 
Rouge, mascara, and lipstick is pretty much my cocktail for every person, unless the family has specific requests. Like, “Well, Grandma wore red lipstick every day and she always wore cat-eye eyeliner,” or “You know, my mother always wore blue eyeshadow.” I love to get requests for families because I want to do what they want. We take as much direction as possible. A lot of times people will bring in pictures, and sometimes they’re pictures from the ’60s and I’m like...Okay, what am I supposed to do? I can only do so much! But sometimes people won’t bring in pictures, so we just sort of go for what, in mortuary school, we called a “natural appearance.” We try not to say the word sleeping, because they’re not sleeping—they’re dead. But you sort of want to make it look like they are sleeping. They’re in eternal rest. 

It can be difficult sometimes. If you have an elderly lady who fell, you have to work very hard at covering the bruises on her face, but maybe Grandma never wore makeup. So it’s kind of a struggle between what the family wants and trying to make the person look good so the family doesn’t freak out when they see them in the casket for the first time. I personally have never had any complaints from families, but I have a lot of experience doing makeup as a freelance artist, and doing weddings gave me an opportunity to work with different ages. So in terms of age, I know the clues that tell me what the person might have done on their own. I mean, I had an older woman come in with short hair and no ear piercings and her nails were short with no polish, and I knew that person probably didn’t wear a lot of makeup. But if I see a woman the same age come in with a perm and ear piercings and acrylic nails, I could tell that she probably wore makeup. 

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I do kind of pick up on what a person might have been like, what they might have wanted. I’m one of those people who’s overly aware of everything, and I pick up on people’s energies just from walking into the room. Maybe it’s a gift or something, I don’t know. But the biggest thing is that you have to communicate. You have to trust that the funeral arranger will be realistic with the family and not promise them the stars and the moon. The arrangers have never been back there embalming. Some are very realistic and are like, Well, we don’t know exactly what we can do. So every case is completely different—sometimes the person looks amazing and the family gets mad! And sometimes you don’t think the person looks that great and you’re upset because you’ve been working so hard on the person and aren’t happy with it, and the family is like, Oh my God, thank you so much, my mom looks amazing. In some mortuaries you do everything: You’re the arranger with the families, you’re the embalmer, you do the makeup. In those cases you have so much more of an advantage, because you’re connecting with that family and getting information directly from them. And then you can just go straight to the loved one and work your magic. 

The males are usually really easy because they don’t wear makeup. So with males I kind of did the same thing—the Glow Tint—and a lot of times they wouldn’t need makeup. It’s interesting to see racial differences too. In my experience, Asian cases tend to have very smooth, wrinkle-free skin, and their skin tone is beautiful. And I rarely have to put anything on African American skin. There’s a richness there; I don’t know how to explain it. But I usually only need to put massage cream on their face, and the next morning I would take it off and it would just be beautiful. There were only a couple of times that I had to put on makeup, because they had a wound on their face. I think it’s because darker skin doesn’t show the postmortem stain or the gray tone that can happen after embalming, which someone with a lighter complexion would show. 

On Life Outside the Embalming Room 
I’ve always been pretty well-kept—I’m not super high-maintenance, but I’m particular about my appearance. None of my friends would say that I’m sloppy. I heard this quote once: Dress every day like you’re going to run into your worst enemy. You never know who you’re going to run into, so I always make sure I look presentable. I groom myself, I get my eyebrows waxed, and I try to make sure everything’s ironed. I don’t really think my work has changed my views on my appearance. If anything it’s like: If I died today and they picked me up, they’d be like, Man, she didn’t shave her legs! You think of silly things like that. 

I always look at people and am like, I wonder how they’ll embalm. I pay attention to people’s features because when you’re embalming you’re paying constant attention to features. Features don’t necessarily change postmortem, but sometimes if the person passed away in an awkward position, the features can be compromised or not in their natural form, and you’ll have to reset them and make sure everything looks natural. The face is aesthetically the most important part of the body. So being a makeup artist gives me an advantage because I’m used to studying faces. 

On Helping Those Who Can’t Help Themselves
In 2007 I lost my aunt to breast cancer. My aunt and I were extremely close—she’s like my mom. She was the most gorgeous woman ever, and at her funeral I was really disappointed. It looked as though they didn’t put any effort or anything into her makeup. There was no personal innovation or care. And I was like, I know I’m in the right industry now. Because I don’t want someone to sit there and stare at the casket and see the most important person in their life, and see what I’m seeing and feel what I’m feeling right now. When you have a more personal connection to your motivation, it really shows in your work. I’m being fairly compensated, but when I was doing freelance makeup work it was like, Cool, this is great, give me money! I liked educating people with makeup, but I feel like this is doing more. It’s more selfless doing this sort of preparation. A girl going to senior prom can do her own makeup. But a grandma who passed away from cancer who couldn’t help herself for six months—her hair has grown out, her eyebrows are grown out, her moustache is showing. I feel like it’s my responsibility to really make her look her best, so when her family sees her they’ll be like, Oh, I’m so glad my mom doesn’t look like she’s had cancer for the past six months. I think that’s the kind of goal to have.

When you’re doing the preparation—doing the calls, going and seeing where the decedent is at—you see how they’re treated. There are some families who will be with their mother until her dying day, and those bodies tend to be in amazing shape, and it just touches you. And I know families can’t always physically take care of their loved ones, but I’ve seen terrible things from some convalescent homes, seeing how their bodies are when they come here. There’s cysts because they haven’t been washed in months, just getting sponge baths. When you see abuse or neglect, you take even more personal responsibility to really just take care of that person. Because it’s like, Well, no one else cared for them for the past year. They’re going to be in my care for four hoursI might as well do the best that I can with the limits I have and the amount of time that I’ve been given with them. Once they’re dead they can’t do anything. You’re helping someone who can’t help themselves.


For more beauty interviews from The Beheld, click here.


  1. I never would have said an interview with a funeral director/embalmer would interest me, but this was great reading. Would definitely be interested in more interviews with people involved in the more 'offbeat' (for want of a better word) areas of the beauty industry...

  2. I am speechless in the best possible way.

  3. Amazing. This is one of the best blog interviews I've ever read. I love it--such an interesting take on life, death and beauty.

  4. WOW!!! So proud of you!!!! We are lucky to have you...When it's my promised you'd take care of me!! :-) Make-up, hair, nails,pedi! :-) I love you and am so proud of you! I just read your article my! Great job!


  5. KiwiBex, thank you! That's exactly what I'm aiming for--voices on beauty from people we wouldn't normally think to ask about it. (I mean, I love talking to the usual suspects too, but these certainly get me excited.)

    Rebekah and Courtney, allow Daniella to take a virtual bow--

    Connie, thank you for reading! I imagine being "taken care of" by Daniella would be a comfort indeed.

  6. This is really interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Wow, this is so touching and sweet. I never thought I'd say those words in reference to the mortuary arts. I've always been one of those "just cremate me and be done with it" people, but reading this has helped me to understand why others might not choose to go that way, and why the work Daniella does is so important. Thanks for sharing this with us, Autumn!

  8. I didn't expect this to be so touching - it made me think about my grandmother, who is currently recovering from cancer, and how no matter how sick she was she always put in the effort to look her best. Very well and sensitively written. I really enjoy hearing from people who have a different perspective on beauty, and Daniella sounds like an exceptional person.

  9. Her grammar is horrible

  10. Re: Grammar - you know what - there`s one in every crowd and you`re it. Your grammar may be impeccable but I`m sure you are not nearly so sweet, caring or kind as missed the point of this wonderful article.

  11. Caitlin, that's what it did for me as well. I hadn't thought about the care aspect of it, but really that's what the funeral industry is at its best.

    Anonymous 10:04 a.m., that's another wonderful angle--the care that people do give themselves when they're ill. It stands to reason that people who give themselves that sort of care during hard times would want to be in the hands of a skilled professional such as Daniella.

    Anonymous 2:21 p.m., you may not realize this, but I am a professional grammarian, and was copy chief at a magazine put out by the largest publishing corporation in the world. I don't make my subjects' grammar letter-perfect (nobody speaks in a grammatically or syntactically consistent way, so to do so would be unnatural, and shoddy journalism to boot), but I wouldn't publish anything that had poor grammar. Daniella's grammar is totally fine. Certainly better than your punctuation!

    Helen, I'm so glad you enjoyed the article! Thank you for reading The Beheld.

  12. Love this, Autumn. It's completely fascinating.

  13. LOL! I do believe that is the *first* time someone has said my grammar was "horrible."

    Dear Anonymous,

    In case it was not clear, this was done from a phone interview. Have you ever read an interview in a magazine? It is done the same way. Trust me, I am THE biggest grammar nazi, and my friends tease me about it. I promise you, my grammar is fine, and so is the grammar of Autumn.



    Autumn, thank you so very much for allowing me to participate in this! I had a blast talking about this topic with you, and LOVE seeing all the positive feedback from everyone. I also found myself reading back on your other blogs, pretty interesting reads; although I could NEVER go without washing my hair, lol.

    Have a great week! <3

  14. I enjoyed reading this interview too. I was really moved by the care Daniella gives to the ones who might not have been able to take care of themselves.

    But there is a question I felt was missing here. What about the pollution? And the health aspect for funeral workers? I recently saw a TED talk about an alternative to the funeral practices in the US. I find it kind of scary that people put so much significance into how the dead looks. I mean, it doesn't make any difference for them, it's the living who cares about it. And since it's the living that are left with a planet that is more and more polluted, I think we should do whatever we can to make funeral more green. Rinse the smoke and ashes from cremations better, for example.

    I really don't mean this as a personal attack on Daniella Marcantoni, I'm sure you do a great job, that helps mourners cope. I still feel that it's an issue worth thinking about. We accumulate toxins in our bodies throughout or lives, and when we're buried or cremated, those toxins are released into the air or earth. If I can somehow break even, I will try to, when it's my turn.

  15. Rachel, thank you!

    Daniella, I'm thrilled with the attention this piece has received! And if the worst thing someone has to say is a fallacious claim about your grammar (?!), I call this a win.

    Martha Joy, I'm glad you enjoyed the interview--and I'm glad to see that this interview can open up other alternate ways of looking at the funeral industry, even though my intent here was specific to beauty. Personally, when I go, I'd like to "go green" as well--freeze-dry me and plant a tree or something, I dunno! But it's a worthy question. Daniella and I talked a bit about safety practices; I think like any other industry it's something that workers try to do their best in balancing their health needs with the practical needs of the industry. (I'm now wondering if there are nontoxic embalming alternatives...) I do think, though, that families have different needs. I can't imagine feeling the need to see my loved ones "one last time"--but I know it can provide a true sense of connection or solace for many people. I think the answer here is not that people shouldn't put significance into the way the dead appear--certainly ritual care of the dead has a long history, one that Daniella's work is only the latest incarnation of. But I do think that there can be ways to provide families with the solace of a viewing while staying environmentally safe--but truly I'm not qualified to suggest how!

  16. Martha-Joy,

    Thank you for your many questions...during a cremation, it is actually AGAINST the law for there to be smoke; otherwise the fire department shows up and the funeral home gets a hefty fine ;)

    In terms of "green" funerals there are actually some formaldehyde free options, most notably a product called AARDBALM, which hails from the UK. This product is Iodine based, and when I first learned of this product, it was about 4 or so years ago, and I haven't heard any buzz on since then. I personally didn't care for the results, but never had too much experience playing with the product, so today could possibly be a different story.

    The chemical breakdown from a human being after death is a teeny tiny percentage, and I wouldn't even consider it something to fear in terms of leaving a carbon footprint. The greenest option that is available, currently, is to be wrapped in a bio-degradable shroud, and placed in the ground for your body to break down and become one with the earth.

    Being in the industry, I don't question the necessity or the needs of families. I am just here to serve them. The toxins/pollution issue that you are concerned with, really needn't be an issue of concern...there are MUCH more harmful things in this world, I promise you. :)

  17. Daniella, fascinating stuff! I'd heard of the shroud option, which is funny in that it's sort of like an old-school pauper's grave, right? In any case, thank you for educating us on the environmental implications here.

  18. Hm. Thanks for your answers. I forgot to mention in my question; I'm from Norway, and here we don't do the embalming thing at all. The deceased are kept cold at all times. There are still open coffins, but not in the funeral itself, there is something called a showing/viewing some time before the funeral. Just for close family, and someone from the funeral agency, and if the family is religious, a priest. Not everyone has an open coffin either. So, you can probably see, coming from a quite different tradition, why I would question the 'need' for embalming and cadaver makeup.

  19. Martha Joy, that's fascinating! I'd never thought about viewing traditions in other countries.

  20. What a wonderful person. Very touching at the end.

  21. Hi Daniella, I loved your interview! Have you ever applied acrylic nails to the deceased? I've heard that they don't cure, due to the cold body temperature. Please help! I want to apply them to my best friend tomorrow. Thank you.

  22. I wish this lady had prepared my adopted mothers remains because the mortician who did did a horrible makeup job. You see my adopted mother was a very light skinned woman who passed away at 94 she didnt have any facial bruising and she died of natural causes. It was almost as if because she was going to be cremated after services that the mortician did not care enouh to make her look good or even presentable. the makeup he used made her look like an extremely dark skinned person so dark in fact that you couldnt even see her eye lashes and they didnt even bother to bursh or style her wig it was just haphazzardly placed on her head and when i saw the photo after her preperation for services i was horrified at the poor job that was done and my family will never ever use his services again.

  23. My mother passed away on November 26, 2013, I am thankful for the services provided by the embalmer. My mother looked beautiful and at peace. I am greatful for the care and thoughtful of funeral industry workers that have high ethical standards and desire the best for the families they serve. For me, the thought of having to view her body was the hardest thing that I have had to face in my life. After the initial shock, my fear subsided and I was more at peace after I viewed her all made up like she was in life. I took final pictures of her and they have conforted me during these past few weeks.