Looking good for the final journey

Kaka with her cosmetics and tools.

KUCHING: For most ordinary people, just the thought of applying makeup on a corpse would give them the chills. Yet, as grim as it may be, someone has to do it to make sure that the deceased look dewy and as natural as possible. The objective: make the body (at least the face and hands) look as if the person is only sleeping.

The job of a desairologist (sometimes also called mortician, cosmetologist, embalmer, funeral director or plain makeup artist) is highly respected in many cultures.

Desairology is a spin-off or product of the practice of viewing deceased persons in their open caskets before burial. Most desairologists are men, especially in Asia where lots of taboos associated with death, the grimy work of handling dead people and funerals keep women away from the job despite the attractive pay.

In addition to the countless taboos (which have been around for as long as humans have existed), the most pervasive factor that causes most people to shy away from touching a dead person is plain old squeamishness. A person with this affliction might even throw up if forced to touch a dead body, even if it is that of his/her close family member.

There are exceptions, of course, and 26-year-old Kaka Tay Siaw Fang is one of them. This exceptional Kuching lady studied in Taiwan and, unknown to her parents, completed her ITEC course.

ITEC stands for International Therapy Examination Council (established in 1947), which is an English-based therapy examination body registered with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). Their qualifications are recognised internationally.

Fast forward to this year (2021), she is now working for a funeral service provider, Nirvana Memorial Park in Kuching. She began working as a desairologist at the age of 21 — the only female in the company tasked with styling the hair of the deceased and applying their makeup.

Since the passing of her dear grandfather when she was in Primary Five, Kaka always has questions in her mind concerning life and death.

“At first I didn’t know that my kind of job existed. It was after I completed my Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) from Chung Hua Middle School No. 1 that I looked for courses to pursue and found that a university in Taiwan offered courses not only on makeup for the living but also for the deceased.

“I studied at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan for nearly three years. One day when planning to go home I told my parents that I wanted to work in the funeral industry. My father was so furious. They tried to convince me to return home although I was still doing my internship there,” she giggled.

Thankfully, her parents slowly accepted her career choice. They figured that the important thing was for Kaka to love her job.

After graduation, she was excited when she got accepted to work for Nirvana, and she has no regrets ever since.

Recalling the first time she handled a dead body during her internship, she said she was not afraid at all. Rather, she was more worried about not being able to do the makeup well.

“What I love most about the job as a funeral cosmetologist is that I am able to make the deceased look beautiful or handsome before burial or cremation. I find this a most meaningful part of the job,” she said.

According to her, the difference between putting makeup on the living and the dead is that when there is a minor injury on the deceased’s face, she would use scar wax to patch up it up before applying the makeup. The whole process typically takes one to two hours to complete.

“The makeup and tools that I use are mostly the same as those used by regular makeup artists. The only thing different, I think, is the implements are cleaned before and after use,” she explained, adding that she also needs to put on a protective suit before doing her work.

The toughest part of the job, Kaka said, is seeing family members grieving over the death of their loved ones.

“I also find it very challenging when I put makeup on someone who was my family member,” she said.

She recalled a time while she was in Taiwan, a call came from her parents informing her about her grandmother’s passing.

“I told my parents to wait for me to arrive as I wanted to do the makeup, which I did, although my hands shook as I tried not to cry.

“A few years later, I also did my uncle’s makeup. The feeling or experience of applying makeup on someone you know or don’t know is different,” she said.

On whether or not she ever encountered anything unusual while on the job, she said so far nothing untoward or scary has happened.

“I think putting makeup on the living is much more intimidating. In some ways, I feel it easier to sort of ‘communicate’ with the departed than with the living,” she said with a smile, but declined to be more specific.

Her unusual job requires that she be on call 24-hours a day. Whenever she has a case, she just takes it up; go to the deceased’s house or a funeral parlour and do the makeup to the best of her ability.

“I have received calls at 12am, 2am, 4am and 5am. Those are not normal hours for regular people so I often worked alone. When on the road in the wee hours I am always alert. You know, there are bad people around who are more dangerous than ghosts and spirits,” she said.

Soon after a person has been pronounced and certified dead, the body is embalmed and cleaned. There are certain government rules and regulations governing this. In Kuching, for example, the job is often done by the staff members of a mortuary.

A funeral service provider (usually pre-arranged or pre-selected) takes over after that. Among the things they perform in addition to fulfilling everything stated in their contract is to bathe the deceased’s body and put on the clothes, the type of which depends on his or her preference, culture and/or religion.

Makeup is applied meticulously, and when everything has been done to satisfaction, the deceased is taken to either the family house or funeral parlour for the wake. In the case of Islamic funerals, the funerals take place as quickly as possible after death.

Overall, it takes about half to almost one hour to fully complete the process. The more-or-less factors depend on the body’s condition.

Each time after a funeral service, Kaka goes through the ‘mandi bunga’ (floral bath) ritual. Floral baths are practised nowadays by many Asians (perhaps by other cultures as well) to cleanse the body and soul. The actual ritual varies from place to place and from culture to culture. For the Chinese, it is believed that one should put flowers in one’s bath water after attending a funeral to dispel negative energy.

To women who want to work in the funeral industry, Kaka tells them to do whatever it takes to achieve their objectives or dreams.

“If it’s what you want, just go for it,” she said.

She is willing to share her skills and knowledge with local people who want to learn the trade. She also hoped that after the Covid-19 pandemic is over, she could take up more courses outside the country to upgrade her skills.

Kaka has two close colleagues — Ashley Luui Sigat Stephen and Chai Siang Kui.

Ashley, who now has a seven-month-old child, said he used to work for a printing company as he has a Diploma in Graphic Design. Although his family and friends were rather doubtful about his choice when he wanted to work for Nirvana, he stuck to his decision.

“I saw the job vacancy in a newspaper and didn’t hesitate to apply for it,” he said.

“I really love my job because it feels like working for an event company. The difference is that we prepare dead bodies and ensure that the funerals run smoothly.”

To him the dead are like VIPs (very important people) who are treated with care and respect. 

“I remember my first day on the job. I was a bit confused at first. You know, people have different cultures and religions. Take Buddhists, for example; they have certain rituals that must be adhered to and respected. I had to learn them and various other Chinese funeral rituals,” he said.

He understands people’s fear of death and dead bodies, but at the same time finds it rather amusing.

“They think it is frightening, but the scary stuffs are mostly in movies where ghosts are portrayed as evil and look hideous,” he laughed.

As for Chai, who has a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering, his parents and friends were supportive when he applied for the job. After all, was already working part-time with Nirvana while he was still in school.

The father of one does not find his job stressful. He is always ready to go at any moment. Even when he is off duty, he is on call.

“Death happens at any time; it does not have a set time. I remember one time while I was taking my wife and children out, I was told to pick up a body at a hospital morgue immediately,” said.

Having been in the industry for a while now, he is philosophical about death. One day everybody has to face it, he said.

On quiet days with no funerals to work on, Kaka can be found assisting her colleagues in the company’s tombstone department, while Ashley and Chai would check on funeral supplies, clean their funeral parlour, do paperwork, and help prospective clients choose photos for themselves or their family members.

Many people consider handling dead bodies a morbid job, but for some like Kaka, Ashley, and Chai, they find purpose in their lives by making the final journeys of the deceased as dignified as possible.

It may not bring them joy (as that would be weird), but it tends to give them satisfaction and peace derived from the acts of assisting grieving families who lost their loved ones. Most importantly, they help give the deceased a beautiful final send-off.