Not Everyone is Suntan

Jul 11, 2022 | Resources for Funeral Homes

By Tim Collison, CFSP
Copyright: The Dodge Company
Reprinted with permission from the Dodge Magazine

One of the basic truths of human existence is that we are all creatures of habit. We develop patterns in almost everything we do, and the longer we continue these patterns, the more difficult it is to change them. How many times have you heard the phrase, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”? This would seem to be a completely logical statement. If something is working right, why would you want to disrupt the pattern? What this statement overlooks, however, is that until we have tried all the variations possible, we may be overlooking a better alternative.

I know that as I talk with funeral directors from various states and countries, I often hear comments about how they do things compared to how others, myself included, do things. We all want to believe our methods are the best, but this reminds me of another old saw: Practice makes perfect only if you practice perfectly.

Our tendency to form patterns insinuates itself into our work constantly. The hands of the deceased only look correct if they are just so. The flowers are not arranged properly unless the baskets are on the floor and the cut flowers are on the stands. When we begin embalming, we must use 27½ lbs. of pressure at 16 oz. per minute rate of flow. And this goes on ad infinitum. The last example I will use will be the focus of this article: We only use French Rose Tint Light on women and Softouch Suntan on men…That is the way Grandpa did it, and that is the way we are going to do it.

I have related to many funeral directors over the years the fact that one funeral home I was familiar with had only one lip cosmetic to use. One of the owners had a nephew who was employed by a commercial cosmetic manufacturer. As a result of this, free samples frequently made their way into the funeral home.  At some point, the cosmetic manufacturer decided to discontinue one of their lipstick colors, and several boxes of this product found their way into the funeral home. While this color was appropriate for some female cases, Sweet Rose was not quite right for most of the male subjects. Luckily, the cosmetologists were clever enough to blend some other cosmetics into the Sweet Rose so that they could produce an acceptable color. They never did purchase an actual mortuary lip cosmetic, and they never told the owner about the blending that they were doing. Everyone was happy.

This is a minor example. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find funeral homes where the same shades of cosmetics are used all the time, no matter what the natural complexion of the deceased may be. The result is that all bodies emerging from a particular prep room have the same coloration. I imagine the cosmetologist thinking to him or herself, “What shade should I use today…suntan or suntan?”

The problem is compounded when the routinely used cosmetic is opaque, no matter whether cream or liquid. Perhaps the most basic tenet of good mortuary cosmetology is the principle of using as little cosmetic as possible in order to achieve a natural appearance. An opaque cosmetic has properties which will always result in at least a slightly artificial appearance on the complexion of the deceased. Natural variations in pigmentation, natural facial markings, and the very appearance of the skin will be changed as pores are filled with the cosmetic oils and pigments. If a natural appearance is desired, the cosmetologist will then have to apply appropriate shading and highlighting cosmetics, and he or she will have to labor to restore the porous appearance of the skin’s surface. Using an opaque where it is not absolutely required is counterproductive with regard to both working efficiency and in terms of producing the best looking remains possible.

For a long time, people have argued that using a heavier, opaque cosmetic will mean a greatly reduced chance that cosmetics will have to be adjusted or “touched up” during the period when the body is lying in state. This idea is often advanced when the preparation of the deceased is being done by a trade embalmer. In many areas, the trade embalmer will embalm, dress, cosmetize, and casket the deceased – although the visitation and funeral service responsibilities will be performed by other funeral home personnel. Under these circumstances, it makes sense that people are concerned that no technical problems arise after the trade embalmer has left. However, it has been my experience that frequent cosmetic adjustment tends to be caused by embalming problems, rather than by the kind of cosmetic which has been used. Whatever the case, relying on heavy cosmetic treatment to minimize problems shortchanges the family. They deserve the opportunity to view their loved one looking as natural as possible.

Even for those who do not always reach for an opaque, the tendency to always reach for the same shade of cosmetic is not uncommon. Unless we see something unusual or a problem, we tend to follow the same routine that we used for the last application and the one before that and so on. In doing so, we overlook the significant differences in complexion color from one person to another. The amount of melanin (brown pigmentation) in an individual’s skin color is a primary determinant of their complexion. If we think about it at all, we know there is a high degree of variation in complexion color from the very lightest to the very darkest complexions. All these minor variations require us as cosmeticians to be observant and to attempt to duplicate the appearance that the deceased had in life. A family will generally notice if the deceased is too red, too pink, or too dark. It is maddening to the technician and harmful to funeral service overall if a family is not pleased but doesn’t relate that to the funeral director. But it happens, as you know. Many families just mentally file it away when they have viewed another body that did not look right.

A good practice to put into effect at your funeral home is to have someone other than the cosmetologist assess the body before and after the cosmetics have been applied. They should also have a look at the photograph which the family has hopefully supplied. I have noticed that I personally can become too focused on a particular nuance, and completely overlook an area which obviously needs attention. It will also pay dividends if you ask a family member for their opinion on the appearance of the deceased prior to the open, public visitation. This not only shows your concern that the family is pleased, but also your willingness to change things to meet with their approval.

Over the past several years, there has been a gradual increase in the use of high cosmetic arterial chemicals. These products have a higher amount of dye than others which are available, and they produce a much more intense tissue tinting effect. The use of dyes in arterial chemicals originally was intended to counteract the graying action of formaldehyde. The original tinted arterial chemicals would impart a light tinting effect, which made for an acceptable base for cosmetic treatment.

As embalming chemicals were improved, it became possible to use more dye in arterials without the blotching problem that could have occurred with more primitive formulations. Embalmers began using this additional dye to “cosmetize from within” rather than having to apply as much cosmetic after embalming. We now find ourselves at the point where many arterial chemicals are chosen primarily because of the cosmetic effect they impart, rather than for their qualities of preservation and penetration.

Because of this, we should again remind ourselves that all remains do not have the same complexion color. For example, if a blond male with a light complexion and a dark female are both embalmed with the same arterial chemical containing an intense pink/tan dye, will either one exhibit natural complexion tones without additional cosmetics being applied? Probably not.

The fair skinned deceased person will probably exhibit a complexion which is too intense in color, while the darker skinned deceased will probably appear too dark. We need to keep in mind that the pigment which we have added by using the cosmetic arterial cannot be controlled once the embalming is finished. If there is any question about whether an arterial might have too much dye for a particular subject, it is probably prudent to select some other arterial with less dye, and then control the appearance of the deceased with external cosmetics.

Another complication which can arise when using high intensity dyes is the color imbalance they sometimes cause under certain types of lighting. I was recently in a chapel which was being refurbished with new carpeting, wall coverings, and lighting. The carpet was mauve and the drape behind the area where caskets were placed was pink. The owner and I were discussing new light fixtures which had been installed for illuminating the deceased. He was asking about pink bulbs which could be used in the “eyeball” spots he had chosen. This man does his own embalming and uses a considerable amount of dye in addition to Plasdopake. I suggested to him that he consider a white or blue-white bulb. Since the background colors would reflect onto the body, I thought it likely that pink illumination from overhead would just create a situation in which the body itself would appear far too pink. I could envision an elderly gentleman lying in state, seeming to have the complexion of a one-year-old infant. While “cosmetizing from within” is an excellent strategy, the complexion color must be appropriate for age and complexion type.

One of the positive aspects of cosmetizing through arterial injection is that it can allow the cosmetologist to use translucent cosmetics effectively. Liquid tints such as French Rose Tint, Complexion Spray, and Softouch will produce nice results when the appropriate shades are used. Translucent creams such as Kalon Cream and Aquachrome will also provide excellent results and are adaptable to various lighting configurations. Being able to use translucent cosmetics means you can maintain a more natural appearance of the skin, since pores will not be covered over and natural facial markings such as freckles and moles won’t be concealed.

Successful mortuary cosmetology relies on the technician considering each body separately, rather than as one in a series. When cosmetic application becomes rote, the danger is that bodies will begin to lose their important individuality. Natural complexion color and facial markings determine how recognizable they are.  The next time you finish preparing a body for viewing, take a step back from the work you have done and ask yourself this: does the deceased look OK, or do they look like they should?

Explore More

Recent Posts

Facing the Future Together: Tips for End-of-Life Planning Talks

Navigating the conversation about end-of-life arrangements requires delicacy, understanding, and a professional approach. As a funeral industry professional, your role in facilitating these discussions is crucial. This guide, courtesy of the Arkansas Funeral Directors...

What Small Businesses Should Watch Out For with AI

Artificial intelligence can be a valuable tool in your toolbox for business needs. However, businesses using or contemplating the use of AI should be mindful of its risks and limitations. This technology is still in its early stages of use and development. Before...

Addiction Treatment Help

Addiction Help is the only addiction and mental health website founded by a board-certified addiction specialist, a long-time recovering addict, and the spouse of an addict. They provide reliable information about addiction and recovery to guide addicts and their...