How Was Your Day … Cosmetologist for the Dead? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How Was Your Day … Cosmetologist for the Dead?

How Was Your Day … Cosmetologist for the Dead?

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers. 

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Isaiah Owens 
New York City

My day was good. Every day is a good day when you’re able to move around and be a blessing to people — when you’re not laying up in some bed or some hospital or some mortuary yourself. I woke up at 7 o’clock this morning, did a funeral service at the chapel and saw the people off to the cemetery. My sister is suffering from advanced stage 4 lung cancer, so I picked her up and took her for her radiation treatment. Then I went to pick my daughter up from college.

I’m a restorative artist, a cosmetologist and a funeral director, but I’ve been described a lot of different ways. Some people say I’m a modern Anubis, the god of the dead. But I just describe myself as a person who is faithful to what he’s called to do.

I embalm remains. Like yesterday, I embalmed three bodies. I also did some restoration work on a woman who passed away — did her makeup and adjusted her wig, you know? I’ve arranged funerals since I was 5 years old; unofficially I’ve been in the funeral service for more than 50 years. I attended the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Services in 1969. I have a tool kit that I’ve had all of my career, and I use all kinds of makeup, but I like the finished look of MAC Cosmetics the best. 

I’m pretty much considered an artist, period. I can reproduce people who were 300 pounds while alive — or as little as 50 pounds when they’re dead. For people who lose a tremendous amount of weight, we use what we call “liquid tissue” in their hands and faces, similar to Botox. When there’s trauma with damage to the face, hands or body from something like a car crash, there’s a wax that we use to re-create skin where skin is missing or bashed in. When you lay the body out, you don’t just lay down a lady, you lay down a lady who loves to cook or loves to wear hats and go to church… I care a lot about these people. 

A good photograph of the person is helpful. There are days where I can get six or eight people done — I just go into overdrive. I can’t really stop until I get it perfect: The hair has to be perfect and the clothing has to be perfect. Sometimes I’ll even pick out a brand-new dress for the viewing and funeral service. I don’t charge for the dress, because I’d rather invest the money to make my work look nice. It has to be your signature; it has to have your name written all over it. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry.” So I approach funeral service like Beethoven did music.

If you’re going to work in funeral service, you got to be faithful — not just to the deceased, you have to take care of the living too.

To me, death is a nice good sleep and waking up in another beautiful place with peace, love and joy. In 50 years, I’ve buried a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins and nephews. My favorite brother had a brain hemorrhage and passed away in 2008. I fixed him up and laid him out with his cuff links and shoes. It looked like he was taking this good nap and he was in peace. He looked like the ol’ fella we had a long time ago. He looked healthy again. And my grief was softened.

People have a difficult time trying to deal with death. But at the end of the day, it’s going to happen. What keeps me going is God’s saving grace. I believe in him; I’ll get a reward for taking care of these people who could not take care of themselves.

Fixing people’s broken hearts is something that money can’t buy. This is a calling. And if you’re going to work in funeral service, you got to be faithful — not just to the deceased, you have to take care of the living too. Some people don’t have nobody’s shoulders to cry on. I’ll be the shoulder.

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