When your grandma died, it was somebody's job to prepare her for that open-casket funeral. They painted her, powdered her and gave her one last makeover so she'd look her best for her date with eternity. Carrie Bayer, 36, makes corpses pretty at O'Connor Mortuary in Laguna Hills.
OC Weekly: Is this something you wanted to do, growing up?
Bayer: No, I thought it was a really odd profession. But then a few years ago, I had a bad experience with a relative's funeral. I wasn't impressed with the way it was handled, and I thought, "I could do this better." My husband was really freaked out at first, when I left my job in the merchandise buying office at Disney to go back to school at 33 so I could learn to do this. But I'm so much happier now, and he loves it. I was working at the Happiest Place on Earth and I was miserable, and now I'm working at the saddest place on earth, and I've never been happier. Working with the decedents is really . . .
I'm sorry, the what?
"Decedents." That's what we call the deceased people. I enjoy spending the time with them, and getting to know them in a way. I feel like I'm the last person who will ever take care of them, you know? It's a big responsibility.
What sort of training is involved?
You study anatomy, chemistry, law, pathology, ethics—everything you might encounter in a mortuary. Most of the class drops out after the first month. Makeup is part of the curriculum. You practice on plastic beauty shop heads, or yourselves. That part is really fun! You study color theory, and learn about non-thermogenic makeup . . . .
Thermogenic makeup is makeup for live skin; body heat breaks it down so it applies properly. But on dead skin, it just crumbles or blots. Non-thermogenic is what we use for the decedents; it's specially made.
I'd imagine doing makeup on a dead person, there's a lot of, uh, reconstruction involved.
Oh, yeah. We use plaster of Paris, wire mesh, cardboard . . .
Yeah. If there's been an autopsy, and they removed the trachea, we'll put in a cardboard tube, like a paper towel roll, to reconstruct the trachea and give men back their Adam's apple.
I delivered flowers years ago, and the mortuary visits were really heartbreaking. Does the sadness ever get to you?
It can be hard not to take the sorrow home with you. Sometimes we're dealing with trauma, with suicides, with kids who have died. We had a rash of suicides, three young girls, from 16 to 21, who all hung themselves. There was no connection, but they all died within a month. Suicides are really hard. But I feel like I'm doing something right in this world. We're there to help the families through the grieving process.
Is it ever scary? When you're working on somebody, do you ever feel a "presence"?
Absolutely. I always feel the presence. Hey, it's creepy working late at night, alone, locked in with corpses. A while back I was working late, all alone, and somebody coughed. I just about peed my pants. We have a walk-in refrigerator, and once I heard a thump in there, like somebody was knocking. There have been times when I've wanted to make absolutely sure the decedent was really dead. We have tests for that, like we hold a mirror under their nose to check for breath, or we give them an ammonia test, where we inject it just under the skin, and if it turns red you know the immune system's responding.
Has anybody turned out to be alive?
Not so far.
I've heard trapped air can make corpses sit up, or sigh . . .
They don't sit up. That's an urban myth. But they do make sounds. And they'll void their bowels, or their bladders. They'll throw up.
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Did you ever think, I'm making this corpse looktoo good? That they looked better than they did alive?
Sure. One time, the family thought we put the wrong person in the casket. I think what often happens is they're used to the person being sick all the time—they've stopped wearing makeup and they're in pajamas all day. So seeing them looking nice again can be a shock. We work from photographs, and we talk with the family so we get exactly the right shade of mascara and everything. If they wore a hairpiece, we'll put it on like they would've wanted. But no matter how careful you try to be, they're never going to look quite right. The person just isn't there anymore, you know? It's just their body.
Is there anything you'd like to say to the makeup artist who'll work on you when you pass away?
Give me a nice smile. And lots of mascara. Let my freckles show!