Inglewood, CA — Angel McNeal, a preparation stylist at Inglewood Cemetery Mortuary, says she harbors no qualms about grooming the dead.
“People ask me all the time how I can touch a dead body, but it doesn’t bother me at all,” said McNeal, a former hairdresser and licensed vocational nurse who said she applied for the cemetery stylist position on the Craig’s List website.
The transplanted Indianapolis, Indiana native saw there was a real need for stylists to groom the deceased after her grandmother passed away nine years ago. “I was devastated at the funeral because her makeup looked cakey and her hair was not styled in her trademark hairdo,” McNeal recalls. “She did not look like the grandmother I knew.”
The three year employee said she calls on her creative juices to make the deceased look good for their homegoing.
“I style their hair, apply makeup such as lipstick, powder, foundation and eyeliner, and I even dress the body. If I see that a woman enjoyed getting her nails French tipped, I’ll go ahead and French tip her nails,” said McNeal.
After the body is embalmed, McNeal said that the skin of the deceased often turns ashy and assumes a waxy look. “That’s when I try to bring the deceased’s natural color back by blending colors to make a matching shade of skin tone or lipstick shade.” McNeal said that the cemetery invests in top-of-the-line stage cosmetics so that their clients look good during their wake and funeral.
“I try to make the departed look as natural as possible,” said McNeal. “I attempt to make them look like they’re going to a formal affair and then they decided to lie down and close their eyes.” McNeal said that she usually works from a recent photograph supplied by family members to capture the deceased’s individual style. “I want the deceased to look like they went to the beauty shop and got pampered.”
After she is finished styling the deceased, McNeal said she must then receive approval from family members.
Parting with the deceased is never easy, and McNeal said that many family members arrive with tears in their eyes to view the body. Many leave cherished items in the casket. “They’ll bring teddy bears, pillows, special birthday gifts that the grandchild or great-grandchild made for the deceased. Sometimes they’ll place family portraits or written notes.”
And, of course, there are the more unusual requests–family members may place the deceased’s favorite brew or trusty fishing pole in the casket to accompany the loved one into the hereafter.
With death an inevitable part of life, McNeal said that she has styled every age, from newborn babies to seniors, for viewing. “The most difficult cases are the babies,” she reflected. “The youngest baby I worked on was six months in uteri and the oldest person was 107.”
McNeal said she is often surprised by the comments she receives from people who discover her profession. “People have asked me, ‘Do the bodies move when you’re in the mortuary alone?’ or they’ll ask, ‘Don’t you see spirits?’”
The stylist, who said she styles about 100 bodies a month, said that it is especially challenging when she must prepare murder and accident victims.
“We get maybe 50 gunshot victims a year, and most of them are young males from 18 to 20 years old,” said McNeal.
But McNeal said that the majority of African Americans’ deaths are caused by preventable diseases. “A lot of African Americans are dying from diabetes and complications from diabetes such as kidney failure and gangrene,” she acknowledged. “Then you have Black folks who are dying from all forms of cancer-cervical, uterus, breast, lymph nodes, lung, brain, liver and esophageal.”
The stylist said that she is surprised that death remains a taboo subject in the African American community. She feels that open dialogue about the subject would dispel numerous myths and misconceptions. “We don’t talk about death when a family member is in good health, and we don’t talk about death when they’re sick. It’s like we back off and say, ‘I’m not ready.’”
“The best advice I can give to a person is that death is inevitable, so I tell people (to express) how you feel about them when they’re alive. Because after they die, it’s too late.”