A WOMAN IN her nineties lies dead in a casket in the embalming room at Albin Chapel funeral home. She arrived yesterday in the gleaming black hearse that's now parked in a garage out back. Her family has planned an open-casket funeral, so Jim Albinson, one of 11 morticians at Albin Chapel, has been making all the necessary preparations. The woman has been embalmed. Her angel-white hair has been carefully washed and coiffed in a style similar to the way she did it herself. She's wearing a satiny blue frock with lace at the neck and cuffs.
Albinson is standing next to a snarl of steel pipes, black hoses, and an embalming table, preparing for the final touch, the make-up. His kit looks like a plastic tackle box. It's full of paint brushes and small cylinders of special cosmetics intended to counteract the skin's dehydration that begins at death. Now 40, Albinson was a latecomer to mortuary science 11 years ago, and more than a decade after graduating in economics. He's always had a taste for color and texture, though; while in college, he took up landscape painting to stave off the boredom of numbers.
It was inevitable he'd end up at Albin Chapel. His grandfather, father, and his two uncles are all morticians. He and his brother represent the fourth generation in the family-owned business, a lineage that began with his great-grandfather Oscar, a woodworker from Sweden. In the 1880s, when furniture stores sold caskets and funeral directors did little more than provide a hearse, an ice bed, black bunting, and white gloves for the pallbearers, Oscar went to work for a couple of morticians who sent him to the University of Minnesota for what was then a six-week embalming course. They eventually sold him the business.
Back then, American culture was more homogenized; the rites around death were consistent and predictable. Open caskets are more important now then ever, reasons Albinson. "A hundred years ago when my great-grandfather was in the business, people died in multigenerational homes. Today most people die in health care facilities. Families are cut out of the dying process because they are out of town or, for other reasons, can't be part of it." Sometimes they have issues that still need working out, he adds: "Funerals bring people together. It doesn't mean they stay together, but it's an excuse to be a family. And I mean family in the broad sense it takes in our culture today. The cosmetic work we do has to support that bigger vision."
Albinson's sturdy hand holds an artist's paint brush. The high-quality brush allows him better control over the application of color. Though color theory informs his approach, his cosmetic work is nothing like applying paint to canvas. The woman's bloodless white skin has a translucent sheen from a layer of cold cream. The embalming fluid they used looks like Pepto Bismol; it's the pink dye in it that rids the body of the gray look of death. "So the cosmetic work," Albinson says, "starts from the inside."
With short, quick strokes he lightly applies a cream color to her wrists and hands, then to her face. The oil base of this cosmetic protects the skin. At first it looks blotchy, like foundation poorly applied. But the process goes along in stages, Albinson explains, creating a variety of tones that provide texture and contour. "We're not pretending there's not been a separation of body and spirit," he says. "The goal is not the illusion of life and health, but to provide recognition and respect. It's important for people to look like themselves."
He works back and forth, face to hands, giving the cosmetic time to dry. Her wrists lay one over the other. With a dab of the brush her hands move stiffly, like bare tree branches knocking in a cold wind. He gives extra application to an area of skin discolored by an intravenous needle in the days before her death. The second cosmetic is water-based. Its translucence allows a variation in tones to show through. As he applies it, a subtle change occurs in her skin. Its cool whiteness has been transformed. Living color seems to rise to the surface in much the same way it seeps into an embarrassed face. Yet there's no mistake, she won't be rising to go anywhere soon.
The mouth is a crucial area. With the eyes closed it's the only conveyor of expression. Generally speaking, the upper lip extends beyond the lower lip and the corners of the mouth line up with the middle of the eye. "But we're not working with ideals," Albinson says. "We've got to work with what we've got."
In old age the mouth becomes wider. Plus the round muscle around the mouth relaxes at death, causing the corners to droop. A special adhesive holds the lips together. "People think you can make a person smile, but I don't know how to do that," Albinson says in a flat tone suggesting that he wouldn't want to. "But I can soften the line of closure." He begins by pressing a wax-like colorless material in the palm of his hand. Applying a small amount with a tiny brush, he adds it to the extended corner of the mouth and, just as quickly, scrapes some off, judging where the corners should end as he goes. The right corner of her mouth presents a problem. A fold in the skin has created a deep contour. "I could build it up," he says thinking out loud, his voice hushed. "But to do it in a way that has texture and contour is tricky. I don't want to use a lump of material. If you can see it, I haven't done my job right."