When a person dies, their body starts to lose its lifelike appearance. Whether they passed away peacefully or experienced physical trauma, they just don’t look the same after death. That’s where restorative art comes in.
Restorative art in mortuary science returns a deceased body to the way the person looked in life, as much as possible. If you’ve ever attended an open casket wake or funeral and looked inside, you most likely saw a body that had undergone a restorative process.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What's Restorative Art?
- What Type of Problems Does Restorative Art Fix?
- What Tools or Processes Are Used in Restorative Art?
- Restorative Art Around the World
So what exactly is restorative art, and what does it entail? Below, we’ll go over everything there is to know about the practice of restorative art, how it started, what its purpose is, and how the process takes place today.
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What’s Restorative Art?
Restorative art is the process of restoring a body to a more lifelike appearance. It can be as simple as bathing, dressing, and styling the body’s hair and makeup, or it can be as complex as re-molding facial features.
Restorative art takes place in a mortuary, and it’s usually performed by a mortician. Some large mortuaries have a separate stylist, known as a desairologist, on staff to work with hair, nails, and makeup.
The main purpose of restorative art is preparing a body for an open casket viewing or funeral. When you lay eyes on a beloved family member or friend one last time, it’s often easier if the person looks like they’re just “sleeping.”
The appearance of a sleeping body is easier for most people to cope with, and some find it helpful to the grieving process. And viewing the body one last time can help family members move past the “denial” stage of grief, where it’s all too easy to get stuck.
Morticians also offer restorative art for families who aren’t holding an open casket. If the body has undergone trauma--in an accident, for example--the family might find relief in having certain issues corrected before burial. Restorative art can sometimes even help in identifying a body.
Research shows that restorative arts date back as far as the year 1200 B.C. The ancient Egyptians practiced a range of restorative techniques on their dead to give them a more lifelike look for burial. The goal, as it is today, was to make the body look just like the person looked when they were alive and well.
In 1912, an embalmer introduced the practice of demisurgery. Demisurgery involves rebuilding parts of the body that have been destroyed by an accident or disease, or that have decayed over time. At first, people didn’t approve of the idea of performing surgery on a deceased person.
By the 1930s, demisurgery was more widely accepted. It became an important part of the embalming process during World War I, and it became known as restorative art.
It wasn’t until 1945, though, that restorative art was officially accepted as a funerary discipline. That year, it was the subject of a National Funeral Directors Association Convention.
What Type of Problems Does Restorative Art Fix?
Restorative art can correct almost any problem, large or small. Here’s a list of problems that have been ameliorated through restorative art:
- Skin discoloration, including severe jaundice
- Dehydrated appearance
- Swollen appearance, visible tumors, and edema
- Lesions or abrasions and shallow wounds
- Deep wounds
- Major fractures
- Disfigurement from disease, like arthritis
- Damaged or missing areas of the body
- Damaged or missing facial features
- Missing or thinning hair
This isn’t a complete list of the issues a restorative artist can resolve, and not every mortuary offers the same range of restorative services. It’s important to work together with your mortuary technician and discuss your options.
What Tools or Processes Are Used in Restorative Art?
Making a body look presentable might sound a lot like cosmetology. And many of the same tools and techniques apply. But there’s also much more to the practice of restorative art. Here are some of the processes and tools involved in the restorative side of mortuary science.
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Before restoration work begins, the mortuary technician washes the body in a disinfectant solution. This helps the skin look clean and hold on to restorative makeup or clay easier. It also helps protect the mortuary staff against pathogens and decreases any smells.
During or after the initial cleansing stage, the technician also massages the joints and muscles. This relieves stiffness, known as rigor mortis. Technicians often use massage cream to help facilitate more movement.
Mortuary technicians usually ask the family members if they have a recent (or relatively recent) photo of their loved one. The photo helps the technician restore the deceased person’s appearance correctly, based on what they really looked like in life.
Setting facial features
Using their photo reference and working with what they see in front of them, the mortuary technician then sets the facial features in place. Typically, this involves putting cotton in the nose to keep its shape, as well as eye caps underneath the eyelids. They usually put a mouth-former in the mouth and cotton gauze in the throat to absorb fluid.
The technician then ties or sutures the mouth shut, and they may glue the eyelids closed. If the person had facial hair, and they didn’t usually wear facial hair in life, the mortician shaves it at this stage, too.
Next, the mortuary tech performs the process of embalming if the family is on board with it. Some people and families choose to have restorative art performed without embalming. But the restorative process, in that case, must take place much more quickly, and the technician might be limited in what they can do.
Restorative art is easier when the body is embalmed because the skin is more stable. It also allows the mortician to add dyes to the circulatory system, which helps improve the body’s coloring.
Removing damaged areas
An important step in the restoration process involves removing any damaged or injured tissue. Once the damaged area is removed and cleaned up, the technician can replace the area with molding clay or wax.
Next, the mortician uses a type of clay or wax to mold new features where they are missing. This primarily applies to facial features. Mortuary technicians are skilled in this work, as they are often required to construct entire faces out of clay during mortuary school.
They use photo references, if available, to precisely create the correct shapes and restore the person’s true appearance.
As mentioned, embalming provides an opportunity to improve the skin’s color, adding a pinkish hue underneath the skin. But mortuary technicians also use topical treatments to manipulate skin color.
Different types of fluids may be applied to counteract purple coloration and even severe jaundice. Topical fluids also help counteract the appearance of swelling or dehydration. One particular fluid dehydrates the layers of skin, effectively reducing the swelling that often occurs after death.
Hair, makeup, and nails
Next, the mortuary technician or a separate desairologist cleans and styles the person’s hair and nails. This may include slightly trimming the hair, parting it in the right location, and styling it in the way the person usually styled it.
The technician might need to apply hair replacements to restore any places where the hair is missing or thinning. A wig can also be used, especially if the person wore a wig in life.
The mortuary often trims and files the nails as well. They may even paint them upon the family’s request.
And finally, the technician applies makeup with a soft and natural appearance. The desired look is “alive,” not overly made-up or glamorous. They use the same kinds of makeup and makeup tools such as brushes, which people use when they’re alive. The family might even bring in their loved one’s makeup for the technician to use.
It’s important during this last stage for the technician to pay close attention to photo references. It’s all too easy to make the skin tone just a shade too light or too dark, or to give the cheeks and lips an unnaturally rosy look.
Restorative Art Around the World
The United States and other western nations are not the only ones that practice restorative art. In fact, some countries take their restorative art even further than we do.
For example, Vladimir Lenin was the first customer of a practice known as extreme embalming. His century-old body is an ongoing science project, testing the limits of body preservation. And multiple cases of extreme embalming in Puerto Rico made headlines with their one-of-a-kind outfits and poses.
Embalming and restorative art aren’t for everyone, and many people choose to forgo the somewhat invasive procedures entirely. For others, restorative art offers a final chance to say goodbye to the person you knew and loved.
Whether or not you want your body embalmed and restored, it’s ultimately up to you, but it’s important to include your decision in your end-of-life plans.
- “Chapter 7: modern restorative arts and embalming techniques.” Funeral Elite CME. http://s3.amazonaws.com/EliteCME_WebSite_2013/f/pdf/FTX03RAI17.pdf
- “Restorative arts.” Tallon Mortuary Specialists. http://www.tallonmortuaryspecialists.com/services/restorative-arts.395.html
- Davis, Simon. “The Art and Science of Making Dead People Look Alive Again.” Vice. 02 January 2015. https://www.vice.com/en/article/7b7g34/applying-makeup-to-dead-people-is-a-real-science-202