We Built a Head
Mortuary College Part 1
When I tell people about the stuff I learned in mortuary school there are, of course, plenty of things that weird them out: sutures both visible and hidden, parts of a casket, the bones of the skull (that’s where I learned I have quite an impressive occipital protuberance), injection sites for embalming, how many eyes wide a face is. Yes, you read that last one right, and the answer is five. A face is typically five eyes wide. Go try it in the mirror later. It’s fun. The thing, though, that gets the biggest “What?” when I tell it is that we had to build a whole head.
The head I built currently sits in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house where it’s been since its completion 2002. It could legally drink this year, but, as I’ll explain later, it doesn’t have a tongue. My wife hates that head—absolutely cannot stand to be in the same room with it. She says it’s creepy, and, honestly, that does make sense because it’s actually her head. Now imagine this scene. I’ve been dating this girl for a little over two years. I go home to see her one weekend and ask if I can photograph her. Then, once she agrees, I tell her I need closeups of her face from various angles, and she needs to keep her eyes closed for all of them, so I can recreate her head for my Restorative Art class. We weren’t even engaged at that point. She agreed to marry me after that!
Look, I know it was weird, but if I was going to spend hours looking at pictures of someone, I wanted it to be someone I enjoyed looking at. Plus, my plan all along was to keep the thing. In my not-fully-formed, 19-year-old, inexperienced-with-the-ladies brain it was kind of a sweet gesture. Some people use paint and canvas to immortalize the women they love. Some chisel stone. I employed mortuary wax and makeup. Unfortunately, I didn’t know at the time that makeup starts turning white after a while and that the wax would crack as it dried. These days it slightly resembles my wife if she was a sophomore in college and had mold and cracks all over her face.
To complete the assignment, each student was provided a head-shaped, faceless, Styrofoam™ wig stand as a foundation and then would form mortuary wax over it until there was a face. Then we would cosmetize that face to make it look as real as possible. The point was to show proficiency in creating the correct skin texture and constructing ears, noses, mouths, and eyes, as well as displaying a basic knowledge of facial proportions. Again, the typical face is five eyes wide. Remember?
A friend from high school attending another college in Nashville (where my school was) at the time, when I told him what I was doing, asked, “Does this head involve a tongue?” When I confusedly told him it did not, he replied, “So there’s no possibility it can speak. That’s good. What if right when you finished, its eyes popped open, and it said, ‘Hello, Joseph!’?”
It can’t speak. At least it never has.
It took hours upon hours for us nonvisual-artist types to get literally any feature to look right. One afternoon I worked for two solid hours on the nose, and, let me tell you, it was perfect. My embalming instructor walked over and leaned down to observe my progress eye to eye. Comparing it to the photos, still stooped, he turned to me and said, “Nice job,” and then flattened the nose with his index finger, laughed, and walked away. I’m pretty sure I called him some things I shouldn’t have, and I’m pretty sure he heard them all, and I’m pretty sure I’m glad he did.
Eventually, though, it was finished and looked enough like my then girlfriend, now wife, that you could at least tell what I was going for. When I put the auburn wig and hand-modified mock turtleneck sweater dickey (I cut up a mock turtleneck sweater) on then it looked slightly more like her. It wasn’t the best, but it passed.
I’ve rarely had to use those restorative skills in my career, which is nice considering what it means has happened when you do have to use them. Even now, though, if I’m ever in a situation where I encounter Play-Doh or Silly Puddy or modelling clay, odds are I’m going to start checking out people’s ears and seeing how close I can get to replicating them.
Last Wishes: Healing Through Laughter - I recently appeared in an Introduction to the Death Talk with Gabi Dias on Instagram Live discussing last wishes and the relationship between death and humor.
I’ve got another couple of nice announcements coming soon but not quite yet, so stick around to find out!
Here’s an Old Piece of Mine That I Like
I am the Suburban Woman Who Ordered on the Starbucks App, and You are All Beneath Me! published by Slackjaw.
Here’s a Piece Someone Else Wrote That I Like
This is simply one of my favorite humor pieces, and there’s no more explanation required.
R U Down 2 Klown? by Joel Kassack and published by McSweeney’s.