Working to help the living and the dead, makeup artist Yuan Cheng-yi’s (袁徵宜) skillful hands that wash and style have allowed many deceased clients to rest in peace.
A cosmetologist for 15 years, Yuan said she used to be afraid of ghosts, adding that little did she know that one day she would follow the prediction of a fortune teller that she would work for the dead.
Yuan has worked as a mortuary makeup artist for the past eight years, and has been called upon by families to tend to their loved ones after accidents and major disasters.
She once reconstructed about 90 percent of the body of a young person who had died in a car accident that left the body without recognizable skeletal structure.
She has also reconstructed the body of an elderly man who was severely mangled after he died in the wild and his body was gnawed by stray dogs, as well as the bodies of victims of the floods caused by Typhoon Morakot, which left the bodies with badly damaged faces or maggot infestations.
Having taken overseas training courses, Yuan started using specialized anticorrosive stuffing materials when most mortuary makeup artists in Taiwan were still using cotton or newspaper to stuff damaged bodies.
Yuan said her work often begins by fixing a fractured skull and mending it to resemble the original shape of the person’s head, then using wax or specialized material to recreate the face before sculpturing the body according to the height and weight of the deceased.
Very complex cases can take more than 10 hours to complete, she said.
She says she often hears the deceased telling her to hurry up when she is working on them, saying: “Get a move on — help me return to my original form, my family wants to see me.”
“Although the soul and body of the deceased are separated, many of them still care and linger,” she said.
There have been times when her inspiration failed her and she could not get the facial features to resemble the person when they were alive, so she asks the deceased for help.
There was one time she was struggling to finish her work before the body of a man who died of oral cancer was due to be put in its coffin.
Yuan said she asked the deceased for help and, 15 minutes later, the man’s daughter burst into tears when she saw the body, telling her: “This is exactly what my father looked like when he was alive, he always pouted his lips to make me laugh.”
Yuan said that due to her psychic powers, she is able to feel the fickleness of human nature more than ordinary people.
She said one time she was washing the body of a middle-aged man and at about 4pm she heard dragging footsteps and grumbling as if someone was searching for something.
When the man’s family heard of her experience, they cried, saying that he would always go to pick up the evening newspapers from the mailbox about that time and they believed she had heard him grumbling because he did not realize he was dead and he was angry because he could not find the newspapers.
The grumbling only stopped after family members put an evening newspaper next to one of his hands and pushed the body into the mortuary freezer, she said.
Once, when handling the body of a nurse who had committed suicide by jumping off a building, Yuan said she heard the nurse telling her: “I regret it, but there’s no way of starting over again now.”
Another time she was washing the body of an elderly man who had been confined to a bed for a long time and his body was dirty and sticky because his wife had not been able to give him a bath for a while.
Although the funeral director urged her to hurry up, Yuan said it took her half an hour to clean the man’s ears, because she insisted on perfection.
“Later that night I dreamed the elderly man thanked me, but also complained that I had forgotten to take the cotton buds out of his ears after cleaning them,” Yuan said.
She quickly woke up, but it was too late for her to do anything because the man’s body had already been cremated.