Keeping up appearances in the afterlife
For Xu Jun, 49, retaining the dignity of people after death is a solemn commitment. Xu, a mortician at the Baoxing Parlor in northeast Shanghai's Hongkou District, is a real-life version of the main character in the 2008 Japanese movie “Departures” (“Okuribito”), which tells the story of a man who prepares the bodies of the dead with ceremonial ritual.
To make the deceased look as alive as possible, Xu goes through an arduous process of cleaning, bathing and sterilizing bodies, changing clothing, styling hair and making up faces.
It’s a job he has been doing for 22 years. He handles an average 20-30 corpses a day and is considered a master by professional colleagues.
Some of the bodies he prepares for funerals arrive at the mortuary in poor condition because of deaths due to car accidents, falls from high buildings, fires and drowning.
People who die of severe burns are often unrecognizable, and Xu has to “mold” facial features. It can sometimes take hours to restore a face.
“The biggest difficulty is that you don’t know the dead, but you have to give them an identity that family and friends will recognize,” says Xu.
On a stormy night in June 2015, the Eastern Star carrying more than 400 people capsized in the Yangtze River in central China’s Hubei Province. Xu and another two colleagues were sent to the scene to handle victims from Shanghai, who numbered 96.
“It rained and rained, and mosquitoes were plentiful,” Cai Qi, one of Xu’s colleagues, recalls. Hundreds of victims’ families congregated in Jianli, a small county in Hubei, amid loud keening for the dead. The weather made preservation of the bodies difficult, and conditions in the local mortuary where the bodies were taken were poor, he says.
“The bodies of the victims swelled due to the water, and the corpses stank,” says Cai.
Xu and his colleagues worked around the clock trying to restore the appearances of the victims as much as possible.
“When I am in the cosmetics room, I concentrate on every corpse,” says Xu. “The skin coloring on the sides of noses may be deep if they have been wearing a respirator for long time. The lips may be dry and the peeling needs to be removed. The eyebrows may not be balanced and need retouching.”
In 2012, three youngsters died in a car accident in the Bund tunnel and their faces were severely disfigured.
“Their families demanded a high level of post-mortem restoration,” says Cai.
The parlor established a team of nine to do the work.
“We worked until midnight and then tried to catch some sleep,” says Cai.
When he got up in the morning, he found Xu still at work. Despite suffering from pancreatitis that requires rest, Xu puts everything else aside when working, Cai says.
“He was retouching the eyebrows of one of the girls,” Cai recalls. “They were lost in the accident. Rather than just try to paint new ones on, Xu used hair from the girl’s head to make new eyebrows.”
The family was very satisfied with the results when they attended the memorial service.
“An eyebrow has about 250 to 260 hairs, and it takes at least two to three hours to ‘plant’ a new eyebrow,” Xu says. “For hair that is lost, you can use a wig on a corpse, but there is no other way for eyebrows except to ‘plant’ hair.”
Xu has received plaudits for his work throughout his career.
“Thank you for making my daughter even more beautiful than when she was alive,” a mother who lost her child in an accident told Xu after attending her memorial service.
Because of Xu’s reputation and expertise, he often is assigned the most difficult cases.
In August 2015, he was assigned to Tianjin in the aftermath of a deadly chemical explosion that left corpses scorched.
Working under the deadline of a memorial service, Xu worked overnight to mold and sculpture faces, based on photos, says Cai. “He never complained, even amid the danger of chemical residue on the bodies.”
Bodies change rapidly after death, Xu says.
“They are subject to the influences of environment, temperature and humidity,” he says. “You have to accurately control the time between doing the makeover and holding the memorial service. The latter is the stage where our efforts are on display for up to two hours.”
Despite his many successes, Xu still remembers the one case where he thinks he failed.
In the 1990s, a young girl died, and Xu tried five times to make over the corpse so that her best friend could recognize her. “The person in her mind was different from my sense of her, and all my skills and knowledge couldn’t produce the effect she wanted,” says Xu.
Today, that problem would be more easily remedied with new technologies, but back then it was very difficult, Xu says.
He remains dogged in pursuit of perfection.
“When you reach a certain level, old experiences and knowledge are not enough,” Xu says.
He is learning new methods of sculpture and aesthetics to render faces look as close as possible to the living.
Xu and his team have made great contributions to “plastic surgery in the mortuary.” They visited Canada to study advanced technologies. Xu invented special tools such as anticorrosion injection machines, which are now widely used.
In another innovative practice, Xu sometimes invites families to view his work in progress.
With aromatherapy and light music, corpse cosmeticians change clothing, bathe and make up a corpse, explaining the procedures to the viewing family members.
“It is another kind of farewell for relatives that helps relieve sorrow and accept death,” says Li Fengping, deputy director of the Baoxing Parlor.
“I persist in the job out of interest,” says Xu. “I try my best to make everyone happy, and when I can do that, I feel happy.”
He is now studying the possible use of 3D printing in repairing damaged body parts. Because the technology was invented in the West, he says, more work needs to be done to create Asian modules.
His is a business where it’s hard to recruit new blood. There is a certain stigma still attached to working with corpses. “There is deep-rooted fear of the dead, and it’s hard to overcome,” he says. “But I believe we can eventually break through that and make this profession more respected.”