The art of death

For restorative artists, typical tools of the trade include eyebrow tweezers and tubes of lipstick.
MPR Photo / Nikki Tundel

Jody LaCourt's job is to prepare people for the ultimate social gathering -- their funeral.

The Twin Cities mortician not only embalms the deceased, she also makes sure they look comfortable in their caskets.

"If a person died from a disease, the ideal way I want them to look is as though that disease never even happened," explains LaCourt. "I want them to have a little bit of a smile on their face, just a little smile, so they don't look sad or unhappy anymore."

Jody LaCourt
Jody LaCourt is a teaching specialist in the University of Minnesota's mortuary science program. She's been a funeral director for 11 years.
MPR Photo / Nikki Tundel

LaCourt specializes in what's called restorative art. When a father of four succumbs to cancer, she's the one who shaves the stubble from his chin. When the neighbor's 5-year-old daughter dies in a car accident, LaCourt is the one who shampoos her hair.

"I always like to use Suave because it has such a fruity smell," says LaCourt. "I think it's nice when people have their hair washed, and I think a lot of us know how good it feels when we have our hair washed."

The deceased are all referred to by first name. And despite the fact that most caskets reveal only the top half of the body, LaCourt insists the dead be dressed the same way as the living --from head to toe.

"I always make sure there are socks. I always feel there is something missing if they don't have socks on."

LaCourt says her goal is to make people look like themselves -- no matter what.

"There aren't any words to make them feel better, especially at that time. This is all I can do. I can make them feel at peace at a very traumatic time."

"One woman, she loved blue eye shadow. And not the classy blue, but the 1960s blue eye shadow," remembers LaCourt. "So I started small. You always do a little, then if the family wants more, you can apply more. Well, they kept on wanting more and more blue. They were very happy when I finished, but I was kind of beside myself. I've never done that much extreme blue. But the family was very happy and that's what it's all about. She probably always wore that blue for 50 years."

Her clients may be dead, but it's easy to forget that when you hear LaCourt talk.

"I had one who loved Mickey Mouse. This woman was maybe in her 40s. But she had Mickey Mouse slippers, Mickey Mouse socks, Mickey Mouse overalls, Mickey Mouse underwear, Mickey Mouse shirt, a long-sleeved Mickey Mouse shirt, Mickey Mouse earrings and the Mickey Mouse ears. So we had to put her Mickey Mouse ears on her as she was in the casket."

"I did have a woman whose family wanted her to wear her original wedding dress," LaCourt recalls. "She was probably a size 2 or 4 when she was married. Well, she died probably in her late 80s and she had gained a lot of weight. So she probably turned out to be a size 12 or 14. But compared to the size 2 or 4, it was a big difference. Now, you cannot tell the family this will not work and you need to pick something else. So you alter the wedding dress to make it look as though she is actually wearing it in the casket."

Some restorative artists rely on Cover Girl and Maybelline. Jody LaCourt prefers mortuary cosmetics.
MPR Photo / Nikki Tundel

LaCourt says she does everything she can to make sure the last image people have of their loved one is as perfect as it can be.

"You can't feed that hole that they have," admits LaCourt. "There aren't any words to make them feel better, especially at that time. This is all I can do. I can make them feel at peace at a very traumatic time for them."

"I don't want to get too poetic here, but I think that as I've gotten older, I've realized that I'm put on earth for a reason," says LaCourt. "I don't have any talent. I don't sing. There's nothing I can give back. But when I can apply cosmetics and make this person look wonderful, and have the family crying because of happiness as to how great their loved one looks in the casket, that makes me happy."

There's one final thing LaCourt always does before sending someone off to the funeral home. She takes the soft material that lines the casket and fluffs it up a bit around the deceased. She says she likes to make it look as if the person is resting on a puffy cloud.