DESPITE numerous attempts, makeup artist Thung Siew Ching just could not get the eyebrows of her customer right despite the two hours that had passed.
“I kept trying and trying. It was either the wrong colour or that the colour just would not stay on her brows.
“I was exasperated and nervous. It was a really bad experience,” Thung said when relating about her first day on the job.
While there was no way her customer would have complained, not when the elderly woman was already dead, Thung could not stop imagining the corpse springing up and telling her that she was doing it all wrong.
“Prior to that, I had only practised on dummies and only saw dead bodies when they were in the coffin,” she added.
You see, Thung is no ordinary makeup artist.
“I groom corpses for a living. I wipe them down and clean them, sort of giving them their last bath.
“Then I dress them and put on make-up for them to make sure they look their best for their final journey,” she said.
Thung explained that her job also entailed massaging the corpses so as to soften stiff body parts in order to avoid any joints from becoming dislocated.
“If the person had died in an accident and the head or face is disfigured, I mould it back to shape with clay and wax, unlike in those days when a mask is used to cover up the unsightly parts.
“Sometimes, corpses can be what you term as uncooperative. Their lips are pursed stiff or their mouths would not close no matter how much you massage it.
“They would also refuse to close their eyes and some may tear, which becomes a problem because makeup can’t set in when there is too much moisture on the skin.
“These are usually people who died before their time or are unwilling to let go because they either didn’t get to say goodbye or are waiting for the return of their loved ones.
“Call it superstition all you want, but the moment we speak to them and tell them that all we hope to do is make them look presentable for their loved ones to see and remember by, everything goes right,” shared the 37-year-old single mother of two girls.
Thung added that maggots and insects were also a norm.
“Fresh bodies, namely those from the mortuary, are the easiest to work with.
“Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Most times, the deceased are the elderly or the sick. Some are those who have already been dead for days prior to being discovered.
“Besides being riddled with maggots and insects, decomposing bodies have an unbearable smell. Even wearing a mask does not help.
“Blood also comes out of the eyes, nose, mouth and ears, which can be a horrific sight no matter how experienced you are,” said Thung, admitting that it is impossible to eat after that.
“Their faces remain fresh in my memory for days on end.”
For Thung, who is now the owner of the Fook Loke Sau Funeral Service Centre in Ipoh, her foray into the business was more of a blind decision than a calculated move.
“I was just 23 and wanted to help out my then husband, who had just ventured into the funeral service business.
“I did not even have experience putting on make-up for the living. At the time, I was operating a café for a living.
“And so, because of love, I found myself learning the trade from a Taiwanese instructor in Singapore for three months.
“At that time, there were hardly any female groomers around and I was perhaps the first one in Ipoh,” she said.
According to Thung, interest in the profession is picking up.
“While it used to be taboo to be around the dead, people are viewing it as a service industry and see nothing wrong in doing so.
“I have three women groomers working for me at the moment. They took up the job by choice, not because there were no other jobs available.”
Despite all the things that make the job anything but an ideal one, Thung would not discourage other women, even if they were her own daughters, from taking it up.
“My 11-year-old is quite interested in what I do and has actually expressed her intention to follow in my footsteps.
“She says that she wants to help people like what I am doing,” said the proud mother.
On her first customer, Thung revealed that she finally was able to draw the woman’s eyebrows after changing to a different shade of brown.
“It turned out that she didn’t like the colour. She wanted a lighter shade.
“Corpses will not let you put on something they don’t like, not until you change the colour of their makeup or style their hair differently,” said Thung.