by Sandi Baker
Sitting at our desks while fidgeting in our mostly functional lab chairs, my mortuary science classmates and I waited in anticipation. It was the start of a new semester, a very exciting one at that, because this was the beginning of our Restorative Arts class. We aimlessly chattered, glancing around the room examining the skulls which would soon serve as the framework for our wax heads, a project that each future Maryland mortician must complete in order to obtain his/her/their degree. Suddenly, I noticed that all of the wax heads were monochromatic, pinkish-white – supposedly representative of the skin tone of your “average” decedent. This struck me as odd.
Looking around the room I took note that many of my classmates were persons of color. Why is it that white people are so clearly represented and hyper focused upon? What did white people do to earn such reverence? Why is it that a school that claims to be so inclusive, has apparently not invested in some varying cosmetics so that we may alter the shades of wax? A small knot of guilt and frustration built up in my gut. I imagined how ostracizing it must feel to a mortuary science student who is black and/or an indigenous person of color, to walk into his/her/their classroom and be surrounded by materials, chemicals, make-up, and tools, which are all meant to cater to white racialized persons.
Our professor, a kind and brilliant woman, but also white, walked in and introduced herself. We dove right into the material. When we approached the section in our class lesson on racial differences, the professor’s cheeks flushed red. It was clear that she was embarrassed because she was awkwardly repositioned and shuffled a bit on her feet; and even seemed to stare at us with apologetic eyes. The headline on “Racial Differences” stared back at us from the brightly lit projector screen. And after a deep breath paired with a long sigh, our professor began to explain that our textbook was old. The first edition of Restorative Art by J. Sheridan Mayer was printed in 1943, and the textbook has not been updated much, if at all. Our professor went on to express her deepest sympathy for the lack of updated information, but this was the book that we must use. The American Board of Funeral Service Education deemed it so. These were the books they consider while writing the National Board Exam.
We had not even made it through the first chapter of Restorative Art before demeaning terminology like Negroid and Mongoloid reared its ugly wax heads:
“Black (Negroid) Race: a species of man including the dark skinned people of Africa, Southern India, etc. The typical black man has curly or kinky hair. He has a long, narrow head with a low cranial vertex. His nose is broad and flat. He has thick, everted lips, projecting face (prognathism, which may also be found on some Caucasoids,) and a recessive chin. His complexion may range from a light tan to a blackish-brown. His eyes are dark.”
“Yellow (Mongoloid) Race: A species of man including the Mongols, Manchus, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Siamese, Tibetians, and to some extent, Alaskans and aboriginal inhabitants of America. The typical yellow man has long, straight black hair, a short, broad head and a high cranial vertex. He has wide cheekbones, a relatively small nose and slanting eyes (which may also be found on Caucasoids.) The distance from his nasal root to the inner corner of the eye is minimal. His complexion ranges from a yellowish-tan to a deep swarthy brown.”1
Besides the severely outdated and androcentric language, these definitions were particularly disturbing as the Caucasian race was positioned as dominant by Mayer’s use of the phrase “chief race” in the book’s definition of Caucasian – “characteristics of the white race; the division of mankind comprising the chief races of Europe, North Africa, and Southwestern Asia”. Restorative Art continued to compare black people to white people from the texture of hair to the size of the nose and lips – anyone who was not white was considered to be the “other,” this textbook made that very clear.
I understand that we need to be able to restore physical attributes of a decedent, particularly of the face and hands. In order to make these restorations, it was important that we are trained to have an understanding of anatomy and physiology so that we may recreate the normal structure of the deceased. However, it is not ok that we use Caucasian as the norm to which we compare everyone else. It is ridiculous that we are defining race when race is a social construct. Who deemed Caucasians to be the “chief race”?
Furthermore, and in training to be funeral directors, is it more important that we recognize the variations in culture as opposed to the variations in skin tone. Funeral directors interact with people from various cultures, everyday, and it is incredibly important to be able to accommodate their customs and traditions. As a second-year student in the Mortuary Science program at the Community College of Baltimore County, I am committed to funeral work and dedicated to learning as much as I can in order to provide the best service for my families during their time of need. Even more so, I live and work in Baltimore, which is considered to be a very diverse area.
In addition to learning about how to restore skin tones, as morticians, we must also learn about the products we will use to perform our restoration work. Morticians use a variety of instruments, cosmetics, and materials during restorative arts work. One of the materials we have available are waxes. Waxes may be used for a variety of things including but not limited to covering minor skin imperfections or modeling physical features such as the ear or nose. Waxes are versatile and commonly used so they come in a variety of mediums and colors. According to Mayer, “Waxes bear the labels of white or ivory, straw or pale yellow or natural, flesh light, flesh medium, flesh dark, pink, suntan, tan, light brown, brown dark, grey, warm, red or maroon, and purple.” Waxes for Caucasians are deemed “natural,” yet again illustrating that white people are the norm and everyone else is the other.
Sometimes the text does not even bother to discuss races that are not similar to those of Caucasian. For example, “straw wax has a slightly yellowish cast and is often an excellent color for minor surface restorations such as razor burns, sutured incisions, abrasions, etc. on Caucasian and light Negro and Mongoloid complexions.” But what if you aren’t Caucasian or light skinned? If the text discusses which color wax is best for minor restorations of those with light skin, why can’t we also discuss which wax to use when you have medium or dark skin? These textbooks are supposed to educate us on how to become good funeral directors and morticians, but it’s nearly impossible with this antiquated and white-washed information.
Surely my peers and I are not the first to notice this transgression nor are we the first to express outrage, yet nothing has changed in restorative arts textbooks in seventy plus years! My Restorative Arts class, a class meant to help us create a peaceful memorial picture for the families, only supplies us with tools for the white community. Even the cosmetics we use label makeup meant for white people the natural tone. If we are to serve our communities properly, then we must have an understanding of how to work with families of all cultures. We must learn about the history of not only white funerals, but how to properly funeralize different peoples.
The air around us became heavy with disappointment. I heard one of my classmates mutter that the system was failing her. She was right. This system was failing her. This system was failing all of its black and indigenous people of color, both male and female. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, more than 60% of people entering the funeral industry are women; and of those women, in 2016, about 26% of them were black and/or indigenous people of color.2
The U.S. funeral industry was built on the backs of women, black and/or indigenous people of color especially, yet that section of death history seemed to have been eradicated from our syllabus. Women were our first funeral directors, taking the responsibility of caring for the dead into their own hands. The phenomenal Mrs. Bettie Elliott owned and operated her funeral home in the Baltimore area for 20 years, taking over after the death of her husband. She alone served hundreds of families that otherwise would have had no place to turn.3 So many male undertakers owe their success to their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. Women of color pioneered the funeral industry. They were the first called to mourn and prepare the body when a death occurred and the last to sit and comfort, yet we never hear their names. Their stories are lost, overshadowed by white men.
The fact that we learn about Prince Greer, the first black embalmer (that we know of) simply isn’t enough. In order to provide the best service we can in our communities, we must demand more from our schools and education. How can we understand, love, and help one another when we are only taught to look through the eyes of a white person?
I am grateful to have the opportunity to work in the death industry, and I know my classmates are as well. We want nothing more than to help those around us during times of mourning, but we must do better.
As mortuary science students and future funeral directors, we must demand better. The things we read influence the way we see ourselves and the world around us. It is time that we stop alienating human beings based on the color of their skin. There is no reason that in 2019 our textbooks normalize racial hierarchy and therefore white supremacy instead of validating cultural and ethnic deathways and deathwork.
1. Mayer, J. S. (2015). Restorative Art. Dallas, TX: Professional Training Schools.
2. “News.” National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), http://www.nfda.org/news/trends-in-funeral-service. http://www.nfda.org/news/trends-in-funeral-service.
3. Fletcher, K. Black Female Undertakers in 20th-Century Baltimore. Retrieved from https://www.aaihs.org/black-female-undertakers-in-20th-century-baltimore/.