THERE IS A HEAD in Sarah Wambold’s closet, right on top of her laundry basket.
A friend from college served as the model for the sculpture, made with clay and rendered in remarkable detail, right down to the eyelashes. At the time, Wambold—now a funeral director in Austin, where she practices environmentally-friendly “green burial”—was very close to her classmate. “I don't really talk to her that much anymore, to be honest,” she says. “I guess we're still friends in spirit, but it's been hard for me to want to pull that thing out and look at it.” Ben Schmidt, a funeral director and mortuary school instructor in Illinois, keeps his own hand-crafted Larry David head in the attic. “My wife doesn't like the earthy way that it smells, because it's made of clay,” he says. “It's probably melting right now.”
Most mortuary students undergoing training must model a human head as part of their studies in the field of restorative art. Armed with wax (or clay) and reference photos, trainees have to sculpt a lifelike face from chin to scalp on a plastic skull, employing cosmetic and hair restoration skills in pursuit of a perfect likeness. “You could walk up to basically any funeral director and say, ‘Who did you do for your restorative art head?’” explains Schmidt. “It's like a medal you get when you come through.” Students typically choose faces of famous people, friends, family members, and sometimes even themselves. Hashtags like
and #restorativeart #mortuaryscience (best explored on an empty stomach) turn up proudly posted simulacra of the likes of Bob Dylan, Judge Judy, Donald Trump, Dennis Rodman, Julianne Moore, 2 Chainz, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, Bryan Cranston as Walter White, Steve Harvey, Conan O’Brien, Gene Simmons in full KISS makeup, Bettie Page, and Frida Kahlo—not to mention countless parents, grandparents, and other loved ones, some dead and some still living.
Charles Bechtold, a teacher of restorative arts class, explains that it normally takes about 3-4 weeks to complete one wax head. Wax replications of ceramic features made by the students. Students need to reproduce the face parts from a piece of wax identical to the one they are given. (Photographed at the workshop class for the Restorative Arts at the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service.)
Some students tweet photos of their efforts at the celebrities they recreated; others reproduce siblings or significant others for prank fodder later on. “I tell [my students], ‘You should put them in a cabinet, so when they open the door, there's their face staring back,’” Schmidt says. Caleb Wilde, the author of the 2017 book
Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life, enlisted his wife as the model for his restorative art head. She was okay with it, because she claimed it didn’t look like her,” says Wilde, who comes from generations of funeral directors on both sides of his family. “If I had done it well, maybe it would have been more creepy.”
Unlike embalming, which (temporarily) preserves and sanitizes the remains, or funeral directing, which focuses on planning and coordinating memorial services, the restorative arts aspect of mortuary science is chiefly concerned with aesthetics. “Restorative art is how we make Grandma look like Grandma,” explains Ben Schmidt. Proponents and practitioners of restorative arts believe that seeing the deceased restored to their natural appearance helps a grieving family achieve closure. “We make no promises that the person will look exactly like they did, but we do our very best,” says James Smith, a funeral director and restorative arts instructor at the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service.
In his restorative arts lab in Illinois, Schmidt gives students only two parameters for their final projects. First, they must choose a real person, not a character whose appearance relies on cosmetics or prosthetics. “I wouldn't do Steve Martin from
Roxanne, for example, because he has a big nose," he says. "No Sloth from Goonies. Frankenstein, no.” Secondly, that real person must have been photographed, not just painted. (That rules out your Napoleons and your George Washingtons.)
But before they can delicately draw the eyebrows on wax Bette Davis or tie a bandana just so around wax Hulk Hogan’s forehead, students are drilled on anatomy: the names and positions of the 22 bones of the skull, the muscles of the head, the furrows and folds of the skin. The ear, an improbable cartilage swirl of hollows and projections, is popularly considered the single hardest component to get right. “You would not believe it, until you have to recreate one. They are complicated,” Smith says.
A wax head made by “Maria,” a former student of the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service. Maria’s sculpture was modeled on the head and face of her living son, which is why its eyes are open. Gloria Booker, Joylyn Frank, and Jesse Latorraca during the workshop of the Restorative Arts class in the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service. They are all working on sculpting parts of a face from a piece of wax identical to the one they are given.
In general, photos shot from multiple angles are vital to restorative work. Charles Bechtold, a funeral director and restorative art instructor at the American Academy McAllister Institute in Manhattan, teaches his students to look “critically” at a face. “When they see a photograph, they know all the parts to look for—sort of like an imaginary checklist,” he says. “We can't be creative, because we don't make [the decedent] look any better or different than they used to be. We're trying to do a copy job.” In his book, Mayer recommends studying these pictures upside down: That way, he says “a smiling mouth and open eyes do not lure attention and the asymmetrical forms are much more easily noted.” (No face, however beautiful, is perfectly symmetrical: Eyes may be different sizes, the right cheek may be plumper than the left, one ear may sit higher on the head. Budding restorative artists learn that a person’s nose is one eye wide, as is the distance between their eyes. A mouth is two eyes wide. A face is three noses long. A nose is as long as your ear.)
Ralph L. Klicker’s
Restorative Art and Science suggests that students begin their modeled mouth with a one-inch-diameter rolled wax cylinder, a stand-in for the upper lip. The nose first takes shape as a pyramid, from which the nostrils are eventually carved out. The eye is born from a ball of wax roughly the size of, well, the eyeball, smoothed into an almond shape. When modeling is complete, a damp paper towel or citrus peel creates a texture that effectively approximates pores. A blunt-edged instrument, pressed over a protective layer of plastic, can duplicate wrinkles. An opaque cream cosmetic applies easily over the wax. (Unlike conventional cosmetics, which are designed for a 98.6-degree living canvas, mortuary cosmetics are formulated to work best at room temperature and below.)
An old article with references to different types of noses. (Photographed at the workshop class for the Restorative Arts at the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service.)
Jenn Manzo graduated from the Gupton Jones College of Funeral Service in Decatur, Georgia this fall. At Gupton Jones, each student submits his or her restorative art project for display at the end of the quarter and and the entire student body is invited to vote for their favorite head. Manzo originally planned to devote her restorative arts project to Ron Swanson, Nick Offerman’s character on
Parks and Recreation.
“He has a little bit of a chin, but I made it bigger and bigger. I just really liked the way it looked,” she recalls. As Manzo experimented, she heard over and over that her work in progress had begun to resemble Alfred Hitchcock. She embraced the Master of Suspense as her new model, diligently replicating even his nose and ear hair, and presenting him alongside ominous, on-brand fake ravens and the theme song from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She won first place in the contest. Now, she thinks she’ll keep Hitchcock in her guest room. A wax head is used as a showpiece of previous students' work. After graduation from the institute, students hope to get an internship (which may last a couple of years) before becoming a licensed funeral director. Gloria Booker, a student of the Restorative Arts class, works on her task during the workshop component of the class. She is sculpting an ear from a piece of wax identical to the one she was given.
Jaime Reising, a recent graduate of the Mid-America College of Funeral Science in Indiana, picked up some acrylic paint at Wal-Mart to nail the lightning bolt on her David Bowie head. Mortuary cosmetics weren’t quite cutting it. “He is on my bookshelf in my bedroom, up there with all my favorite books and knick-knacks and my diploma,” Reising says. There, wax Ziggy Stardust will stay for good. “As long as he doesn't melt,” she added. (In Caleb Wilde’s experience, wax heads tend to get moldy. “Mine's in the trash. I've never seen my dad's,” he says, “And it seems like the ones that are really good are generally kept by the funeral school and put on display. My family, none of us were display-worthy.”)
Rebuilding an entire head is a task that a funeral director will rarely, if ever, be called upon to complete. “No family is likely to authorize a wax restoration which is so extensive that almost all of the real countenance of its loved one is replaced with a wax replica,” writes J. Sheridan Mayer in the seminal textbook
Restorative Art, first published in 1943 . As Bechtold puts it, “We’re not like Madame Tussauds. There's usually enough person left.” The restorative art project is more so an academic challenge, intended to prepare future morticians to tackle the smaller disfigurements they will inevitably face in preparing a career's worth of decedents for viewing. That might mean replacing part of an ear lost in an accident or some nasal tissue eroded by a feeding tube, or perhaps sealing and concealing a bullet hole.
Even so, many students find themselves frustrated by the demands of the project (or by their failure to emerge as morbid Michelangelos). But Ben Schmidt suggests it’s a “therapeutic” experience for most. “They have a lot going on,” he says. “They're looking for jobs. They're studying for their board exams. We're in full swing in our embalming labs, so they're going to embalm somebody every week. They're probably working at a funeral home part-time. This is like, ‘Let's just sit down and chill.’ It's a great lab to teach. It's a little bit more relaxed for all of us.” A wax head made by Carlos, a former student of the..is showcased. Carlos was so extraordinary that he could complete one head i a couple of hours, as opposed to the average 3-4 weeks. He is working now as a licensed funeral director Raquel, a student of the Restorative Arts class, takes a photo of her finished work. Students are asked to reproduce facial elements from pieces of wax identical to the ones they are given.
Sarah Wambold, who employs “zero” embalming and minimal restorative practices in her work today, is wary of morticians who may fail to capably execute ambitious restorations, potentially traumatizing loved ones of the deceased. “Every person who teaches this, or is an embalmer by profession, is so freaking reverent about their job,” she says. “Tears come to their eyes. It's like religious for them, the work that they do. In one way it's great, but also, there's no personal accountability. Who knows if you suck or not? You're not going to say it.” This disconnect is partly why Wambold has “very bleak” memories of mortuary school. Yet, for reasons she can’t fully wrap her own head around, she still possesses its most tangible souvenir.
“It's like an odd piece of self examination: It's really weird that I have this head and I don't love it,” she says. “People have their great-great grandma's ashes. I have this fucking head, forever.”