The Aesthetics of Dying

Edvige Santangelo started planning her funeral outfit when she was 55 years old. At the beginning of each year, she bought new clothes for the occasion, including accessories like a matching scarf and jewelry. In her letter of instruction, which laid out her wishes upon her death, she insisted her mortuary makeup match her ensemble. For Santangelo, this tradition was about preparation—that when the day came, she would be as beautiful in death as she’d been in life.

It’s not that Santangelo was anticipating death. She was a stylish woman who spent most of her life designing dresses at a boutique in Montreal, where she created near-perfect dupes of actors’ Oscar gowns. She made her daughter’s clothing, then her wedding dress, and eventually, outfits for her granddaughters’ Barbies. But more than anything, she was a devout Catholic—and wanted to meet Saint Peter looking her best.

Santangelo lived well in spite of a lifelong battle with fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder that causes muscle soreness, body pain, and fatigue. In 2022, she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis, a chronic degenerative joint disease, and later that same year experienced a stroke, which worsened her condition. Overwhelmed with pain, she tried everything from physical therapy and acupuncture to cortisone shots. Eventually, her doctor put her on morphine for two months, which made her sleep all the time.

“There were no acceptable treatment options for her,” says her daughter, Nadia Vakharia. “There was not one that was able to alleviate her pain and at the same time allow her to live with dignity.”

With Vakharia’s blessing, Santangelo took charge of her life—and death. She decided to end her life through medical aid in dying (MAID) on November 8, 2023, in Montreal, where end-of-life care is legal.

Appearances were always very important to my mother. She was embarking on a new journey in her life, and she wanted to be confident.

Nadia Vakharia

Despite the popularity of MAID in Canada, there’s no standardized ritual around it. But some people want to die with their friends and family surrounding them, an event often called a MAID ceremony or ritual—much like a celebration of life. It also provides an opportunity for the deceased to decide how they look when they pass, allowing them to express themselves through makeup and hair one final time.

Of course, Santangelo had planned the perfect send-off. Before her MAID ceremony, she got ready. Her daughter brought three outfit options, and Santangelo decided to forgo pink, her favorite color, for a “seasonably appropriate” autumn palette. She wore a dark rust blazer and black pants with matching rust pinstripes. To tie the look together, she added a bronze-and-white floral silk scarf.

Santangelo had already consulted with Giovina Basciani, her friend of 35 years and caretaker, to style her hair into an elegant bun. She also trusted her orderly to apply her makeup look: bronze eye shadow, bronze-orange lipstick, and blush to match her outfit. She wore her nails clean and manicured—not painted—just like they were for her whole life.

“Appearances were always very important to my mother,” says Vakharia. “She was embarking on a new journey in her life, and she wanted to be confident.”

During the ceremony, she was surrounded by her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, plus her cousins and two close friends. She ate her favorite pastry—a cannolo Siciliano—and sang her favorite Italian song. The doctor injected her with a prescription lethal dose and she peacefully passed.

Dressing for the afterlife has been well documented throughout history. According to The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford’s investigative book about the funeral industry, ancient Egyptians are believed to have pioneered embalming and the restorative arts. They were known to perfectly re-create eyebrows, eyelashes, and even nipples (refashioned from copper buttons). Archaeologists found human-hair wigs in tombs of priestesses and kohl kits for eyeliner in Nefertiti’s tomb.

According to Cheyenne Zaremba, a PhD candidate at Penn State who studies the rhetoric of death and dying, Victorian-era embalmers restored bodies to such near-reality that living family members took portraits with their dead loved ones. Queen Victoria herself went to the grave wearing her wedding dress.

Mitford also notes that embalming became a common practice in America during the Civil War, when morticians needed to preserve bodies during transport back home from battlefields. This also led to the resurgence of restorative art, which involves styling the hair and makeup of the deceased.

But restorative arts have since declined in modern-day practice. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), over 80% of people will be cremated by 2045, with over half citing lower cost as their primary reason. People are axing expenses like embalming, which the NFDA reports has a median price of $845.

However, people like Santangelo are finding cause for investment. On an episode of The Kardashians, Khloé Kardashian shared that she added a clause in her will requiring her nails to be manicured if she’s ever in a coma. “I’m still getting my nails done once a week, and that’s in my will because people are gonna visit me,” she said in a confessional.

Meanwhile, stylist Law Roach revealed on the podcast Fashion Radio that he has been planning his own funeral “for years.” Roach even went as far as styling his longtime client Zendaya for the occasion. “I already told Zendaya, you have to have on a sickening black skirt-set,” Roach told host DJ Fat Tony. “I’ve told her the references—Coretta Scott King at Martin Luther King’s funeral. It’s a thing. I wanna pay for it, and I want it to be long as fuck, like five hours.”

In her own letter of instruction, Santangelo ordered that her visitation should be three hours—not the traditional three days. She was worried that the funeral director wouldn’t apply her makeup correctly.

According to licensed funeral director and embalmer Amanda Marie Eilis King, this is another reason why embalming has become less popular. “A lot of families are starting to not choose embalming because they don’t want their loved ones to look like their grandparents that they saw with thick, caked-on makeup,” she says.

King says embalmers have used the same stage makeup on bodies since the early 20th century. These outdated practices have not translated well to modern-day funerals—or beauty trends. “The light bulbs were built differently back then,” King says. “They got very, very hot, so with light shining on the bodies, they needed that thick makeup that wouldn’t melt.”

Considering how makeup trends have evolved, it makes sense that clients and families are hesitant. “Our beauty standards today, everyone wants natural beauty,” says King. “You’re not wearing makeup, you’re just wearing a filter.”

To avoid cakey makeup, King uses airbrushing and setting sprays to give bodies a more natural look, even under hot lights. She also developed a new vegan and lightweight cosmetics kit with a death-care-industry art supplier to help restorative artists use modern makeup techniques and products.

“There are funeral homes that have cosmetic kits from the 1930s and ’40s,” King says. “In our field, no one has decided to change this in, like, 100 years.”

But if you think restorative arts seem like too much work and money for being dead, consider that it’s not dissimilar to how people live their everyday lives. According to a 2023 LendingTree survey, Americans spend an average of $1,754 annually on beauty products, cosmetics, and services. No one would blink an eye at a bride spending $250 on her hair and makeup or $1,900 on her wedding dress, which are average costs in the United States, according to The Knot’s 2022 Real Wedding Study. A funeral is a major life event, just like a wedding. Why wouldn’t you invest in how you look?

For some, restorative arts go even further than vanity. Joél Simone Maldonado, a licensed funeral director with a background in cosmetology and barbering, has seen families spend nearly a thousand dollars on outsourcing hairdressers to braid their loved one’s hair or have custom wigs created for them.

Being presented in an aesthetically pleasing way, it’s almost like a rite of passage for a lot of people.

Joél Simone Maldonado, licensed funeral director

“When I was in mortuary school, nothing about how to take care of people that looked like me was discussed,” says Maldonado, who is Black. “Things that are standard practice—such as shampooing and conditioning for other races—was not standard for us.”

“I tell the horror story all the time of walking into the embalming room and one of my trainers was taking out a woman’s box braids—cutting the braids from her scalp,” says Maldonado. “What was he doing cutting all of her hair off?”

Maldonado intervened and educated the trainer. “He felt so remorseful and so embarrassed,” she says. “That really shifted my perspective from ‘You don’t care about Black people’ to ‘You really don’t know because no one’s ever told you.’”

As a result, Maldonado founded The Black Death, Grief, & Cultural Care Academy, where she teaches courses about Black end-of-life culture, ceremonies, and rituals.

“For Black people specifically, our bodies have been disrespected in so many ways,” she says. “Being presented in an aesthetically pleasing way, it’s almost like a rite of passage for a lot of people.”

This is particularly true if the decedent has undergone trauma. In some cases, restorative arts can literally restore someone’s face and body after traumatic deaths, so that they can look more like themselves, rather than how they did while dying of cancer or after a plane crash.

King says that she will often restore a decedent even if there’s no public viewing (as long as there aren’t major restorations, which she needs the family’s consent for), because families are usually unaware that they can request to see their loved ones privately for a final goodbye. King offers this option in her funeral home, oftentimes for parents who gave birth to a stillborn baby. “We give them the opportunity to be with them, to hold them again, to bring them home for the first time,” she says.

Planning how you look at your funeral isn’t just for you—it’s also for your family. Yet very few people come to King and Maldonado with cosmetic instructions. Both recommend that you follow Santangelo’s lead and write your wishes down.

“When someone doesn’t look recognizable, even though we’ve done the best that we can, it is traumatic for the family,” Maldonado says. “You have a bit of autonomy in that. So why not take advantage of it?”

Originally Appeared on Glamour