Lifestyle | WEEK 3

The beauty of the afterworld

Makeup artist Kotoko Sato has pioneered a line of cosmetics for the recently departed

by Eriko Arita

At a funeral, if your loved one in the coffin appears as if they are simply sleeping peacefully, it may alleviate your grief.

This is what Kotoko Sato, a funeral makeup artist, aims for when she cleans up the deceased with cosmetics specially made for them. Together with the beauty-products maker Falf Inc., Sato developed the makeup line in 2006 and since then has been teaching aspiring morticians in Japan how to give the deceased a final makeover.

Before specializing in funeral makeup, Sato worked until 2002 as a graphic designer and makeup artist in New York after graduating from the School of Visual Arts in the city.

What drove her to refocus her talents on the world of the dead?

From 1997 to 2002, Sato worked for New York’s Tommy Boy Music, the record label of bad-boy bands such as Digital Underground and House of Pain. There she did graphic design and the makeup for Tommy Boy’s musicians when they had photo shoots for their album covers.

As a freelancer, she also did makeup for actors in independent movies. When she showed her father, Yoshinobu Sato, a doctor of forensic medicine and professor at Kyorin University in Tokyo, pictures of her handiwork in a movie where the actors had to appear bruised or dead, he reacted in a way that she hadn’t expected at all: “My father asked, ‘If you can make people look like they are dead, could you also make the deceased look alive?’ ” Sato remembers.

The elder Sato’s profession had required him to examine the dead bodies of people involved in accidents to determine the cause of death.

“He was wondering how damaged corpses could be made to look as close as possible to their original appearance when they were returned to the bereaved families,” the younger Sato says. He asked if it were possible for her to help him realize his wish by making use of her makeup skills.

Another factor that influenced Sato was the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, which occurred while she was living in New York. She couldn’t help but consider the meaning of life and death after those tragic events.

“I thought over what it meant to be alive, and I came to the realization that my life is supported by others,” Sato says. “So then I thought, ‘If I can help others in my job, that would be great.’ “

Sato began to work as a beautician to the recently deceased after returning to Japan in 2003, but discovered that there were no cosmetics products for the dead. Because of the nature of the work, her father explained to her the importance of guarding against infections when handling corpses.

Sato approached cosmetic-maker Falf from Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, to produce her new cosmetics line, Delfino. The products contain compounds of titanium dioxide and silver — silver has antibacterial properties and titanium dioxide decomposes germs when exposed to light, in a reaction called photocatalysis.

Falf had already developed the compound to use in antibacterial and deodorizing sprays for facilities such as hospitals and hotels, says Taro Koumi, who works in the president’s office at the company. According to the manufacturer, Delfino is the first product of its kind that protects people from infection when they touch corpses whether it be to make them up or to say farewell. The name — which means dolphin in Italian — was chosen because it is believed that the sea mammal has a healing touch.

After death, skin stops secreting sebum (an oily substance that moistens the skin) and gradually loses moisture.

“Common makeup products are made to add color only on skin that is alive,” Sato says. “But the skin of the deceased is very dry. If you touch it, the skin may even peel off.”

The Delfino cosmetic line includes a lotion that moistens the skin and a antibacterial foaming soap that cleans and deodorizes the body and hair on corpses. Because skin color changes to a darker tone after death, the Delfino foundations use darker tones to match what will be underneath, Sato says.

“The bereaved families remember the faces of the departed for a long time. So I want them to look good,” she says. “I am pleased when the family of the deceased says the person looks like they are sleeping.”

Priced around ¥65,000, the Delfino cosmetics set was launched in February 2006. About 300 sets have been sold so far, Koumi says, mostly to morticians. To help promote their products, Falf has held seminars called “Shigesho Gakko (Funeral Makeup Academy)” since 2006. The basic course occurs four times a year.

In the three-day-long seminars on funeral makeup held by Falf, professor Yoshinobu Sato lectures from a medical point of view about measures that can be taken to prevent infections, and Kotoko Sato teaches students how to make up the deceased with the cosmetics.

Sato says she has seen a number of corpses whose heavily applied makeup makes them appear as if they were wearing a mask — with too much glittery eyeshadow on the eyelids and coatings of thick foundation on the face. Rather than have the makeup conceal the original appearance of the departed, she wanted to find ways to bring out the natural beauty of the faces of the dead.

“I cover scars and discoloration of the skin. But I try to show how they would usually appear,” Sato says, adding that she looks at pictures of the dead from when they were alive as a reference.

In an attempt to create the appearance of a natural complexion, Sato puts red color in small dots all over the face and earlobes, which adds a blush to the skin. If the face of the departed has yellowed due to jaundice, she spreads the red makeup so that together with the underlying yellow she produces an orange color similar to the skin color of most Japanese, she says.

So far, a total of 60 people have taken the basic series of seminars, among them funeral directors, nurses and even those who don’t have jobs related to death, says Sato, who welcomes people who just want to learn about the makeup.

“I want common people to feel death to be more of a familiar thing,” Sato says. “When you realize that death is something that’s close to you, it’s a good chance to think over how you live.”