It’s not a pleasant thought, death. But as they say, it, along with taxes, is something that all of us must face. Many people are involved in preparing the body of the deceased for burial. Working in this environment can be very personally rewarding for nail technicians.

There are two basic ways to establish a desairology (cosmetology for the deceased) practice. One way is to establish an agreement with a living client that, upon her death, you will do her nails prior to her funeral. By pre-arranging the service, you and she can decide upon the type of service you will perform and what color nail polish, if any, she would like to wear.

The second way to get into desairology is by developing individual agreements with funeral directors in your area. That’s how Lawrence Jones, funeral director of Lawrence A. Jones & Friends, a mortuary in Kansas City, Mo., offer nail services to his customers. “I keep a number of nail technicians on file, so when I get a request for nail services, I can bring in one of them to do the work,” Jones says. He requires the nail technician who contract with his funeral home to be licensed to do nails and to sign a waiver that releases the funeral home from liability in the event that she contracts something during the service. “Most funeral homes require nail technicians and other cosmetologists to sign a waiver of this nature,” Jones says.

The waiver is a technicality, but there are a number of organisms associated with corpses that should make nail technicians think about taking preventative measures, says Nellie Brown, western regional director of the Chemical Hazard Information Program at Cornell University. She says exposure shouldn’t be a threat to a nail technician if she takes a few precautions before and during a nail service on a body. “Make sure your immunizations are up to date, particularly tetanus. Disease and decay organisms are not uncommon, so besides being immunized for tetanus, having a hepatitis B series of vaccinations and a tuberculosis vaccination is a good preventative measure,” Brown says.

She also recommends wearing gloves and an apron or lab coat while working in the prep room (the area of the mortuary where the body is prepared for the funeral service and interment). “I definitely encourage covering your street clothes (preferably something that can be bleached) to prevent them from being contaminated,” she says, advising nail technicians to place the clothes they have worn during the service separately in a plastic bag until they are ready to wash them. Then wash the clothes in a separate load. Otherwise, says Brown, just be as cautious working on a corpse as you would a living body.

Most funeral homes don’t have an in-house nail technician or cosmetologist to do nails, hair, and makeup work. It’s typically the job of an embalmer, who prepares the body, washes the hair along with the rest of the body, and sometimes applies makeup, says Noella Charest-Pagagno, author of the Handbook of Desairology for Cosmetologists Servicing Funeral Homes, available form JJ Publishing ($14.95) by calling (954) 929-3559. “Desairology is difficult work, but more people are overcoming their fear of working with the deceased,” she says.

Handling a Delicate Job

Once you decide that desairology is a business option for you, put together everything you need to approach funeral directors in your area. Make sure you have your immunization up to date, a copy of your license if your state requires one, and a portfolio of your work. Charest-Papagno believes that the field is promising for interested nail technicians, because funeral directors typically have a difficult time finding willing nail technicians on their own, as most of them are too squeamish to work on the deceased.

“Your agreements with funeral directors will be individual, which means the terms under which you will work for them might vary from one funeral home to another,” Charest-Papagno says. This would include the prices for your services and how often you would work. Only a few funeral homes have on-site cosmetologists, so nail technicians would most likely work on an on-call, freelance basis. “The most opportunities in desairology are for nail technicians who can also do hair,” she says, adding that, ironically enough, women receive less post-mortem beauty care then men. “When the work is done by the funeral home staff, the men might have their hair styled and a bit of makeup applied to give them a natural look.”

Debra Shoaff, owner of The Nail & Hair Gallery in Wampum, Pa., does hair and nails occasionally for a funeral home in her area. It’s not an easy job, even for Shoaff, who has many years’ experience and is an expert. “The first time I received a request to work on a client who passed away, I just about had a fit! But my boss, who had done the hair and nails of her clients who passed away for many years, explained to me, ‘This person never hurt you when she was living; she’s not going to hurt you now,’” Shoaff recalls. With patience, strong nerves, and much care, desairology is an option for any nail technician willing to accept a new challenge.

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