Like many TikTok addicts, my For You Page is a kaleidoscope of oddly specific obsessions. The beauty of the app is that it knows what you want to see before you even know you want to see it. On a given day, my feed is a mash-up of thrifting influencers, vegan chefs, and the occasional explanation about how to suture the wounds of a corpse. Yes, a corpse.
Meet mortuary TikTok, a group of funeral directors, embalmers, and mortuary school students who are working to change the perception of the field in the eyes of outsiders. Across the app, accounts like @hollisfuneralhome, @mortuaryschool101, and @mimithemortician bring awareness to a profession that may evoke scary associations. Some creators offer detailed backstories as to how exactly they became a funeral director, offering pathways to curious commenters who weren’t aware they could pursue such a career, and detailing the stress of exams. Others get into the nitty-gritty of the job, showcasing the inner workings of an embalming lab or facial reconstruction.
Many, if not most, of the creators are young women, which lines up with the demographics of recent mortuary school graduates; according to a 2018 Guardian report, female graduates in the funeral service sector increased 30 percent from 1996 to 2016. In 2017, almost 65 percent of funeral director program graduates were women. And while many members of mortuary TikTok seek to normalize death and grief, according to Ashley Tan’s report on the genre for i-D, some members say that the educational bent they bring to their TikToks serves a specific purpose: to illuminate an industry that may prefer to stay opaque to outsiders.
Jasmine Berrios, 22, who creates videos under the handle @jasmine_the_mortician, first came to the field after meeting an embalmer at a family party when she was a child. “He told me this one line that kind of stuck to me, and it was [that] the best that you can do [with] this one person you’re working on, think about the multitudes of people you’re helping because you help that one individual on the table,” she says.
After that, the idea of serving a community through funeral services sparked an interest, but Berrios admits she struggled to find information about the profession. “None of my counselors could help me growing up,” she says. The transparency of her TikTok, which often tackles the industry with a welcome sense of humor, seeks to chip away at the “closed doors” nature of the death industry to promote education and death positivity.
“When I talk to my community or I meet with my families or I speak to my colleagues, I say it’s our own fault why we’re hated,” Berrios says. “We’re not talking about death, we’re not talking about the death industry, we’re not educating people because we assume they don’t want to be educated. We don’t talk about death because we assume no one wants to talk about it when it’s just not true.”
Berrios wants people to be as educated as possible about their options when it comes to interacting with the funeral industry, but to also dispel misconceptions about the field. “Not all funeral directors look like me and letting people know, hey, you don’t have to look a certain way to be in the industry,” Berrios identifies as one of her aims for the TikTok account, elaborating that many people tend to have a static image in their heads of a funeral director as being an old, white man. She also wants to “share with people the industry through my eyes. It’s not as scary as we want it to seem and it’s not as doom and gloom as everyone makes it out to be.”
Evie Vargas, 31, creates TikToks as @retseleve, where she goes into detail about the products she uses on the job and provides demonstrations on mannequins like the insertion of eye caps. She remembers seeing her great-grandmother in her casket at her funeral as a child and remarking to her mother, “where is my grandmother’s wig?”
“As a kid I was just drawn to it because I didn’t understand, oh my God, we’re alive one moment and deceased the next,” Vargas says.
Vargas initially created a YouTube channel to share information about her life as a funeral director and embalmer before finding more success on TikTok. And she too was driven by the desire to be as transparent as possible about the funeral industry. “I believe people should know what we’re doing to their loved ones, and also they should also have the ability to help and to be a part of it when they want to be,” Vargas says.
“Sometimes you have to say, hey, this reconstruction is going to take five hours because they were in a car accident and they look like this,” she says. “You send them a bill... but then a family comes back [saying] why are you charging me for this? It’s like, no, they didn’t tell you that this person was in such bad shape and it takes time. It’s sensitive and it’s about death and it hurts, but why does it have to be a secret?”
And as much as women dominate TikTok’s portrayal of the funeral services field, as well as schools, Vargas says she can still come up against people who underestimate her abilities. “I’m five-four, 120 pounds, [people] still look at me like, can you lift a body?” she says. “I’ve been in this industry for 10 years... the people that know my work and know how I do things, they do not worry about me. They know Evie is going to get it done and she’s fine.”
Mortuary TikTok taps into my more macabre interests (for example, I’ve made the fact that I live near a famous cemetery into a personality trait). But the creators using the app exist to educate, not to sensationalize. I also grew up in a Jewish family where the custom for funerals is to keep caskets closed, and because of this, I’ve never been intimately familiar with the rituals and procedures that go into prepping a loved one for a viewing. I suspect that’s another reason why I’m drawn to mortuary TikTok, not just for the detailed descriptions of how one becomes embalmed and the products morticians use, but also to get a peek into how other people honor their loved ones in death.
Some members of the funeral industry, Vargas and Berrios say, have reacted negatively to mortuary TikTok. “I’m not going to say every single funeral director, but a lot of people don’t like it,” Vargas says. “Professionals in the industry don’t like it. [They say] why do people have to know that? It’s like a battle within the industry.” But most creators receive a positive response on the app, with comment threads and Q&As filled with respectful, curious questions about the field. And who knows, the more videos I binge, the more often I find myself wondering if there’s even a future for me in the mortuary field.