“I’m a big fan of blush. This right here is my secret,” the young man says, pulling out a small, circular tin from a cosmetics tray. “A little bit of this, just dab it on, it really adds a lot,” he says, running a large powder brush across the top of his hand.
In a tidy pinstriped suit, bright-blue shirt and golden geometric tie, this 24-year-old with long hair and light chin fuzz could be a grandson of the older woman resting inside the casket. But Tyler Pray is actually a young funeral director, the one who arranged this small service on behalf of an estranged sister who wanted to bury her broken relationship as soon as possible.
With the collar popped on his black trench coat, Tyler grasps a silver bar affixed along the side of a gray container. His father and grandfather help march it out a back door, balancing the weight within.
The three generations of Pray men stand in as pallbearers and family for the petite woman who spent her last few years in a wheelchair. Under soft, pink lighting, she appears asleep in such an unnatural position — hands crossed in front and glasses shielding her closed eyes. An assistant cranks the casket closed and the woman’s body slowly tilts back into place, her stiff, clasped hands freeze in the air as if reaching for one last handshake. The men lift her closed casket into a black hearse. Only 10 people show for the funeral. Two attend the burial.
Still, Tyler makes sure she looks great. He sets her hair in neat curls, dresses her in a stylish leopard-print blouse and brings her pale skin back to its natural glow. It’s a chance to do something for her that she can no longer do for herself.
“It doesn’t do anything to my skin, really, but something that’s really pale, like, look at our hands. They’re red. They’re fleshy. It just makes it look like there’s blood flowing through there again. Not that they’re alive, but just a more natural appearance.”
He flips the blush case over. “Oh god. This is so cheesy,” he says. “This is called Sparkling Wine.”
Reputation is important, not only in the bereavement business, but in this small community. The Pray family handles roughly 150 deaths each year in Charlotte, a town of 8,300 near Michigan’s capital of Lansing. Blunders in this small place don’t go unnoticed.
“I don’t want to put too much red on somebody … if they didn’t wear red lipstick,” Tyler says. “Same as with a man. I want to put color on his lips but look at my lips. They’re a pretty red. And I’m a guy not wearing any makeup.
“When I first introduce people to their person in the casket, a lot of times I’ll kind of read and listen to them, ask them if everything’s OK. And people say, “God she looks terrible. There’s too much red on her.'”
Families suffer the most intense episodes when they enter the home and see their deceased for the first time, he says. They hug and cry uncontrollably; some collapse. But that’s how they deal. And sometimes, the Prays are all that families have. Tyler is most proud when someone says their dead relative — not breathing, laughing, smiling like they once did — looks good.
“People who don’t get a chance to have this final moment always seem to be disconnected with what’s really happening,” he says. “Like it’s not true. Like they’re going to come home tomorrow. But they’re not.”
Tyler walks all of 60 feet to work through a back alley from an old, gray colonial, one of three houses the family owns. It’s a prime location for a job with no set schedule. And he’s made it a hub for his creativity. He stands at the kitchen table flipping through some poetry publications that arrived in the mail today. In another room, a guitar stands upright on display and an old typewriter rests on his desk, both ways for Tyler to turn out inspiration. He’s particular about his feng shui, too, demonstrating how the mounted flat panel TV looks cleaner when the DVD rack isn’t directly underneath. He says the spacious apartment is a peaceful getaway from the extreme hours next door.