‘He makes dead people look like they’re asleep’: Thai volunteer’s cosmetic treatments give deceased a better goodbye
- Volunteer mortuary cosmetologist Pattipan Boonyee provides free cosmetic treatment services to poor bereaved families in Thailand
- His skill in making the dead look as lifelike as possible sees him in much demand and he has an army of fans on social media
Pattipan Boonyee pulls up a picture on his phone of a boy in a green T-shirt with chubby cheeks, a crewcut and a happy smile.
He was 11-year-old Tanawat. Now he is wrapped in a white body bag, lying on a stretcher at the morgue of the Police General Hospital’s Institute of Forensic Medicine in Bangkok.
Pattipan, a volunteer rescuer, has driven to the morgue in the Thai capital in his private ambulance with Tanawat’s grieving mother by his side. They have come to pick up the boy’s corpse to take it back to his hometown of Sri Racha in eastern Thailand for Buddhist funeral rites.
“It’s a sad case,” Pattipan, 41, says. “I deal with dead people every day, but cases like this are especially tragic.”
Tanawat was brutally murdered in early April by a 49-year-old Burmese man who had lived with the boy’s widowed grandmother. The migrant worker, local police say, has confessed to killing the fourth-grader with a sickle at a tapioca plantation after a dispute with his mother, Mullika Junduang.
“He was abusive and violent,” says Mullika, 27, who works as an accountant. “He said he would kill me and my son because I didn’t want my mother to be with him.”
A few days after her son’s death the young woman appears numb with grief. “Tee was a kind and well-behaved boy,” she says, referring to her son by his nickname. “He always helped me with household chores. Everyone loved him. He had many friends and his teachers had only good things to say about him.”
During the hour-long journey to Sri Racha in the back of Pattipan’s ambulance, Mullika cuddles and strokes the body bag that contains her son, whispering endearments. It’s a heart-rending sight.
Pattipan wants to help the grief-stricken woman the only way he can. At a temple where her son is to be cremated, he sets to work.
Pattipan also volunteers as a mortuary cosmetologist in Chonburi, a seaside province near Bangkok. He offers his services free of charge to mourners with limited means so they can see their late loved ones at their best one last time.
“Before cremations, undertakers open caskets so relatives can take one last look at dead people,” Pattipan explains. “I want to make sure the deceased look as lifelike as possible.”
At the temple, Tanawat’s body is dressed in a red T-shirt and laid atop a wooden platform of the kind used for Thai massages. His head, propped up on a white pillow, is badly scarred at the back by long, unsightly wounds from repeated slashes made by his murderer’s sickle.
The cuts were stitched up at the morgue, but Tanawat’s face has turned deathly pale and large purple patches have developed around the eyes. Using foundation, concealer and face powder, Pattipan sets about restoring a lifelike look to the boy.
He covers up bruises and creates a realistic skin tone, applying the final touches with a cosmetic brush. Finally he places a pair of sunglasses over the boy’s eyes and a red baseball cap on his shaven head to hide his wounds. The whole procedure takes about an hour.
The boy’s mother is pleased with the results. “Tee looks so much better,” Mullika says. “He’s a lot more like the way he was alive.”
The key, Pattipan says, is not to overdo the make-up, which is what some local funeral assistants do. “They make the dead look like characters from traditional Thai opera,” he scoffs. “They add too much lipstick, blush cheeks too red, and draw eyebrows too prominently. I aim for elegance. It’s kind of like what you would do to make wax sculptures look like real people.”
He learned the skills on the job. He used to work as a motorcycle taxi driver while volunteering as a rescuer at road accidents. He became interested in applying make-up to the dead a decade ago when his mother died of a heart attack.
“At her funeral she looked very pale. They had just covered her face with some powder at a hospital,” he recalls. “It was very sad. I thought I should do something for dead people that I hadn’t had the chance to do for my mother.”
He started practising on road accidents victims and has kept at it ever since. “I’ve always felt that dead people guide me in what to do. When I’m putting make-up on them I feel like they’re watching me,” he says. “Some people might think I’m crazy,” he adds with a chuckle.
His services, which include transporting victims to a hospital morgue and from there to a Buddhist crematory, are in high demand. Almost every day he has several cases to deal with – at times as many as eight.
“People tell each other about my work,” Pattipan explains. “I get calls for help all the time.” He even has dying people contacting him to ensure they will be in good hands at their funeral.
Most of his clients are locals who cannot afford proper send-offs for their loved ones. “He did it all for free,” Mullika says. “He didn’t even ask for any money to bring Tee home from Bangkok by car.”
Pattipan earns a modest income as a caretaker at rental properties. On busy days he beds down in his ambulance between his rounds.
His skills have made him famous on social media where he posts images on his cases – with permission from the relatives of the deceased – and he has tens of thousands of avid followers.
“He makes dead people look like they’re asleep,” says Suntara Moopayak, a restaurant owner who first met Pattipan five years ago at her sister-in-law’s funeral. Like Pattipan’s other benefactors, Suntara regularly pays for his petrol and various other expenses. She also buys caskets for dead people whose relatives cannot afford it. “I’m happy to help him out,” she says.
Many of Pattipan’s daily Facebook posts aren’t for the faint of heart. They feature close-ups of corpses before and after he has worked on them, with disturbing macabre details pixelated. “People are interested in my work,” he says. “They’re curious about these things.”
That curiosity is part of many Thais’ fascination with death, especially in its grisliest forms. Graphic photos of murder, accident and suicide victims routinely find their way online from local crime scenes. At funerals you may witness people taking pictures of the deceased in their caskets, with some taking selfies with the dead bodies.
In part this practice is religiously inspired, as Buddhism teaches adherents to be mindful of the transience of life. At numerous Thai temples, plaster tableaus of vultures feasting on cadavers serve to remind believers of their mortality.
Not all Thais enjoy gawking at the dead, however. “My wife couldn’t accept what I do,” Pattipan says. “So she left me.”
He has been raising his eight-year-old son, Piamruk, alone for years. Dressed in a yellow uniform identical to his father’s, he regularly accompanies his doting dad on his rounds. “We do everything together,” Pattipan says.
The boy is untroubled by human remains. He often even lends his father a helping hand with them. “I’m not afraid of ghosts,” Piamruk says.
Pattipan receives a call and sets off in his ambulance with his son. He drives to a rural area with a few low-rises. A middle-aged woman has hanged herself from a tree in a grassy field. “It’s a haunted tree,” a local man says. “Two other people have hanged themselves from it.”
The woman is taken to a morgue, where Pattipan makes her up ahead of a traditional corpse-bathing ceremony at a Buddhist temple.
Another call comes and he is off again, this time to the site of a car crash where a pickup truck barrelled into a 10-wheeler. The pickup’s driver is pronounced dead at the scene. He, too, is soon in Pattipan’s care.
Every day, for hours on end, wherever death goes, Pattipan follows.
“In 10 years I’ve put make-up on around 10,000 dead people,” he says. “I’ve felt somehow connected to all of them.”