By Geoff Stanton
Our gambol upon life’s stage is brief. In the blink of an eye I am laid out on my back and about to receive my death mask. ‘This should only take about two minutes’ says the embalmer, whipping together a bowlful of alginate. An exacting mortician; two minutes is nothing for Lance Proctor. He has already waited an exorbitant three thousand years before snapping on those elbow-length gloves. In ancient times Embalmers were regarded as Gods. ‘Unfortunately’ says Lance ‘that’s no longer the case’. Most embalmers now consider themselves illusionists. But embalming has come a long way from the signature twining of human beef-jerky that signalled Lance’s antecedents.
There is something faintly glamorous in the embalmer’s craft. It is not just the confidant scoop of the sculptor’s hand that sets the features, the cosmeticians flair that daubs them with aspect, or even the firm grounding in the lines of anatomy required to make it all hang together. It is perhaps also that their well-rounded work provides such a vitally intimate function. With the doctor’s foot out the door, it is the embalmer’s attentive care that will give the departed their truly final soignée.
Lance’s passion and knowledge verge on the exotic. Death is a strangely familiar country here. Firstly, the dead are fond of accessories. Eye-cups and mouth-formers flagrantly replace hair-curlers and clippers. The dead demand attention; the living administer it. Lance unhooks his embalming kit with an obsessive’s grace. He places a small can of flesh-flavoured shoe polish nearby.
‘Plasdo is my favourite wax. It even smells fantastic. Lots of makeup artists use this stuff.’ Lance uses it to rebuild features. Once the features are set, the mouth is sutured shut with a needle chaser. Several gallons of chemical are administered, massaged through the body and drained with the heavy blood via an artery in the neck. Permaglow is injected, revisiting a blush on the complexion. Lance prefers the subtle make-up touch. ‘In the US they lather it on like a picket fence. Poor Grandpa gets wheeled out all dolled up. We don’t tend to do that here. Unless it’s requested. In which case I go to town.’
Lance’s piece-de-resistance, however, is his Memory Masque venture. ‘People often say that their loved ones look so at peace and beautiful when on view. It’s important to be able to hold onto that. The mask is the perfect portrait’. This craft has a rich tradition. Tutankhamun took his mask to his sarcophagus to strengthen his spirit. Luminaries from Dante to Shakespeare have since joined the gallery.
But it is an unknown woman that captures Lance’s imagination. In 1900 a young suicide was pulled from the cold waters of the Sienne. Her mortician, besotted with her beauty, made a cast of her face. This mask somehow became the belle of Bohemian Paris. It adorned walls everywhere. Camus compared her to Mona Lisa. Her journey might have ended there if her face hadn’t been used in 1960 as the model for the CPR doll. Thus she was immortalized. Millions have kissed her lips.
‘I’ve never tried this on a breather before’ says Lance, adjusting the bendy-straws stuck up my nose. I am cramping his style. ‘Hopefully you get to keep the eyebrows’ he remarks as a serving of alginate swallows my face. His words recede in a swirl. I have the sensation of being at the bottom of a cake-mix bowl. For several minutes my face gestates. The resulting mask is eerily brilliant in detail. It is prolifically serene. Lance’s ‘Memory Masques’ is the only one of its kind in Australia. He believes there is enormous potential for a mask renaissance. It is, after all, the perfect portrait.
Lance has since also been seen on Foxtel’s ‘Come Dine With Me’.