An 81-year-old woman with limp hair lies in an open coffin in one of the viewing rooms at a north-side funeral home. She’s wearing a navy blue double-knit dress and has a rosary laced through her fingers.

The manager of the funeral home, a young woman I’ll call Candy (all names have been changed), yells from the front door, “She has her hair combed back straight in the pictures!”

Aletha, a full-time beautician with her own shop a few miles away, leans over the casket and looks at the dead woman’s dull gray hair. Candy walks into the room and hands her an envelope of color photographs provided by the old woman’s family. “I don’t know if you should curl it,” she says.

“Well, we can make it look prettier and softer,” Aletha says, plugging in a curling iron behind the casket. “Right now it looks pretty ghastly.”

While waiting for the curling iron to warm up, Aletha thumbs through the pictures. Her job is to make a “head” resemble the person in the pictures as much as possible. “You should see some of the pictures I have to work from,” she complains. “I get green-card pictures from when they were 19. One woman who wasn’t quite all there had torn herself out of her own wedding pictures. Her husband brought me the fragments.”

She pinches some of the dead woman’s hair. It crackles between her fingers. She yanks a small metal comb through the thin hair, then uses the curling iron to roll it back. The pillow is a backdrop; she styles only what will be seen. She finishes up with hair spray, taking care not to hit the woman’s face.

The hair does look softer and prettier by the time she’s through. The woman almost looks like the one smiling wanly in the snapshots.

“That’s not too outlandish,” Aletha says. “That should set well with them.”

I didn’t find out about Aletha’s side job until after I’d known her for six months. It isn’t something that comes up in conversation with someone you’ve just met. She told me the best thing about doing bodies was that they didn’t jump when you laid the curling iron on their heads.

About 14 years ago she met an ex-mortician who played piano and sang at a neighborhood bar, and they got to jabbering between sets. When he found out what she did for a living he suggested she consider doing dead people’s hair. There was good money in it, he said.

She wanted no part of it. “It sounded eerie, like playing with dead bodies. I didn’t want to mess around with dead people.”

But every time they ran into each other he told her about the big bucks she could make. He even recommended a few homes where he had contacts, including the one where Candy works.

“I went to this family-owned funeral parlor close to my shop and met the owner’s wife, who did the hair,” Aletha explains. “I just asked her honestly what it was like. She said the hair reacted exactly like the hair on living people. She told me she set the hair, after it was washed, with sponge curlers and let it dry. A few hours later she’d comb it out. But I didn’t have time for that. She said sometimes when they used a service the girls used curling irons.”

Aletha then set up an appointment with Candy’s boss, saying she’d done heads before in Arkansas. She showed up the next day with a carrying case containing everything she thought she’d need: blow driers, curling irons, hair spray, combs, and clips. The ex-mortician had told her to wear gloves and not make any jokes. “So I wore gloves. The director asks me why I’m wearing gloves. Right away I figured out maybe they didn’t wear gloves. I didn’t want to seem like a novice, especially after I lied to him about doing heads in Arkansas. So I told him I had cut my finger and didn’t want to get blood in the hair.”

The head was a youngish Latina who’d been a cancer patient and lost most of her hair. Still, she had an elaborate do, with lots of curls and hairpieces. Aletha had to make bangs out of one of the hairpieces, and she says that if it hadn’t been for the pillow the hair would have fallen off.

The funeral director asked if she could come back again the next day. “I asked him if there was anything special I needed to do. He said the only thing special about it was the body had a head post. I must have looked a little quizzical, because he asked if I knew what a head post was. ‘A head on a post?’ I didn’t know what else to say, especially after I was told not to make jokes. He finally told me it was a postmortem where they cut the skull open during an autopsy and then suture it back up. He said to be careful the comb didn’t pull out the stitches.”

Doing the heads got easier. She says now it’s almost as if she were watching someone else. A typical comb-and-curl takes her about 15 minutes. Most of the heads at the four funeral homes where she works are women, but occasionally there’s a man. The men usually need Grecian Formula applied or a toupee glued on. She’ll do anything the families request.

“When you see someone in their 80s or 90s and make them look prettier than they did, you feel good about it,” she says. “You figure they’ve lived a long life. The younger they are the worse it is. Kids are the worst. I had to do a six-year-old girl once who died of leukemia.”

The strangest job she ever had was at a private home in Des Plaines. The grandmother had died, and the distraught family had taken the body home after it was embalmed. They were taking their meals in the living room next to the coffin with the TV set blasting. They kept the body there for six days.

It’s 10 AM on Easter Sunday. Candy has left a note stuck to the front door: REMAINS ARE IN PREPARATION ROOM. The staff is gone. Few people get buried on the weekend these days because families don’t want to pay union grave diggers time and a half. But Aletha has keys to all four funeral homes.

The body of another elderly woman is lying dressed but only partially made up in an open casket in the preparation room, where the bodies are hosed down and embalmed. The concrete floor is still damp from a recent hosing. Aletha says it can get pretty smelly, particularly if the body has been down at the city morgue. The bodies belch and fart while they’re being embalmed. Sometimes you can smell a person’s last meal. Everyone gets a chemical bath, but even though the room has been scrubbed down it has a faint stench of death.

The hair is almost always done last. Aletha prefers doing the heads once they’re in the coffin, so the hair isn’t messed up when they’re moved from the embalming table.

The old woman’s sleeves are bunched up over her elbows. She too is wearing double knit. Both hands have needle marks. The plastic-covered legs are bruised. A house shoe dangles from one of the big toes.

Aletha flips through the pictures that are lying on the old lady’s chest. In the snapshots she’s smiling, lying relaxed in a hammock. Her hair’s swept back straight in a pompadour. “Boy, she really knew how to do her hair,” Aletha snorts, then sets up the curling iron.

When she’s finished the old woman’s hair looks fantastic. “This is the way she should have worn her hair,” Aletha says, spraying on an inordinate amount of hair spray. As she turns off the lights on her way out she says, “Another one bites the dust.”

A few days later Aletha gets a call from one of her other clients. The place is run down, the wallpaper starting to peel. The heavily decorated parlors evoke the 1920s, when people wanted a lot of ritual and melodrama.

A harried young woman named Gloria pounces on us inside the door. “The family wants a total transformation,” she tells Aletha frantically. “She has a big hairy tumor on her head.”

Gloria chases us down the hall past parlors, past back rooms cluttered with bikes, old funeral wreaths, dead flowers, and plastic bags full of trash, past a room jammed with coffins. A faux Italian Renaissance mural of naked Kewpie angels camouflages the door to the preparation room.

When Aletha swings the door open we’re immediately greeted by a wall of stench. A naked middle-aged woman is splayed on the embalming table, her breasts sagging into her armpits. A goose egg-size tumor pops out of the top of the head. Most of the hair is gone.

“I could kill Denny,” Gloria says, referring to the embalmer, who’s already an hour late. “He promised me he’d have her dressed and in the casket by eight. The family is coming in at two.”

Aletha opens and slams cabinet doors looking for her hair spray; she has a place in each of the four funeral homes where she stashes her equipment. “They’re always moving my stuff,” she complains. Gloria runs off to hunt for the spray.

The room still holds the terrible smells from a fresh preparation. The two plastic trash bins marked Biohazardous Material send off whiffs of blood and soiled hospital clothes.

A string pinches a flap of skin over the carotid artery where the embalming needle was slipped in. The body is slightly brown as if from a fading tan, and the feet are small and delicate, with smooth, soft heels and lovely long toes.

“She’s not had an easy life,” Aletha says tenderly.

The woman looks disappointed in the family pictures. She obviously had a penchant for wigs. In a photo with several other women she sits unsmiling, sad, wearing Dolly Parton hair. Aletha holds a wig out on her fist, an ash-blond pageboy. She carefully lifts the dead woman’s head and works the wig down over the forehead. The head rolls between her hands like a melon.

Gloria comes back in. “I found your hair spray,” she says. “It was behind a casket.”

“You’re never going to get curls out of this wig,” Aletha says. “There’s nothing to pin it onto. It’s going to be hard keeping it on.”

“We should have glued it on,” Gloria says.

“Well, it’s too late now,” Aletha snaps. “Do you have any glue?”

“I have some superglue, but I don’t know if it’ll work.”

“Maybe we could staple it on,” Aletha says and laughs.

Later Gloria says, “This is my second 55-year-old woman with cancer this week, and my fifth girl with cancer in the past two weeks.”

“Call me if you run into trouble,” Aletha tells Gloria as she leaves. “Call me if the wig falls off putting her into the casket.”

Later that afternoon Aletha calls Gloria to make sure the hair is OK. Gloria tells her the family was pleased at how good the wig looked, though the embalmer hadn’t shown up to dress the body until 20 minutes before the wake.

“Everything down there is done at the last minute,” Aletha says after she hangs up.

So why did she call them back?

“Because I care. That’s my work. Even though I only spend about 15 minutes doing their hair, I try to see them as the people they were. I got the very best job. The last thing done is the hair. That’s your crowning glory. Even when you’re getting ready to go out, if your hair looks like shit you look like shit. They’re going out with good hair.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.