CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
If there is a God, it doesn't know as much about its disciples as the TikTok algorithm does. After using the app a few times, TikTok's “For You” page will start serving videos targeted to your age, gender, sexuality, religion, location, preferred dog breed, and personal hygiene habits. The algorithm has only grown stronger in quarantine, with users spending mornings, days, and nights consumed by the app's endless stream.
If you're into Halloween, goth culture, death, and general spookiness, the algorithm may have served you videos from @Beforethecoffin
, the account of Pittsburgh-based mortician and special-effects makeup artist Heather Taylor. And it might be more than just macabre fans tuning in; Taylor’s TikTok has become extremely popular with hundreds of thousands of followers.
Taylor's videos create a space for people to get comfortable with the funeral industry, especially at a time when Americans are dealing with death on a mass scale. From demonstrations on post-mortem makeup, to tours of mortuary school, to dancing in a vampiric outfit, her account shows the life behind the death business.
Like many TikTok creators, Taylor's account gained popularity in quarantine — nearly 300,000 followers. Throughout the pandemic, watching videos of other people’s lives has served as a replacement for the fact that our own lives might feel like they're on hold. Taylor completed her time at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science (PIMS) during the pandemic, and now works at a funeral home where she does embalming and restorations on bodies, among other services. In August, she posted a montage on TikTok of her time at PIMS, and it racked up 1.2 million views. The comment section was filled with followers wanting more information about the mortuary industry, and PIMS loved the video so much they asked her to make more highlighting the school.
Before entering the funeral business, Taylor worked for years at Kennywood's Phantom Fright Nights and attended Tom Savini's Special Make-Up Effects Program, run by the makeup artist known for his work with filmmaker George Romero. When a funeral director suggested that Taylor would make a good mortician, she toured the school and knew it was her calling.
"[I had] already looked at cadavers in general to study for special effects so it was just something that felt more like a calling to me," says Taylor. "Something that I would be capable of doing and that I would feel comfortable with because I already feel comfortable with death."
In several of her videos, Taylor demonstrates how to repair molds of faces that have been damaged in an accident or attack. She fills in gaps with mortician's wax, and then applies or airbrushes coloring and makeup. The process shows viewers, and prepares students for, what it is like to mend a real human body.
"I hear most of the time [about] open casket services like, 'Oh, that didn't really look like my mother, that didn't really look like my friend,' and I wanted to give people that chance to have a more peaceful goodbye," says Taylor.
While her videos on working as a mortician are always serious and respectful, many TikToks on @Beforethecoffin don't have to do with the death industry at all. One of her most popular videos ever, with nearly 4 million views, features Taylor dancing on the road in a cemetery wearing a black spiderweb skirt sent to her by a clothing brand, which she says subsequently sold out. Others feature Taylor in Riverdale cosplay as Veronica Lodge, or running around as a transparent ghost (she gets help from her videographer fiance, Nathan King, also known for his musical act slowhaunt).
In one, as a ghost in a Victorian dress, she marches hurriedly through a cemetery (to Blackpink's "How you like that"). The overlaying text reads, "When you realize your husband wasn't buried next to you so you gotta find out who tf he was buried next to."
In others, she takes her followers on a tour of sights like Penn Forest Natural Burial Park, a “green cemetery,” or the Castle Halloween Museum in Altoona. The videos are for her viewers, but they're also to help Taylor ground herself in her life outside of work, which has been especially busy and heavy during the pandemic.
"I am constantly on my feet," she says. "Our phone is off the hook, and I am actually constantly very, very busy. If I'm not doing makeup, I'm embalming, and in my free time, I just kind of like to create videos, and it helps me bring myself back to my own personal life's reality."
If you look at the comments sections of any of Taylor's videos explaining the mortuary business, the comments are filled with people saying that they didn't know mortuary school existed, that they're inspired to see someone who went back to school at 25, that they applied to mortuary school because of her account.
She says that the enrollment at PIMS has increased over the past year, with many students marking on their application that they heard about it from TikTok. Taylor has now helped teach a restoration class at the school, and is happy to encourage others to pursue an important, and steady, career path.
"I think that the pandemic has really shown people that the death care industry is important. It should be noticed," says Taylor. "I would like to put a positive look on the death community for the youth. I think I'm doing a pretty good job of reaching Gen Z and telling them not to be so afraid."