In all societies, human bodies are prepared in some fashion before they are laid to rest. Archaeologists have discovered that the practice of preparing the dead dates back to the earliest Homo sapiens. The Neanderthals stained their dead with red ocher, a possible indication of some belief in afterlife. Throughout history, preparation of the dead has varied across cultures, but most practices included washing the body, dressing it in special garments, and adorning it with ornaments, religious objects, or mementos. Most of these practices continue throughout the world today.
Contemporary anthropological studies interpret funeral customs as symbolic expressions of the values that prevail in a particular society. In the United States, presentation of the body so that it appears natural and comfortable for its last public appearance is a part of the ritual.
Mortuary cosmetology as a career choice is fairly new. Cosmetic preparation of the deceased is not a service that has evolved only with the mortuary cosmetologist. Funeral directors and embalmers have traditionally provided these services. As part of their licensing requirements, these professionals must be able to perform all preparations necessary—including applying makeup and styling hair. In many cases, the standard flesh-tone makeup is all that is needed. Those who had simple hairstyles, especially men, may not require the specialized services of a cosmetologist.
Mortuary cosmetology as a specialty was really only recognized in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Noella C. Charest-Papagno published a book, Handbook of Desairology for Cosmetologists Servicing Funeral Homes (J J Publishing, 1996), in which she coined the term desairology (from the words deceased and hair), and many in the field prefer it to mortuary cosmetology. Thanks to the efforts of Charest-Papagno and other cosmetology professionals, the funeral and cosmetology industries have come to realize that there is no reason why people who were particular about their appearance in life shouldn't have the same service available to them in death. Today more schools are offering classes on mortuary cosmetology; they were unheard of in cosmetology schools a few decades ago.