Skip to main content



Mortuary make-up artist who provides free services to Indonesian families says she 'made an oath to God' to help the poor

HONG KONG — Ms Roslina Siahaan was devastated when her beloved aunt died in December 2020 after years battling a chronic illness.

Ms Gloria Elsa Hutasoit, seen at home with her beauty tool case, began her work as a free mortuary beautician in 2017.

Ms Gloria Elsa Hutasoit, seen at home with her beauty tool case, began her work as a free mortuary beautician in 2017.

HONG KONG — Ms Roslina Siahaan was devastated when her beloved aunt died in December 2020 after years battling a chronic illness.

Her aunt, 53, wanted to be interred in her home village, in Indonesia's North Sumatra province, far from where she was living at the time in Bekasi, on the outskirts of the capital Jakarta.

An intimate memorial service was arranged for family and friends in Bekasi for the morning before her aunt's body was shipped to the village. Ms Siahaan wanted her aunt to look her best for the service.

"We called every hospital in the area, but no mortuary make-up artist was available that night," she remembers.

Ms Siahaan finally rang Ms Gloria Elsa Hutasoit, a mortuary make-up beautician based in Jakarta who promotes her free services on Instagram and Facebook.

Ms Hutasoit's home in east Jakarta is about 25km from the house of Ms Siahaan's aunt in Bekasi.

The mortuary beautician doesn't have a vehicle and relies on motorbike taxis to get around. It was raining hard that night and it took her almost an hour to arrive.

"When I got there, I felt like crying," Ms Hutasoit, 37, remembers. "They're so poor that their house didn't even have a door.

"It was very difficult to work. The house was narrow and rather dark. Its cement floors were cracked in so many places and there were puddles of water inside."

A family member held up a phone as a light to allow Ms Hutasoit to apply make-up to the aunt's face. By 4am, she had finished her work.

"My aunt looked so gorgeous, like never before," Ms Siahaan says. "And we were really grateful when Kak (Indonesian word for an older sibling also used to politely refer to others of a similar age) Elsa said it was all free."

At dawn, Ms Siahaan and Ms Hutasoit parted with a hug.

Ms Hutasoit's work as a free mortuary beautician began in 2017. "I made an oath to God," she says. "I wanted to help the poor."

In mid-2017, Ms Hutasoit's late husband was admitted to hospital with kidney failure.

"We had heaping debts for his medical bills at that time," she remembers, her voice cracking. "Every night, I couldn't sleep thinking of how I could pay them off."

A friend dropped by their house one evening. Without knowing about their dire financial situation, she gave Ms Hutasoit the exact amount of money she needed to clear their debts. Ms Hutasoit believes it was help from God.

"On the next day, I prayed to God saying that I also wanted to help others," the devout Catholic says, her eyes brimming with tears. "But I'm poor. I don't know how to."

In the following weeks, a series of destitute friends and family members visited her, asking her to prepare bodies of their loved ones for funerals.

As a teenager Ms Hutasoit had often helped her mother, a hospital nurse, bathe and apply cosmetics to deceased members of her church.

"Every dead body is different and requires a different treatment according to their causes of death," she says. "With every task, I learn and discover something new. It's very exciting."

Preparing a dead body for a funeral is not easy. "It's a very tiring process," Ms Hutasoit says. "I have to bathe (the body) and push the faeces out of their bowels, before dressing them and putting make-up on them."

She is respectful of the dead. "I always stand in front of the body and introduce myself," Ms Hutasoit says. "Hello, my name is Elsa. Today, I'm in charge of preparing your body for your funeral."

Corpses more than 10 hours old are usually very stiff, she explains, making it difficult for her to bathe and clothe them. She usually whispers in their ears asking them to relax their body. "It always works," she says.

A corpse's skin is usually dry and cracked, which makes it impossible for Ms Hutasoit to apply make-up directly. She has found a solution.

"As a primer, I apply a glue-stick all over the face," she says. "In some cases, when the skin is very dry and flaky, I also spray it with hairspray."

She then applies four layers of liquid and pressed foundation to the face, before contouring it with creams and dusting it with loose powder.

"I let the powder sit for a few minutes to absorb the moisture before wiping it with a fluffy brush. It helps create a long-lasting finish."

If required by the family, Ms Hutasoit also arranges the hair of the corpse in a neat sanggul or traditional hair bun. As a final touch, she sprays the face with a face mist to create a soft, natural glow, her signature style.

"Many of my clients said the body looks like a person preparing to go to a soiree, but then falling asleep," she says.

Ms Hutasoit often uses expired cosmetics donated by benefactors responding to her call on her social media account Maraton Kebaikan, or Marathon of Kindness.

"I started the movement in 2018 when I ran out of make-up for my services," she says. "I put up a notice on social media for friends and relatives to donate their expired cosmetics. Somehow, it went viral."

One of her regular donors is human resources specialist Marlisa Kurniati. "I read a story about Elsa online and became intrigued," Ms Kurniati says.

"I was also moving house at that time and discovered that I had so many lipsticks of almost similar hues, as well as many other products that were already expired. I sent them all to her."

After meeting Ms Hutasoit in person in 2019, Ms Kurniati decided to collect expired and unused make-up from her friends and family and donate them to Maraton Kebaikan.

"Elsa has connected with mortuary beauticians all over Indonesia," she says. "Through her movement, she also sends these expired and unused make-up items to them. So it's indeed a marathon of kindness."

Mr Dwi Sawung, lead campaigner of energy and urban issues at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), applauds the movement.

"Reusing old make-up for beautifying the dead is a clever solution," Mr Sawung says. "A lot of these products contain mercury and harmful colouring agents that would become bio-cumulative hazards when discarded in the environment."

Ms Hutasoit has been very busy during the Covid-19 pandemic. "I usually take care of about a dozen dead people a month," she says. "But the number has almost doubled in recent months."

Many of them were people with chronic diseases who could not get proper medical treatment immediately because most hospitals were too full, she adds.

Like other mortuary make-up artists in Indonesia, Ms Hutasoit doesn't work on people who have died from the coronavirus.

Everyone who dies from Covid-19, according to Indonesia's ministry of health regulations, must be bathed, put in a sealed coffin, and buried or cremated immediately.

Taking the corpse home, to places of worship or funeral homes for memorial services is forbidden.

Ms Hutasoit also offers private mortuary make-up classes on a pay-as-you-can scheme. One of her former students, Ms Grace Irsath, now offers free mortuary make-up services for the less fortunate in her hometown in Pontianak, in West Kalimantan province.

Ms Irsath, 29, who is a midwife, had often been asked to prepare bodies of dead patients for funerals. "But I felt that I was lacking the proper skills for that," she says. "So, while I was working in Jakarta, I looked for mortuary make-up classes."

The beauty class was held in Ms Hutasoit's home. "I learned so many useful tricks, including how to put on clothes on the corpse without any help and how to properly apply make-up to a water-bloated corpse," Ms Irsath says. 

She was grateful she was allowed to pay what she could for the lessons. 

"Now I feel that I have to pay it forward." SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

Related topics

mortuary make-up kindness Funeral

Read more of the latest in




Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.