Eileen Hollis doesn’t remember how old she was when she saw her first dead body, but it was young, she says, ‘really young.’
Now the 31-year-old mortician from Syracuse, New York has decided that she will one day take over the family business in the same home where she was raised. ‘It was a straight up My Girl and Six Feet Under type of deal,’ she laughs.
With pink hair and cat-eye glasses, Hollis doesn’t look the part of your stereotypical funeral director but she has done more than 1,000 funerals in her four-year career.
Recently, she’s become a viral sensation on TikTok, where she shares her passion for all things six feet under. From the embalming process, to the weird smells, mortuary makeup tips, and what it’s like to deal with death all day long – no topic is off limits.
She answers questions like, What happens if someone dies wearing contact lenses? How do you get makeup to look natural when the skin is stiff? Is it true you break people’s bones to position them in a coffin? Where do tampons go and who takes them out? – The latter to which she replied: ‘What’s a little more blood? I don’t think we would even notice it.’
Funeral director, Eileen Hollis, 31, poses on her wedding day next to her parents outside the family funeral home that she will one day take over and live in with her own husband and children. Hollis’ father Charlie (left) owned and operated the mortuary for forty years while raising his family in the upstairs floors of the giant Victorian mansion. ‘It was a straight up My Girl and Six Feet Under type of deal,’ said Eileen
#DeathTok is a popular and fast growing corner of the social media hub with over 18 million views from those with a morbid fascination for death. Eileen Hollis is its latest breakout star with 409,000 followers who flock to her videos for her straight forward talk about death packed with unflinching details. From the embalming process, to the weird smells, mortuary makeup tips, and what it’s like to deal with death all day long – no topic is off limit
As a funeral director, Hollis is responsible for planning the arrangements as well as preparing the body which involves cleaning, embalming, dressing, cosmetology and casket placement. She is also an embalmer and has done more than 1,000 funerals in her career. She insists that she’s never been squeamish, except for when it comes to smells. ‘The respirator is my godsend because I can’t smell anything. And if I can, then it’s time to change the cartridges,’ she told DailyMail.com
As a funeral director, Hollis is in charge of every detail from planning arrangements to preparing the body which involves cleaning, embalming, dressing, cosmetology and casket placement.
Her goal is to take the stigma out of death, debunk myths, and educate people on their options: do you want to be cremated? Embalmed? Composted?
To that purpose, no question is too ghastly or trivial.
In one video, she discusses the post-mortem phenomena called the ‘purge,’ which is when a build-up of pressure in the body causes fluids to exit out the various orifices- ears, nose, mouth, rectum.
In another clip, Hollis gives a play by play of the embalming process while doing her morning skincare routine. She remains unruffled, nonchalant, and refreshingly insouciant despite the ghoulish subject matter.
‘Because my hands are so small I got to reach in and hold someone’s brain,’ she tells the camera while holding a face serum that unnervingly looks a lot like blood. Using a dropper, she draws the red product from its bottle and finishes her thought, ‘So that was interesting.’
She also shares tricks of the trade, like how she uses ‘mortuary wax’ to restore traumas like gunshot wounds, and ‘skin slip,’ which is when the superficial layers of the skin slide off. Or how she uses root touch-up spray to ‘dye’ a person’s hair. In the absence of photographs, she’ll use images on the deceased’s social media to match skin color.
And she doesn’t hesitate to talk about the more macabre elements of her job. Like how she wires a mouth shut, or uses ridged eye caps, ‘similar to contacts’ to keep eyelids closed.
Hollis’s vast knowledge comes by way of her father, Charlie Hollis, who has run the Hollis Funeral Home out of their Victorian-era mansion as a one-man operation for the last 40 years. (Her mother works as a seamstress). Eileen and her two siblings – one is a burlesque dancer, the other is a librarian – were raised in the floors above the mortuary.
‘Growing up,’ said Hollis, ‘I truly never understood what the extent of a funeral service is and what it means.’ She remembers hearing quiet murmurs and the smell of cigarette smoke. She told DailyMail.com: ‘I just knew that my dad threw parties downstairs for people.’
‘Everyone thinks that we’re crazy for getting into this business, but I don’t think it’s any crazier than becoming a doctor or a social worker or a lawyer,’ she told DailyMail.com.
Hollis gives her followers an inside look of the funeral home that she grew up in. The rambling Victorian-style mansion was built in 1892. The downstairs area features two viewing rooms, a casket showroom, a cremation product room as well as an embalming room in the basement. Hollis, along with her parents and two siblings lived in the upstairs portion of the house while her father worked downstairs
Despite having grown up with dead bodies in the basement, Hollis says her childhood was ‘pretty normal.’ Piano lessons, dance rehearsals, sleepovers with friends, and high school shenanigans, she said, ‘Sometimes I would forget that I lived in a funeral home’
‘Growing up,’ said Hollis, ‘I truly never understood what the extent of a funeral service is and what it means.’ She remembers hearing quiet murmurs and the smell of cigarette smoke. She told DailyMail.com: ‘I just knew that my dad threw parties downstairs for people’
Eileen Hollis’ father, Charlie ran the Hollis Funeral home as a one-man operation for the last 40 years. Eileen says her motivation for going into the family trade was because she wanted to carry on her father’s legacy. He spent years working to buy back his business from a predatory funeral corporation that bought up local mom and pop mortuaries in the 1990s. ‘After all that, I would die if I saw his legacy crumble,’ she told DailyMail.com. Hollis was working as a dance instructor when she decided to go to mortuary school in 2014
As she got older, Hollis remembers spying on her guests, crawling under the row of chairs in the visitation room and ‘ghostbusting spirits’ if she ever felt unsafe. ‘The funeral home was my playground.’ All things considered, she had a normal childhood.
Piano lessons, dance rehearsals, sleepovers with friends, and high school shenanigans, she said, ‘Sometimes I would forget that I lived in a funeral home.’
‘Sometimes I would have to go downstairs and knock on the embalming room door where my dad would peek his head out the door– I wouldn’t see a dead person, but you could see their legs and stuff.’
‘It was just such a normal part of our life live that I never thought too deeply into what the business is,’ she told DailyMail.com.
The 31-year-old undertaker insists that her unconventional upbringing never affected her social life. In fact, she laughs, ‘I wasn’t the first girlfriend who had a family funeral home when I started dating my husband.’
Currently Hollis lives with her husband in ‘a tiny Hobbit house’ close to the family mortuary. One day, when Eileen takes over the business, she and her husband will move into the upstairs with their own family. ‘We are in no rush to get into that funeral home,’ she says. ‘But he knows that we’re going to live there and he’s fine with it.’
Despite her passion for the family trade – ‘funeral directing’ wasn’t her first career choice. In fact she studied dance and worked as an instructor for the Syracuse City School District before she began shadowing her dad for extra money.
For Hollis, carrying on her father’s legacy was the biggest motivating factor in joining the family business.
In the 1990s, Charlie Hollis misguidedly sold his business to a corporate funeral company that bought up local mom and pop mortuaries, only to drive them into the ground. ‘It’s really, exactly like what happened in Six Feet Under,’ said Eileen. After ‘a lot of blood, sweat, and tears,’ Charlie Hollis was finally able buy back his company and business is better than ever before. ‘After all that, I would die if I saw his legacy crumble.’
Hollis debunks the myth that morticians ‘break bones’ but explains how they ‘break rigor mortis’ instead by flexing limbs to position a corpse in its casket and help distribute the embalming fluid throughout the body. In another video, Hollis confirms the ‘myth’ that the hands of a deceased person can seemingly ‘grasp’ onto the undertaker when the flexor tendons on their wrists are accidentally ‘activated’ – causing ‘the hand to slightly crawl in’
In another video, Eileen Hollis explains why they don’t use a refrigeration system in their funeral home: ‘Syracuse, New York is freezing for the majority of the year.’ She also adds that a chemically embalmed body can last for a few weeks and that putting it back in a freezer would create condensation and mold. ‘In the summer, we install a very good air conditioner that spews out all the cold air, but that’s mostly so I don’t die when I’m in my PPE’
Hollis poses with her father on her wedding day underneath the clock that hangs outside their funeral home. It bares an inscription in Latin: ‘Tempus Fugit Momento Mori,’ which translates to ‘Times fly, remember death’
Eileen Hollis showcases all the various hair products she uses to perfect a corpse’s coif while explaining the tricks she uses to dye the hair of a deceased person. It’s possible she says, ‘but it’s a little bit tricky’ because box dyes don’t work nor do old-fashioned rinses. That being said, Eileen uses root touch-up spray, finished with hair spray to keep the color from flaking
She enrolled in mortuary school in 2014.
The two-year program requires students to pass two national board exams in both arts and science before they can receive their diploma. The ‘arts’ portion of the test covers the business and religious elements of funeral directing while the ‘science’ section focuses on the embalming process, cosmetic and restorative arts.
Some of the classes include gross anatomy, which entails working on a cadaver. ‘We really went through each layer of the body, from the top layer of skin all the way down to the bone,’ explained Hollis, who became more convinced that she picked the right profession after taking that first class. ‘I love the human body. It’s so fascinating. And as a former dancer, um, I just loved it even more.’
All mortuary students are then required to complete a year-long residency with a funeral home and pass a state funeral law exam before they can officially receive their mortician’s license.
‘It’s crazy. It was a lot of work, a lot more work than I thought I was going to do,’ said Hollis.
‘The apprenticeship is where you really learn everything they did not teach you in school. Like just tons of little crazy situations and how you can problem solve, a lot of funeral directing is thinking on your feet and thinking fast.’
Hollis is also an embalmer, which is a certain skill that not all funeral directors have. Embalming is a process that temporarily disinfects and preserves the body by replacing the blood with formaldehyde and draining the organs. She spares no details in describing the procedure on her TikTok.
She insists that she’s never been squeamish, except for when it comes to smells. ‘The respirator is my godsend because I can’t smell anything. And if I can, then it’s time to change the cartridges,’ she told DailyMail.com.
Emotionally, the worst part of her job ‘is witnessing infant death.’ But the most rewarding part is giving families closure. She told DailyMail.com: ‘Death care isn’t just about caring for the dead, it’s about caring for the living so much more.’
The most challenging aspect of funeral directing is the unpredictable work schedule. Hollis has to be on-call 24 hours a day, which is why she says, ‘living above the funeral home makes it so much easier.’
Every experience is always new and no two bodies are ever alike, that’s what keeps Hollis thinking on her toes. ‘Maybe someone really loves a red lip and a lot of blush, or maybe there’s a little old lady that drew her eyebrows on really thin and not in the place that eyebrows grow at all,’ she says.
The worst cases are those who died from a traumatic death like a motorcycle accident, or homicide, or those who underwent an autopsy. ‘That can be a lot too. Your whole abdominal cavity is opened because they’re studying to see how you died.’
‘So it’s a bit shocking but that makes me want to work harder to then do my favorite thing which is putting them back together and making them look like themselves.’
Eileen shows how bodies are first placed on a wood base with a cardboard top before they are sent off for cremation. Hollis said that her goal in creating the TikTok is to take the stigma out of death, debunk myths, and educate people on their post-mortem options
Charlie Hollis finds treats delivered in the casket from a casket maker in upstate New York. Eileen calls it #casketcandy
Some of the more ghoulish clips from Eileen Hollis’ TikTok explain the procedure for wiring a jaw shut, which is done with something called a ‘needle injector.’ The device looks similar to a gun and involves anchoring two tacks in the upper and lower jaw. In another clip, Hollis shows off the tools of the trade: an aneurism hook, an incision spreader, arterial hemostat, angled scissors, and S-curve needles
Hollis says that Glossier mascara and brow pencil are her favorite products to use on the dead. She also says that finishing powder is a ‘must have’ especially when working with restorative wax. The mermaid shaped makeup brushes by Tarte Cosmetics (left) have a starring role throughout her TikTok feed. An embalming machine (right) replaces blood with formaldehyde in order to preserve the body. The process requires Hollis to first drain all the blood from the body and aspirate the organs
Do dead bodies fart? Can you preserve tattoos? What does embalming fluid smell like?: A mortician’s cheerful answers to GRAVE questions
What is embalming? ‘Embalming is the art and science of temporarily disinfecting and preserving a human body. The point is to make the dead appear more suitable for a public or private visitation.’
Where does the blood drain from an embalming? Is it thin or normal after death? ‘The blood drains down the embalming room table and into a toilet that we like to call ‘the hopper,’ which feeds into the sewer system. The consistency of blood depends on your body’s condition, how you died and what underlying conditions you have medically. The blood itself can be thick or thin, colors range from a deep red to a bright red, there could be loads of blood clots or none at all.’
How can moisture be absorbed through the skin if the person is dead? ‘Your skin doesn’t stop being skin after you die, it’s still porous, it doesn’t absorb as fast because your skin is a bit fixated from the formaldehyde but after every embalming I like to put on this Kalon Massage Cream.’
Why do people have greasy hair in the casket? ‘Your hair is made up of keratin and when you are embalmed, the formaldehyde coagulates the proteins in the hair, so it makes your hair feel kind-of crunchy. Not just for the dead, but sometimes for myself too, when I’m done embalming sometimes my hair will feel crunchy.’
Can you fart in the afterlife? ‘Yes, but not everyone that goes into the light poops.’
Is it true you break people’s bones if they die with their hands up in the air? ‘False, we don’t break your bones but we do ‘break’ the rigor mortis.’
How long is cremation? ‘Typically cremation takes about one to four hours. It really depends on how much you weigh.’
Can a recently deceased have an allergic reaction? ‘No, when we die our vital functions shut down. Our brain isn’t operating. Our immune system is fighting nothing because…we’re dead.’
Can you preserve your loved one’s tattoos? ‘Yes this is 100% a thing.’
How soon after do you have to do the embalming process? ‘If your family desires an embalming it should be done ASAP. Embalming an hour or two after death is key because your blood hasn’t coagulated yet, it’s still free flowing. It just distributes the formaldehyde solution a little bit better throughout your body.’
How do you make the makeup look natural if the skin is stiff? ‘Yes chemically embalmed skin feels stiff and a little bit cold to the touch. To make their skin look lifelike, a little bit dewy and hydrated, I layer on products, we have mortuary creams.’
How do you cover heavy bruising? ‘There’s a couple of steps when handling heavy bruising. We’ll use a bleaching agent to bleach out the purple and once you successfully get the color out, then you can go in with a cream based foundation.’
Do you buy your own products? Or do you get a spending limit from the job? ‘The funeral home pays for all supplies.’
What does embalming fluid smell like? ‘It smells like toxic chemical h***. It’s extremely dangerous and extremely cancerous.’
Do you use a different mask every time you embalm? Does it smell like chemicals and such? ‘Nope, just my respirator. If I smell a single thing, it’s time to pop off the cartridges and and replace them
Do you follow superstitions while working with a corpse? ‘My dad always says if you get a deceased person that comes to you with crossed legs, then don’t get out of your work clothes because you’re about to get another death call. My personal favorite that I’ve been doing this since I was a little kid is holding your breathe when you pass a cemetery because if you don’t, you risk sucking in the soul of a recently deceased person.’
Has anyone ever asked to have a smile on their face with teeth showing? ‘No.’
What happens to ‘boy parts’? ‘I don’t do anything with anyone’s parts except wash them. Sometimes I remove catheters, no one’s out here mutilating your body. Heck our funeral home doesn’t even remove silicon breast implants, because somebody paid really good money for them.’
Have you ever had to work on a close family or friend? ‘Yes, I have and my dad definitely has. For me, it’s an honor to care for everyone I love, I’m going to embalm my dad.’
Do you have to order special caskets for large people? ‘There is something for everyone.
Why are noses stuffed with cotton? ‘We use cotton to plug up the orifices because there is a post mortem change called purge, which is the evacuation of fluids from the body .’
Why is plastic wrap used on a body underneath clothing after a traumatic death? ‘What you’re feeling is not plastic wrap, what you’re feeling is coveralls, they are basically just a plastic romper. At our funeral home we use them for every embalming case that is having a visitation. Plastics create a barrier between the body and their clothes because they will sometimes leak.’
What is the one thing that people say in your profession that is always a lie? ‘People love to claim that a dead body can just sit up. Yes the body can make small twitches immediately after death, but you don’t have the capacity to just sit up.’
Does being around dead bodies make you more or less afraid of death? ‘I would definitely say that being a funeral director and caring for the deceased and their families has made me very comfortable with the reality of death.’
Is it normal for the deceased person’s hair dresser to come in and do their hair one last time? ‘Super duper common at our funeral home. Honestly we encourage it because who knows your hair better than your hair dresser?’
If you get a trans person’s body that hasn’t transitioned yet, do you do the makeup to their gender or biological sex? ‘I just go with the gender they identify as, it’s not rocket science.’
Can a family member come in and dress their family once they are embalmed? ‘Yes, you can absolutely come in and help dress. Your funeral director just needs to be there to supervise and help.’
What happens if I died with makeup on? ‘If you’re having a direct cremation, I’ll just leave it on you. But if you’re having a traditional service and desire to be embalmed and placed in a casket, our funeral home will remove your makeup. I wash your body a few times during the embalming process so you’re fresh as a daisy. And once you’re all dressed, I’ll redo your makeup however you want, with whatever you want. You can bring your own makeup bag!’
Is it possible to decline working on children and babies? ‘I would say this profession isn’t for you. You can pick and choose but I just don’t think we should pick and choose.’
Do you have to embalm if the person is being cremated? ‘Nope. You are never legally required to be embalmed. However funeral directors have a right to require it if you’re having a pubic visitation.’
What is the purpose of lip and face wax? ‘The purpose of mortuary wax in general is to restore trauma. Mortuary wax can be used to restore something like a gunshot wound. It can cover up dehydrated lips. It can restore skin slip- that is when the superficial layers of the skin lift away and slide right off. That can happen on your arms, hands, under your eyes, your whole entire face.’
How would you suggest being less scared of death? ‘Don’t ignore death, it is the one thing that we all have in common.’
How do you reattach a head that has been decapitated? ‘With a decapitation the head is reattached to the torso before you embalm and both need to be embalmed separately, and that’s just because there are lots of vessels that are destroyed. To provide some structure for attachment you can use a metal or wooden dowel.’
On a lighter note, Hollis retold a story of how she was cleaning the funeral home when she suddenly heard a beeping sound coming from within the embalming room. (Just prior, she had completed watching a Netflix series about the Unabomber and was on high alert).
‘I was like, ‘Okay, did someone plant a bomb? Is it our air conditioner?’ I really had no idea! I thought maybe our house is really old. Or maybe something is gonna blow up,’ she said.
The beep got louder as she approached the body and when she leaned over to listen, ‘Sure enough it was a pacemaker trying to revive them!’ she laughs.
Despite her cheery attitude, Eileen Hollis spends a lot of time thinking about death.
The profession hasn’t precluded her from existential dread and the fearsome questions of mortality. ‘Just because I’m a death care worker doesn’t mean that I’m excused from any of these like scary life questions and fears. Absolutely not.’
‘I’ve been thinking about death since I was in the second grade. I used to stay up at night and have a really hard time falling asleep.’
She hopes that talking about it more will help people feel more comfortable when faced with it themselves. ‘Don’t ignore it,’ she advises on TikTok. ‘It’s the one thing that we all have in common.’
Working so closely with death hasn’t informed Hollis’ idea of ‘an afterlife’ any more than her Catholic upbringing did: ‘They taught us about purgatory and the way my mind envisioned it, it was just total darkness and that really, really F’d me up.’
‘Now I like to think of the afterlife like the Beetlejuice waiting room.’
It’s no surprise that the undertaker has already planned out her own funeral in meticulous detail. Failing her first preference (which is something called alkaline hydrolysis), she wants to be cremated with a portion of her ashes ‘hanging in a disco ball urn’ placed in her favorite graveyard at the Syracuse Oakwood Cemetery. She clarifies: ‘When I say disco ball, I mean a stone disco ball monument, something that my husband can stick tiny little mirrors to, or something that the ball can hang from.’
In a profession that is mostly dominated by men, Hollis says that TikTok has provided her with a community of like-minded morticians that are similar in age. ‘I’m thankful for it because they really helped me a voice,’ she told DailyMail.com. ‘Because funeral stuff is taboo, nobody really likes to think about their own mortality or face the reality. You won’t die thinking about it.’
Outside the Hollis Funeral Home hangs a giant clock bearing an inscription in Latin: ‘Tempus Fugit Momento Mori.’ It translates to ‘Times fly, remember death.’
‘I just want people to remember that we’re not going to be around here forever and to enjoy your life, enjoy the good, enjoy everything it has to offer you, but always respect the dead.’