TAMPA — The “corpse” lay in a coffin, wearing a long pink gown and a blank expression. Her hands rested on a dried bouquet. A friend, who had come to mourn, crouched next to her and clutched a rose to her chest.
The corpse tried not to giggle.
Everything resembled a real funeral — heaps of flowers and candles, stack of prayer cards and, of course, a lace-lined coffin. There was even a funeral parlor employee. She stood behind a tripod, snapping photos of the macabre setup.
“One, two, three!” she called out.
The corpse and mourner closed their eyes and tried to look solemn.
Jessica Dillon is a Dunedin-based mortician. She’s spent the last 10 years doing makeup, dressing, casketing and embalming. She’s now also the founder of Embalmarina’s Traveling Postmortem Fauxtography Parlour.
Her business card reads: “Bringing the funeral parlour to you for a spooky photo experience.”
While it may seem grim to slide into a coffin and say cheese, there’s a deeper meaning behind the project.
“I want people to not be so afraid of death,” said Dillon, 38. “If you can embrace your mortality, it’ll help you live a better life.”
Dillon set up her first photo shoot on a humid August afternoon during Tampa’s annual Tabernacle of Oddities event. The showcase, now in its second year, was hosted by Ybor City oddity shop Dysfunctional Grace Co. at the new Orpheum location.
The event included Frozen Stiffs (an ice cream truck operated out of a hearse), tables of taxidermy artists and Wrinkles the Clown. It was the perfect place to debut Dillon’s new endeavor.
The photo booth was set up outside the Orpheum. Dillon stayed up until 11:30 the night before the event, working with a friend from production company Thinking Tree Media to string up white gauzy curtains and professional studio lighting.
Dillon’s co-worker, who creates taxidermy art under the name Undead Undertaker, found the coffin at Dysfunctional Grace and did some DIY work to make it look Victorian before driving the coffin over in her personal hearse.
Dillon was nervous, but over the two days of the event, she would complete about 40 shoots.
Dillon pulled in touches from actual funerals: a vintage prayer card stand, flower arrangements, thrifted funeral gowns and prayer books. She made smaller bouquets for models to hold from dried flowers, feathers and taxidermied animal parts. The creations were for sale from $25 to $200.
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Each 20-minute photo session in the coffin cost $20, paid via Venmo or PayPal. The price included a framed photo in an old-timey black-and-white or sepia filter. Unframed photos were $10.
Dillon also gave out a small zine, which explains “death care protocol,” from cremation to death certificates. The title on the front: “So you’re dead. Now what?” The grainy photograph on the front showed an old man in a coffin.
“That’s my great-great-great grandfather,” Dillon said.
Jillian Muschler, a vet tech, came to work as Dillon’s assistant. She helped brainstorm prop placement, smooth flyaway hairs and generally cheerlead the living dead.
While her friend took photos, she answered visitor questions, like if beer was allowed in the photo area. (“Just don’t spill it in the coffin,” she told them.)
Muschler hoped the process could help people with terminal illness, “to kind of confront mortality.”
“I don’t work in the funeral industry, but I’m a very death-positive person,” she said.
Two women with long black hair peeked into the photo booth area. They had been dating a few months and wanted a picture together. Rachael Zucker, 29, of Bradenton, would play dead. Leah Masson, 31, of St. Petersburg, would grieve.
Dillon guided them through their outfit and prop options. Would they like a lacy shawl? Bat wings? A plague doctor mask?
Despite the afternoon heat, Zucker opted for the long gown. She kicked off her chunky black boots and stepped backwards into the coffin, Muschler and Dillon each holding an arm. Masson picked out a black veil.
The couple wanted to do something no one else had done so far. They wanted to tell a story.
“If you woke up from being dead to, like, kiss her or something, that would be hot and adorable and morbid,” Muschler suggested. “You’re desperate for one more kiss.”
Muschler demonstrated poses — the mourner bending over the coffin, the corpse reaching out from her final resting place.
“This is the real funeral director coming out,” Dillon said as she smoothed out Zucker’s dress. “You want everything to be just right and perfect.”
For the last shot, the couple held their faces 6 inches apart, frozen in time.
As the women reviewed their black-and-white thumbnails, Masson fired off a Venmo payment. (”For coffin,” she wrote in the memo line.)
Then Dillon printed their favorite photo, the last pose they had taken. The couple laughed. They loved it.
“It was fun,” Masson said. “I would say a little creepy, but not in a bad way.”
Want to schedule a photo shoot? Contact @embalmarina on Instagram.