How Theater Prepared This Artist for the Funeral Home

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Paris Warr (Courtesy of Paris Warr)

Paris Warr is an apprentice embalmer at a mortuary in the East Bay. It's her dream job. She's only been there for a year, but what a year it's been.

Before this job, she was a number of things: co-founder of a theatre troop called Colored Ink, owner of a head lice removal service, a sex educator, a model,  a radio show host, a licensed notary and so much more.

All of Paris' experiences have assisted her in gaining the skills she needs to become an embalmer. But she picked a hell of a time to get into the mortuary business, as officials have advised against holding funerals during the COVID-19 pandemic for safety reasons. Since our conversation she had to stop going into the office.

Paris Warr
Paris Warr (Courtesy of Paris Warr)

You can hear Paris talk about the journey to get her dream job and how this pandemic is shifting her industry on this week's episode of Rightnowish. You can also follow Paris on Instagram. What follows is a lightly edited excerpt of my conversation with Paris:

Pendarvis Harshaw: How did you land in the profession you're in now?

Paris Warr: I've always wanted to be in the funeral industry, maybe since the age of six. When my great-grandmother passed away, I went to her viewing and my grandmother told me to touch her. She said, "go on ahead and touch her, that way, you know she's not coming back."

PW: Ever since then, seeing [my great-grandmother] in that casket, seeing how beautiful she was and the environment that she was in and seeing how peaceful she looked, for some reason it was something that in the back of my mind. I was like, "I want to be here. I want to do that."

PW: So I knew about the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science in the late 90s. And when I graduated high school, I could have sworn that's where I was going, but they moved it to Sacramento. I was not about to move to Sacramento. So I just ended up doing my own thing and starting a theater company at Brava Theater, called Colored Ink, I was writing and producing, creating.

PW: Last year, I got sick of using the excuse that I couldn't do this job. I was selling myself short. And so one night I just said, fuck it, let me try. I wrote that resumé, which took me forever, sent it in and I got a call the next day. And she loved my resume. She was like, "Wow! You know how to do makeup, dressing, production, you've done events, you know how to work with people."

PW: Everything I have a skill in, she loved.

Paris Warr
Paris Warr (Courtesy of Paris Warr)



PH: And now what do you do on a daily basis?

PW: The cases that we have involved, I look at them. I check them like babies.  You know, when you have a baby and you check the diaper and everything else to see if they're OK? That's what I do with each of our involved cases. If they need moisturizer on their faces, I add more. If they need to be cleaned up a little bit, I do that. I also make sure their hands are in place, which is on top of their stomachs. Then after that, I just start on my first case.

PH: Is there any music you listen to that helps you with your job?

PW: Yeah. I can't work without music. It's usually R&B, funk, sometimes heavy metal. It all depends on who I'm working on. If it's an older person, I'll put on soul or gospel or something. It's different every day.

PH: You look at the person?

PW: Yeah. I'm like, "you would like this, let me put this on for you." I talk to them. I make them feel comfortable. And I treat them just like I would want my grandmother or grandfather to be treated.

PH: Thank you. It's good to know people like you exist, man!

PW: (Laughs) You're welcome.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.