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'It's my gift to them': Stylists give from the heart when designing hair for memorials, funerals

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photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

GRAND FORKS — Lavonne wanted to look her best that day. She was expecting a lot of company, and she wanted her hair to be styled just so—not too curly, not too flat.

She knew it was usually best to make an appointment, so she had talked to her hairdresser months in advance. And when the day arrived, her daughter made the call to Grand Forks hairstylist Kristi Skyberg.

"Her daughter said she always loved the way I did her hair and the way it made her feel," Skyberg said. "She called and asked me if I would do it, and I said, 'Absolutely!' "

Lavonne was her regular client, and Skyberg had styled her hair dozens of times over the years. This time it would be for Lavonne's funeral.

"I was more honored than anything else," Skyberg said recently. "It wasn't weird. It wasn't awkward. They (the funeral directors) made it comfortable. She was lying on a table, dressed. I brought my curling iron, and I talked to Lavonne just like I always did when she was sitting in my chair.

"I said, 'Lavonne, it wouldn't be good if I burned your ear today.' And I wasn't being disrespectful because that's the way we always talked. We joked. She was a sweet lady. I went to the prayer service that night, and I thought, oh, she looks so beautiful and so peaceful."

Skyberg is just one of many stylists who have stepped up to share what they do best during what many might call the moments of most compassionate care—styling the hair, shaping eyebrows, doing a manicure, trim or haircut for a man or woman before a funeral presentation.

Brothers Phil and Mark Amundson of Grand Forks' longtime Amundson Funeral Home say it's not uncommon for people to make special requests before they die, or for family members or the funeral directors to make the requests on their behalf. They estimated at least 65 percent of people choose to have a public viewing.

"There's a lot of details involved in setting up a funeral service, but of the highest importance to me is to make that person look as nice as possible for their family and friends. I'm always conscious of that," Mark said.

The brothers said their mother, Lorraine, did almost all of the hairstyling years ago when their father, Byron, was in charge. But for many years now, the funeral home has kept a regular person on staff who specializes in hair care.

Phil said cosmetology and hair care always has been part of a funeral director's formal education and training, but the hair care largely "has been trusted to other professionals at most funeral homes."

"What we're trying to do is create a memory picture for that family," Mark added. "Their appearance may have changed a bit in death, but we want to create a memory picture that's both comforting and pleasant."

A little TLC

Bonnie Hagen worked for 33 years as a hairstylist at an East Grand Forks salon, and it was about 15 years ago when the husband of a longtime client called to ask if she would style his wife's hair after she had died.

It was the first time Hagen had been asked to fulfill such a request, but she didn't hesitate before agreeing to do it.

"I wanted to honor the family's wishes. How could you say no to a client you had for 25 years," she said. "She was very specific. Every time she came to the salon, she had to have me do her hair."

So, Hagen took a friend along and "she walked me through it. It was a very peaceful experience that first time."

Hagen retired from the salon in 2011, but shortly after was asked to take on the regular stylist position at Amundson Funeral Home. She had been filling in for a stylist on maternity leave but that stylist had decided not to return to work.

And ever since, the role has been nothing but rewarding, she said. "It just happened. One door closed. Another opened."

"I think, OK, I can do this for the family. It's high emotion, of course, when someone dies. I've been through it myself so I know what it's like," Hagen said. "I treat them like they are my own mom, aunt or grandma. I really want to make it right for the family and honor that person for the life they lived, first and foremost."

Getting it right

Hagen says she sometimes knows the person, but there are times when it's their first meeting. In those instances, she might work with a picture the family has provided and then confer with them to get everything just right.

She works in a space separate from the inner preparation room of the funeral home. Only licensed personnel can enter there. She said she begins with the hair already washed and dried.

"Sometimes I re-wet it and apply mousse or a styling lotion. If they were typically a roller set, I try to follow suit and do a roller set for them. Or I blow-dry it and use a curling iron or flat iron.

"Sometimes I'll walk away and turn around and walk back to look again. I want to make sure it's perfect. I want to honor them and make sure the family is happy."

After the family has a private viewing, they might want a few changes before the public viewing. Maybe the hair should be parted differently, a scarf adjusted a bit or a shade of rose lipstick or nail color kicked up a notch.

"Bonnie will talk to a family directly about special concerns and help make suggestions when necessary," Phil said. "She's patient and talented. She's also one who wants everything to feel right for the family. If it isn't exactly what the family wants, she'll come right back and try to get it there."

Whether families choose Hagen or another stylist they have grown to love over the years, the Amundsons and the stylists agree it's one of the most important things they can do.

They say it's no different than the gift a granddaughter gives by singing at a memorial service or a son offers by reading a favorite Scripture. And it's just as much an honor as being asked to be a pallbearer.

"Honestly, it's an honor to be asked. It truly is an honor," said Kim Steffen, another longtime stylist and friend of the Amundsons. "To think that they loved me enough doing their hair and that's how they want to be remembered, how I made them look. To me, it's my gift to them, and I'm happy I can do that for them."