On an April morning in Port Richmond four years ago, Kate Morovich walked into the still parlor of the Reilly-Rakowski Funeral Home. Her friend's daughter lay in the casket.
Kate had known Jayme Campbell since she was 6, when Kate took a job with Jayme's mother, Lisa, in a hair salon in Northeast Philadelphia. Spunky, beautiful Jayme, with bright blue eyes and blond hair and a wide smile, so tan she looked like a California girl even before she moved to San Diego to become a respiratory therapist. Kate had watched Jayme grow up. She had done her makeup on prom nights — just a little bronzer, to make her glow, to match the blues and yellows of her bright dresses.
Now Kate was carting her makeup to the funeral home, where Jayme lay dead from heroin at age 27.
Tend to Jayme, please, Lisa had asked her friend. Make her look like herself.
Lisa had brought her daughter home from California when it became clear that the Percocets she sometimes took at parties had led her into a full-blown heroin addiction. Lisa tried to keep her close. But one night she was called to the hospital. The friends who brought her in said she was having an asthma attack: They had been too frightened to say it was an overdose. By the time Lisa told the doctors of her daughter's addiction, it was too late. Now she called on her old friend for a last kindness.
Kate had never prepared the body of someone so young. Jayme was so pale, she thought. Didn't need a photo to know what Jayme would have liked.
"I airbrushed her so she looked like Jayme again," Kate said. "I put her mascara on. Her lip gloss. Gave her some shiny, glittery, eye shadow and tried to make her look like she's sleeping."
Lisa was comforted.
‘They should look at peace’
It was supposed to be a favor for a friend. But it became an indelible part of Kate's life. She stayed on at the hair salon, but took a second job at the funeral home on Allegheny Avenue, doing makeup for the dead. It was a calling that grew out of her own loss — Jayme, yes, but before that, her own sister, Mary, who died of lung cancer at 33 when Kate was 19.
The mortician's work had turned Mary, so vivacious in life, into a stranger. Green eye shadow, pink blush caked on her cheeks, a pink lipstick that Mary would have never worn. A green burial gown that made her look like an old woman. "That was not my sister," said Kate, who is now 43, and a sought-after makeup artist who travels the country for her craft.
At the parlor, the makeup artist works by a credo: "It's that last goodbye — it's the last time they are ever going to see them. That final goodbye, it should be the person that you know. They should look at peace."
And immediately, she realized she would be applying that philosophy to more young people than she thought possible — to the victims of the overdose crisis that was now ravaging a generation of young people in Port Richmond. The parlor sits in the 19134 zip — which includes Kensington and Port Richmond. Last year, 209 people overdosed there, more than anywhere else in the city. Nearly 900 have died there in the last decade, from all over, but many from that neighborhood.
Just as the crisis has changed so many in this city — families and advocates and doctors and outreach workers — it's changed people who thought their jobs were ordinary, would have nothing to do with the heroin epidemic, but now find themselves on the front lines, too. Like Kate the makeup artist.
"It was like one after another after another after another," she said. "You hear about it, but once you work at a funeral home — you walk in, and it's another family coming and they are making arrangements for their child that overdosed. And you think, 'Again.' "
Her nephew in Northeast Philadelphia struggles with opioid addiction. He's lost eight friends in the last year.
At the funeral home, they come in waves. There will be a lull for a week or two, and then a bad batch will go around, and Kate will be busy again. She estimates she has prepared 100 overdose victims since Jayme's death four years ago. They are young. So young. Many of them are women.
"I stand there doing makeup on these girls and I should be doing their hair for their wedding," she said, "not while they're laying in their casket."
Kate watches the families at the services. Young women will play with their sisters' long hair, one last time. A mother will ask to have her daughter buried in her favorite T-shirt, then ask for it back: She wants to sleep with it. A father will pace outside, overwhelmed with grief, unable to come in to see the daughter he'd found dead.
She can hear the young people in the back of the room whispering sometimes, trying to figure out where their friend got the dose that killed, so they could try it themselves.
Kate cannot shake these scenes from her mind — nor how it feels to touch the dead.
"These kids, they feel like babies — just to even touch their skin, they still feel so young," she said. "They should be up and out."
Something beyond great kindness
The makeup artist decided she had to do something, something beyond the great kindness she has already extended to these families. From the studio at the funeral home where she works, where she plays music that she thinks the young people would like, she's organizing an opioid-awareness event.
She plans to hold it in the parking lot next to the funeral home. She wants to set up a stage for speakers. For parents who have lost children, like Lisa. There will be a slideshow of victims that have passed through the parlor and officials can speak to the depth of the crisis and what can be done to fight stigma and save lives, help parents recognize the earliest signs of opioid addiction.
"If we can open up the eyes of just one or two people — to get them to know they're not alone," said Andrew Rakowski, a co-owner of Reilly-Rakowski. He tended to a woman last year who was burying her sister. She'd died from an overdose not long after the father of her child had died from one. Arrangements were made as the couple's orphaned toddler played with toys in a nearby room.
Morovich is planning the event for a weekend early in the fall, on an Eagles off day. This is, after all, Port Richmond. "Something has to be done," she said. "It's wiping out a generation."
It was a slow week when I spoke to her Wednesday. The makeup artist knew that meant that the next week, the overdoses would likely be coming in waves.