BEIJING -- Death is the start of Liu Rui'an's work.
The 52-year-old has been working at the backroom of Beijing's Babaoshan Funeral Home for almost three decades, embalming and dressing up no fewer than 200,000 bodies.
Renowned as the master of mortuary cosmetics, Liu has faced a number of deceased senior leaders of the Communist Party and the state on the slab before him.
"I feel honored, but there is nothing secretive about it," Liu said. "I always tried my best at work, no matter who the bodies used to be. Everyone is equal here."
In some cultures, embalming is all about giving a person his final moments with dignity. But Liu sees the work less about the dead than the ones left behind, for them to have a lasting memory of the person who died.
Liu said the extra challenge of grooming deceased leaders might come from the need for a televised or public farewell ceremony. For a revered public figure, not only the family, but senior officials and the public have to be pleased with the results, too.
Babaoshan is a stretch of hilly terrain in Beijing's western suburbs. It was designated as the site to lay the ashes of deceased Chinese revolutionaries after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. Since then, Party and state leaders, as well as other dignitaries, have mainly been cremated at Babaoshan's funeral home.
Liu said he was chosen about 15 years ago to become the top cosmetician to put the finishing touches on deceased dignitaries. In 1996, he accepted the challenge to embalm a former senior legislature official who was murdered and needed extensive restorative work.
"I had deep worries, too -- if the cosmeticizing failed, there would be no farewell ceremony, as usual," Liu said. "That, once happened, would definitely end my career as a mortuary cosmetician."
"But there was no backing out. I told the officials, no problems. I took the job." he said.
Liu, then 36 years old, spent three days in a private room working on the body. In the end, as none of a panel of 30 family members and officials said they were not pleased with the result, Liu was relieved.
"It was a turning point in my career," Liu said, adding that he had grown more confident of his skills and more families of dignitaries came to him -- including the family of the revered leader Deng Xiaoping.
Liu said that through years of embalming he has come to learn that wealth, fame, and social status are all insignificant as people from all walks of life end up on his slab as equals.
That philosophy guided Liu through all these years. Though known for his skills in the business, Liu has not given a thought to cash in on his talent and experience.
Content with his ordinary income of roughly 6,000 yuan a month, Liu refused to give lectures or to open his own mortuary cosmetic studio to earn extra money.
Today, Liu spends more time training his three young colleagues at Babaoshan funeral home and does not lose a chance to help hone their skills.
Liu did not have an education beyond junior high school and had not attended any formal course on anatomy, embalming, surgery or cosmetics.
"Learning by practicing. That is how I have been training myself all these years since I was a funeral home apprentice. I hope the young guys can do the same," he said.
The Chinese have a rich funeral culture, but embalming, especially mortuary cosmetics, only recently became sophisticated. In the past, applying bright rouge on the cheeks was most of what was done to prepare the deceased.
Liu said the standard now is to restore the natural features of the deceased as much as possible to make the person look like he or she is in a sound sleep.
Babaoshan's embalming room resembles a spacious, common beauty salon. Liu and his five colleagues have cosmetic carts with an array of brushes, sponges, curling irons, shampoos, shaving items, and hi-powered hair driers. Surgical instruments, as well as preservative chemicals, are also in sight.
Modern mortuary cosmeticians have to command the knowledge of a broad field, besides mastering hands-on skills, he said.
Already at the top of his profession, Liu says he still likes to take on challenges.
For instance, last year he and his colleagues took the tough job of embalming the highly-decomposed bodies of eight Chinese peace-keepers who died in the massive earthquake in Haiti.
They performed their work in the 12 hours before Chinese President Hu Jintao and other top leaders arrived at Babaoshan for a grand farewell ceremony.
"Almost a Mission Impossible, with no precedence in my memory. But we did it, and did it so well that all the families were pleased," Liu said.
"They had the grateful last glance of the dead. And we all felt so rewarded for our efforts," he added.