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Among the dead

/ 09:29 PM January 06, 2012

They say that one has to find his niche, his calling, before his 30th birthday, otherwise he will be stuck in that limbo of a job he may not like much but which is comfortable and stable enough to support his needs.

Since I turned 25, I had to grapple with the fact that I still hadn’t found my niche. I did not want to settle for just comfort and stability. I wanted that “something” I could look forward to doing until the day I retired. Two years later, I found it—among the dead.

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I am an embalmer, a female embalmer. I am not aware of the statistics, but apparently we are a rare breed. I have grown accustomed to comments like “A girl?!” as well as the incredulous look on people’s faces when I tell them what I do for a living. In a country where the embalming profession is usually feared and looked down upon, most people are surprised to find that contrary to the stereotype, embalmers don’t have lanky frames, droopy eyes and creepy looks. Neither do we cut up dead people, harvest their internal organs and sell them in the black market or bury them somewhere.

If I were to put together a list of morgue FAQs, the No. 1 question would be, “Don’t you get scared?” The answer to that is, “No, not at all.”

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Question No. 2 would be, “Have you ever encountered ghosts or spirits?” And that is a question I usually dismiss with a smile and a slow shaking of my head. Coffee and ghost stories in the morgue are clichés. People really watch too much TV.

I did not become an embalmer or mortician on a whim. I had it in my head for a very long time before I plunged into it. If I simply ignored it for years, it was because the idea seemed ludicrous. After all, it is not exactly the dream profession one writes on their yearbook. I even thought I wanted to be a doctor since the idea of working with the dead gave me such a thrill. So I went and got my college degree, became a worker drone—all the while asking myself what I really wanted to do. (A thought bubble of me working in a morgue usually came up whenever I asked myself this question.) After five years of procrastination, I quit the corporate world and spent six months trying to summon the courage to acknowledge my secret dream job, tell my family about it—and convince them I wasn’t crazy.

“No job is beneath you,” a friend once told me. “As long as it’s honest, then it’s noble.”

My family subscribes to the same principle. But still it took a while to convince them that I was serious about becoming an embalmer. Mom gave me worried looks and my siblings raised their eyebrows. Since our family is into sciences and dabbles in the arts, embalming was not exactly the kind of “science” or “art” they had imagined me going into. Their doubts were understandable; I had never told anyone about wanting to be an embalmer up to that point. And it did seem nutty to drop a financially stable job and join an industry I knew nothing about.

Embalming is honest enough. It is the final service done for a departed loved one. It is a remarkably challenging, back-breaking and hard work with so many health risks. I paid more visits to the doctor this year than all of the previous years combined. My mother had a fit when I came home with a slightly burned and very swollen right eye from a formalin accident. She often tells me, “I am happy that you finally found a professional path, but are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

The biggest challenge in my job is to achieve the “serenely sleeping” look on my “patients” when they leave the embalming room, regardless of their physical condition when they were brought in. There are times when relatives bring a picture of the patient 10 years earlier (when they were alive and healthy) and they ask you to make their loved one look like he or she did in that photo. My stock answer is, “I’ll do my best but I can’t promise anything,” but under my breath I am saying, “Are you kidding? I am a mortician, not a magician!”

There is still so much more to learn, so many aspects of death care I have yet to encounter. At present, there is no formal course for embalming or mortuary education in the Philippines. There are training institutions where one can learn the basics before taking the licensure exam. I was lucky enough to have attended a training institution which has an almost complete set of modern chemicals and materials used in embalming abroad. I was able to see and compare the differences of the results between local products and imported ones.

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People have different reasons for getting involved in this business. Some do it to get over their fears, or to find work abroad at some future time, or to set up their own funeral homes. Others do it out of filial obligation: it is a family business and they have been chosen to take over their family’s funeral kingdom.

I did it because I wanted to. Working abroad and setting up my own funeral parlor are only secondary. My pay does not even come close to what I was earning in my previous job. I was tempted to frame my very first paycheck as an embalmer, which amounted to what used to be my withholding tax deduction. There are some days when I think of going back to corporate slavery (because I miss the fat paycheck and wearing high heels), but then I tell myself: What for? I am happy. I have found my niche. I am staying.

May Cardenas, 28, is a BS Biology graduate of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños. She works as an embalmer at La Funeraria Paz in Quezon City.

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