By Joseph L. Garcia
FOR millennia, humans have sought for ways to preserve their dead, perhaps as a way for the bereaved to remember, and for the deceased to be remembered. Since the body also served as a shell for the spirit, it was also believed by many ancient cultures that a well-preserved body, possibly better and purer than it had been in life, guaranteed a person to live beyond death in a comfortable afterlife. An incorrupt body could also be seen as a reflection of the soul: in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths, the body of an extraordinarily good person that has been revealed to be intact after death just may place one on the path to sainthood — a prerequisite being that this body has not been preserved through embalming, but by some miracle. Examples of these saints would be St. Bernadette and Saint Elizabeth, of the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, respectively.
However, the art, science, and business of embalming, the preservation of the body to arrest decomposition, really took off during the 1800s. The Victorian preoccupation with death was a factor, but so was the practical reason of preserving the bodies of soldiers killed during the American Civil War. Since these bodies may have been killed in combat zones far from home, they had to be returned to their families whole; a small mercy for the loss of life. A zenith for the art of embalming was the corpse of Eva “Evita” Peron, the wife of Argentine dictator Juan Peron. The hugely popular former actress and later political figure died in 1952, and was embalmed by Dr. Pedro Ara over a series of treatments that lasted over a year. Evita, knowing the immortality her image would achieve in death, had her hair dyed blonde and her nails painted red right before she died. Her body was soaked and pumped full of chemicals, and a thin and clear coating was placed over her skin. The result was a marvelous corpse, enviable as a Sleeping Beauty. Her well-preserved body would haunt her husband’s successors, as it served as an enduring symbol of her husband’s regime. After a disappearance of 16 years, it was finally laid to rest in the 1970s in a very secure tomb; to sleep undisturbed and undisturbing through the ages.
EMBALMER TO THE STARS
In the Philippines, Arlington Memorial Chapels and Crematory serves as embalmer to the stars: actors Rico Yan and Fernando Poe, Jr. received their treatments in death, and visitors to their wakes noted the beauty of their resting faces and their likeness to life. It has also filled in the role of embalmer to several other celebrities and various political figures. The company was founded in 1985, after the father of Rafael Jose purchased Funeraria Nacional in 1982. Mr. Jose now sits as the company’s president, inheriting it from his father. Businessworld sat down with him and Victoria Pagayon, Embalming Supervisor, a week before All Souls’ Day in their offices in Quezon City.
No school in the Philippines teaches Mortuary Science, which is readily available as a degree course in other countries. All embalmers here receive their training and licensure from the Department of Health (DoH). Arlington, however, takes this a step further by getting trainers from the United States, usually from the companies which supply their embalming fluids. This initiative made Arlington one of the leaders in the business, leading for them to get numerous awards from the Funeral Directors Association of the Philippines (FDAP). Still, the lack of a proper degree for Mortuary Science may hamper the business, as Mr. Jose says, “We’re delayed in the processes that have been learned all over the world.”
Arlington specializes in the soft-embalming method, as opposed to the standard embalming method, using formaldehyde alone. Under the standard method, “What we end up getting is a body that’s as stiff as wood.” The plump and cheerful Mr. Jose knocked on a wooden table for emphasis. “Soft embalming is more natural,” he continued. “You get the natural feel of the remains of the body, It’s like the person is still the way they feel when they were alive.” Mr. Jose did not reveal all the components of the chemicals used in soft embalming, but he did say that lanolin, secreted by animals with soft wool, was an ingredient.
STEP BY STEP
Ms. Pagayon then began to take us through the steps of embalming — the final steps a person’s body takes in this world. The funeral home is called by the bereaved, and the body is transported to Arlington. The accompanying members of the family are taken to a room where details such as preferences and the length of the wake are discussed. The length of the wake is vital because it will determine the work of the embalmer. Ms. Pagayon, meanwhile, will wait for a go signal from the family.
“We have to have a next of kin sign it. Meaning, we have already ascertained the cause of death,” said Mr. Jose. “There are hospitals that sometimes say, ‘undetermined cause of death,’ which means the person arrived in the hospital and expired before they can do a full study of what happened.
“When that is the case, we are required to call the medico-legal office,” he added. “We’re required to have the body autopsied — not necessarily [for] a criminal investigation, but to determine the actual cause of death. Sometimes a private physician determines the cause of death.” There are multiple reasons for this: one being, a person who has died of a communicable disease such as SARS may not be embalmed and they will then have to cremate the body immediately. Another reason would be the presence of bullet holes, stab wounds, and other such injuries on the body, which might then prompt a criminal investigation.
Once the family gives its approval, they are then offered the opportunity to watch the embalming process. This isn’t for some morbid or sentimental reason, but for reasons of practicality. For example, a family is asked how they would want their dearly departed hands to rest. “Once we do the embalming process, the muscles harden. That will stay,” said Mr. Jose.
The first step is called in the industry as “setting the features” — a euphemistic term for making up the face of the dead. The family is asked to bring a picture of the deceased when they were healthy so the embalmers could have an image of what they looked like in life. The eyes are closed and fixed into place, and the sunken cheeks and other parts of the face are stuffed with cotton or injected with embalming fluid, to give it the appearance of fullness that might have been robbed by illness and death. The hair is dyed, and the face is made up, with cosmetics imported by Arlington. Sometimes, requests by the family for a certain shade and brand used by the deceased in life would be entertained. Ms. Pagayon says that there’s little difference in making up the face of a dead person from a living one, except perhaps that the dead have skin that has dried. Arlington also uses airbrush techniques instead, because it adheres to a face better. Some discoloration and disfigurement can be fixed by the embalmers: Ms. Pagayon recalled having to reconstruct a damaged nose.
After that, the body is drained of its fluids from all its cavities, including the stomach and the lungs: anything that may decompose inside. It is then injected with preservative fluid, while the drained cavities are filled with the same. The whole process would take about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the body’s size. However, the full effect of the preservation method will be seen in about three to four hours, after the chemicals have fully penetrated into the body. The body is then washed, bathed, and clothed, and prepared for viewing. The whole process, from when the family first steps into Arlington, would take about four to six hours.
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
It’s not exactly how you would want to live life: to leave the land of the living for that of the dead. Mr. Jose says that he was once destined for a life in finance, but his father urged him to stay with the company, even for just a year, and he sort of fell into it.
“It’s the times that your friends and the people that you serve come back and say thank you for having guided us,” that make the difference. He recalls people stopping him at malls to thank him for arranging funerals for their families. “That’s what keeps me doing what I’m doing. You know you’re able to help somebody, and they remember you. You might not remember them, but they’ll always remember you.”
For Ms. Pagayon’s part, she has received this compliment after the bereaved see their loved one: “Mas gwapo pa siya kaysa noong nabubuhay siya (He looks better than he did in life).”
“Whatever comforts them; whatever gives them peace and solace during that hard time, is what we’re supposed to be doing here. That’s the mission that was given to us. We become like family to them, guiding them through a hard time when they can’t even think about what to do next,” said Mr. Jose.
Mr. Jose sometimes encounters cases where the family will refuse a viewing, and instead asks for an immediate cremation. While he respects their wishes, he makes a final plea to the family. “We would like you to know that the reason we have wakes is for us to be able to acknowledge that the person has died,” he says. “If I don’t see a person in a casket… physically, before I cremate; chances are, the acceptance of the death is not going to come easily.”
Preserving a body for viewing also brings back a little bit of the person before their final farewell. “What’s going to stay in your mind is the last image of the person,” said Mr. Jose. So if one has died from a long illness or else in a traumatic way, a preserved and beautiful body can help take away that memory, and replace it with one of a person at peaceful rest, giving back a little bit of the life that had been taken away. After all, Mr. Jose says, “Is that the way you want to be remembered? You, sick; you, coughing?”
Mr. Jose was asked if he believes in an afterlife. “Yes, of course.”
“We’re responsible for the people who come through our doors. If there is an afterlife, we want them to look good. We want them to feel good.”
By Joseph L. Garcia