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Sunday, December 17, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES
Untitled Document
   popular economics
Date posted: Monday, May 29, 2017 | Manila, Philippines

There’s life in the dying profession

THINK of an embalmer, and chances are this scene would come to mind:

It’s late at night, and an overhead lamp is trained on a stainless steel table where a pair of gloved hands are unbuttoning the shirt of a lifeless body. As the man in white coat turns his back to grab some cotton and a dark-tinted bottle, his subject stirs, then sits up, and suddenly the tables are turned: the undertaker becomes the object of the dead’s (and our) attention.

Depending on how the mortician reacts, we either feel a chill shoot up our spine, or contort our torso in a fit of laughter.

If the character appears flat, then blame it on how the popular media caricatures the embalmer: he’s a nameless victim or a comic relief -- either way, miserable. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Take the case of Vicky Pagayon.

It is the actors -- or should we say their loved ones -- and not her, who line up to avail of the services of Ms. Pagayon, a mortician for one of the big-name funerarias along Quezon City’s funeral parlor strip.

Her roster of past “clients” include actors Fernando Poe, Jr., German Moreno, Rico Yan, Miko Sotto and AJ Perez, as well as former senator Raul Roco, and religious cleric Jaime Cardinal Sin.

Sinasabi ko minsan sa kanila, ‘Hindi na ako pipila, andito na ako sa iyo ngayon’ (I sometimes tell others, ‘I don’t have to fall in line, I’m already with you’),” Ms. Pagayon would humor herself.

Nearly two decades in the profession, she has mastered the art of restoring the dead to make it appear they were merely asleep. Servicing a “case” is no easy task, as Ms. Pagayon handles each body as if they were family.

Maligaya na rin ako na napapaayos at napapaganda ’yung mga mukha ng mahal nila sa buhay. Sabi nila bumabata ang mga mahal nila sa buhay. One hundred-and-ten na siya, akala namin 80 pa lang (I’m glad I was able to improve the faces of their loved ones. They say their loved one looks younger),’” she said.

Ms. Pagayon began working as a janitress in the same funeral home, but in 1997 became a licensed mortician. She has since been promoted to embalmer supervisor, earning P18,000 a month, enough to send her two kids to a public school, pay for a housing loan and to support her mother. At times, she gets a tip from the relatives of the deceased.

Ms. Pagayon works on an eight-hour shift, six days a week. There are times when she gets as many as eight cases a day. She multi-tasks, embalming one body while dressing or having another body made up. Each body takes at least two hours to prepare, but may require as long as eight hours.

According to Dr. Josephine H. Hipolito, secretariat head of the Department of Health (DoH) Committee of Examiners for Undertakers and Embalmers, a lot has changed since the days when morticians were depicted as expendable extras in movies.

Kasi ’di ba maski sa mga sine, mga palabas nung araw, ’pag sinabing ang eksena nasa funeraria, ’yun bang madilim, basa ang lapag, at nakasando ang embalmer… Ngayon hindi na ganun (The films of old portrayed scenes in the funeral parlor as dark quarters, having damp floors, and the embalmer wearing only an undershirt… It’s not like that anymore),” she said.

“Now the table is made of stainless steel, the embalming room is bright and spacious, and the embalmers are already in PPE,” she said, referring to personal protective equipment.

That misconception is compounded by the machismo instilled across generations of embalmers. Philippine Embalmers and Undertakers Association (PEUA) vice-president Limuel B. Espino, who comes from a family of morticians, recalls that he was taught not to be scared of the dead, in a peculiar way:

“’Yun ang naituro sa akin: Maging malakas ang loob. Ihagis ’yung patay. Huwag matakot. Mag-embalm ka nang ’di naka-gloves (I was taught to be brave: to toss over the dead, not to feel scared, embalm without gloves).”

The machismo goes as far as having to eat inside the preparation room, drink coffee beside the dead, and wear sleeveless shirts -- all of which expose morticians to health risks.

“I can say that embalming is better now in almost every funeral home in the country. Competition is based on who can give a better service rather than price,” Mr. Espino said.

The DoH requires at least one licensed embalmer for the business to operate. Funeral parlor owners usually are also licensed embalmers.

According to Mr. Espino, owners sometimes cut costs by hiring an unlicensed embalmer and paying them P150 to P300 for every corpse serviced. The licensed could charge at least P500 per head, if they are not an employee. But whether licensed or not, those who opt for employment start at the minimum wage.

DoH’s Ms. Hipolito noted that many of the embalmers who take the licensure exam are into family business, sharing the same surnames. But there is also demand abroad, and Filipino embalmers in Singapore earn as much as P200,000 a month.

“We’d like our embalmers to be globally comparable, not globally competitive because we also do not want them to go abroad,” she said. Others, especially the nurses because of an oversupply a few years ago, took the embalming course to add to their experience and used it in finding jobs.

“Actually, dinarayo na tayo ng mga foreigner para dito mag-practice (Actually, foreigners come here to practice),” said PEUA’s Mr. Espino.

Sa mga Asian countries, puro Pilipino na ang mga embalmer, kaya ’yung iba pumupunta na rito para mag-aral (In many Asian countries, embalmers are mostly Filipinos, that’s why they come here to study),” he said.

Issuing licenses to embalmers started as early as the 1950s but the DoH enforced the requirement in 2007 by way of administrative orders, said Ms. Hipolito. In 2008, the DoH accredited training institutions and training providers for embalmers.

Today, most embalmers are already licensed, she said.

At present, the DoH has five accredited institutions offering embalming courses. These institutions, mainly situated in Metro Manila, Cebu and Iloilo, have extended schools in other regions and have partner funeral establishments.

A course in embalming can be completed in at least 140 hours or around two to three months depending on the training center. Tuition ranges from P25,000 to P28,000.

The curriculum mainly covers five subject areas: Anatomy and Physiology; Microbiology and Parasitology; Embalming 1 or History; Hygiene and Sanitation; and Ethics and Jurisprudence.

In Anatomy and Physiology, embalmers are taught the body parts and their functions, as well as their rate of decomposition. Microbiology and Parasitology covers the different parasites which can be encountered during and after embalming.

Embalming 1 discusses the history of embalming practices up to the current trends that include sanitation, preservation and restoration, while Hygiene and Sanitation tackles infection control.

Standards, quality care and rules and regulations for embalmers are discussed in Ethics and Jurisprudence.
Once the applicant passes the two-part exam -- composed of written and oral/practical exams -- they must renew their license every three years from any DoH Center for Health Development Office. Non-renewal for five consecutive years means revocation of license. -- Jochebed B. Gonzales

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