Omar Cabillan was just an adolescent when he saw a dead body up close for the first time. His father, an embalmer, took him under his wing and taught him the trade of embalming at a young age. His key takeaway? Attention to detail.
Now 42 years old, married, and with children, Omar is one of the few morticians in Puneraria Floresco, a small, nondescript funeral home along the winding stretch of Pedro Gil, Manila. Bleary-eyed after having been just woken from his afternoon nap, Omar sits on the foot of the stairs of the funeral home and openly shares about the meticulous nature of his job.
“May ilan kasi diyan na embalmer, bara-bara kung gumawa. Kailangan pag nag-embalmo ka, maayos at precise ang gawa.”
The embalming process
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, the mortal body was never made to last. Minutes after life drifts from the body, the process of decomposition begins. Brain activity ceases and the body’s temperature drops until it reaches room temperature while the cells become deprived of oxygen, beginning the process of putrefaction. Calcium builds up and causes the muscles to tense, and the blood cells spill out from ruptured vessels and settles in the capillaries, discoloring the skin to a gray tinge.
According to Omar, embalming is done to slow down the decomposition process of the body. The embalming fluid, a mixture of formaldehyde and other solvents, is injected into the artery and pumped around the body.
The first thing Omar does is lay out the corpse on the prep table. He says during this time, he removes the clothes from the body and covers the orifices. “At syempre kailangan i-isprayan mo yan ng antibacterial para yung microorganism diyan, di naman kumapit sa akin,” he explains.
Omar inserts an aspirator in the common carotid to vacuum the blood out. Afterwards, he injects the embalming fluid. Omar then massages the parts of the body to avoid blood clots from preventing the embalming fluid from going around the body.
“Kailangan kasi mag-penetrate yung gamot. Pag di tumigas [ang katawan], ibig sabihin di nag-concentrate yung gamot. Two or three days, mabubulok na agad yung katawan.”
Sometimes, Omar gets requests from families to make the deceased look like they are smiling or at peace, so he molds the facial features before the body hardens. To avoid gauntness, for example, he puts cotton balls inside the hollows of the cheeks, and puts caps around the eyeballs so the lids don’t sink.
What comes after is Omar’s favorite part: Make up. He shares that he’s proud of himself whenever the family of the deceased feels happy and content over his work.
“Yung pagma-make up ang pinakagusto ko. Gusto ko kasi maganda at maayos yung patay para pag nakita naman ng pamilya, masaya sila dahil presentable.”
The daily grind
Embalming was never Omar’s first choice; he used to be a student of engineering, but had to stop during his second year due to lack of funds. During his long hiatus from school, Omar shadowed his father whenever he would embalm in the morgue.
“Sa una kasi helper helper lang muna, assistant, kasi syempre mahirap mag trabaho pag wala kang course na natapos.”
Omar never finished his engineering degree nor graduated from college, and has since replaced his father as an embalmer in Puneraria Floresco when he realized he would be going nowhere with contractual work.
“Di naman habang buhay contractual ka, di naman pwede ganun kaya, pinagaralan ko talaga yung embalming. Andiyan naman ang erpat ko para turuan ako. Kinareer ko na.”
Omar shares the backbreaking nature of his work. In a month, the funeral home usually gets around close to 90 bodies and he finds himself working on multiple bodies a day until the early hours of the morning.
“Sabay sabay. Papasok ako ng 10 am, nakatayo pa rin ako sa loob ng morgue ng 5 am.” He says, however, that although they have break times throughout the day, he doesn’t like taking a break without finishing his work.
“Ayokong nabibitin sa trabaho. Gusto ko yung trabaho tapusin agad, ayoko yung babalikan pa.”
He shares as well how his daily commute can be such a burden when piled atop his already-exhaustive work inside the morgue. “Stay out kasi kami dito, uwian. Pag 24 hours ako, minsan may tulugan dito sa taas,” But Omar says he goes home to his family in Valenzuela with every chance he can get because he doesn’t like staying in Manila.
“Gusto ko dun [Valenzuela] kasi tahimik, parang gubat, hindi kagaya dito sa Manila, paglabas mo puro adik, puro squatter. Magagaya pa ng mga anak ko yan.”
A respectable job
In the past, Omar has had experiences of embalming children and a good friend. He says the feeling is different and he finds himself feeling more pity towards the child. “Pero wala ka namang magagawa kasi trabaho mo yun, kaya ayusin mo nalang.”
He also embalmed a good friend after he passed away from a heart attack. Omar shares it was his friend’s family who specially requested for him to be the one to embalm him. “Ayoko sana pero gusto nila ako gumawa. Hindi naman ako naging emosyonal, pero wala akong magawa dahil request ng family.”
There are a lot of stigmas and hearsays surrounding Omar’s line of work that cannot be avoided. For one, most people have the notion that the job of an embalmer or mortician is disgusting and scary, but Omar insists his job is anything but.
“Siguro noong araw matatakot ang tao kasi inosente pa sila, pero sa una lang naman yan. Tao din naman yan eh, nauna lang nawala. Walang nakakadiri o nakakatakot sa trabaho na ‘to.”
He zeroes in on the importance of his job and why there is nothing embarrassing about it. “Importante ang pagiging embalmer dahil kung wala kami, di mabuburol ang mga patay at di niyo makikita ang mahal niyo sa buhay ng maayos.”
For Omar, the role of an embalmer is to present a deceased to its family one last time before sending them away, like a closure to the end of a story. Regardless of all the hardships and failed dreams he has encountered, Omar points out it is his family that keeps him going.
“Inspirasyon ko ang mga anak ko, family ko. Mapagtapos ko lang sila sa kolehiyo, okey na ako.”
And, as if a closure to his own story, Omar turns the table and smiles, “Lahat naman tayo mamamatay, diba?”