Death is only truly tangible once you’ve lost someone. It’s in the cold that invades their side of the bed. It’s in the quiet that comes to haunt the room where they once were.
It is in the belongings they leave behind, untouched and gathering dust. Death is undeniably real and for many, making peace with their loss begins within the somber walls of the funeral home.
Here, a distinctly Filipino way of grieving happens. In the past, funerals were akin to reunions, gathering bereaved friends and relatives down to the youngest and farthest removed. But now we are living in anything but ordinary times. The pandemic has brought with it new dangers to both those who grieve and those who deal with the dead.
Given their exposure to possible infection sources, morticians are especially affected. Cherry Jean Menhares, a mortician of 10 years in Garden of Memories Memorial Park and Chapels, speaks of the challenges and changes to the way Filipinos honor their dead amid the pandemic, as well as the fulfillment she finds in her role.
Now and then
It might be easy to imagine that the high death toll due to COVID-19 spells more business for mortuaries. Surprisingly, that’s far from the truth. Cherry says, “Dati kasi nakaka 30 hanggang 35 kami a month. Ngayon, may 10, may 15.”
(Before we were able to reach 30 to 35 a month. Now, it’s 10 or 15.)
This is all due to the strict quarantine protocols, which have led to a shift in the industry. Pre-pandemic, the process of picking up the body, whether from a hospital or from a home, was an uncomplicated task. In the current situation, the procedure has become much lengthier. If the pick-up is at a house, the workers need to obtain certification that the death is not COVID-related.
Garden of Memories Memorial Park and Chapels in Taguig is particularly cautious about protecting their employees. They choose to forego embalming the bodies of those who died from COVID-19 and also outfit their staff in complete personal protective equipment. Because embalming is what delays a
body’s decomposition—allowing relatives and friends to view the body and pay their respects one last time–its absence means the family does not get the chance to see their loved one in the flesh. Families only have two choices if their relative passes away due to COVID-19: interment or cremation.
In non-COVID-19-related cases, family members are able to hold a wake, albeit a much smaller one compared to before. Besides the usual social distancing protocols, the memorial park implements contact tracing and tries to limit visitors to only 15 family members. And while staff members try, as Cherry laments, “Hindi maiiwasan na maraming kaibigan. Kaya ang ginagawa namin, sinasabihan namin ‘yung mga pamilya na ‘wag magsasabay-sabay ng punta.”
(It can’t be avoided that a lot of friends want to visit. So what we do is we tell the family not to have a lot of guests all at once.)
For COVID-related deaths, it’s especially painful. Relatives are robbed of the chance to visit and take care of their family in the hospital and denied the closure of seeing their loved one and saying their final goodbyes.
Filling the spaces
Ultimately, the key difference between funerals now and funerals then is the isolation. While some families can still meet, they don’t have the comfort of physical closeness. Mourners, whose numbers would once reach 200 during the burial mass, now dwindle to a mere 15. “Noong una, ‘pag may namatayan kang pamilya, lahat pupunta na ‘yan sa chapel, kasama na si ka-apo-apuhan mo bitbit na. Ngayon, isa ka nalang. Mag-isa ka nalang. Kahit si nanay mo or si pamangkin mo, hindi mo na isasama,” Cherry says.
(Before, if one of your family members died, everyone would go to the chapel along with their grandchildren. Now, you go alone. You wouldn’t even bring your mother or niece along.)
But grieving alone brings little solace. With physical distancing measures depriving them of their usual mourning, families carry the pain inside, their grief often being channeled into anger.
In these situations, the mortician also fills the role of comforter. “Kahit masungit sila sa akin, tinatapik ko ‘yung balikat nila, inaapproach ko sila kung ano ‘yung kailangan nila, kahit ‘yung parang paglalambing mo sa kanila, parang kapatid na o magulang,” Cherry says. When dealing with the bereaved, she emphasizes the importance of understanding that grief can manifest in anger and frustration. All one can do is be there.
(Even if they’re irritable, I tap them on the shoulder and ask them what they need. You care for them as if they were your sibling or parent.)
In the face of sorrow
The cost of being surrounded by the inevitability of death can make morticians numb to all the grief and anger that follows in the wake of losing a loved one—now even more so in the midst of a pandemic.
For Cherry, the sight of a bereaved family wailing in anguish is just a normal part of her daily reality. To witness grief in its rawest form can deliver an emotional toll on any individual, especially to those who are not particularly comfortable with the subject of death. However morticians like her have stood bravely by their choice to enter into the profession. It’s a difficult task but one that they find to be very fulfilling. As Cherry puts it, “Basta makuha ko ‘yung loob nila, ma-appreciate nila ‘ko, okay na ‘ko dun. Masaya na ‘ko dun.”
(As long as I’m able to earn their trust and they come to appreciate me, I’ll be okay. I’ll be happy with that.)
A noble sacrifice
Morticians similarly face the dangers frontliners do today; putting their lives on the line, exposing themselves to innumerable health risks—if only to help families through the harrowing process of saying goodbye to their deceased loved ones. It’s an arduous task that not everyone has the strength to carry out. Allowing a grieving family to see their loved one for the last time in a state of dignity is a kind of respect that only morticians are able to give.
Cherry concludes nobly, “Pagdating sa huli, mapapaakbay sila sa’yo na umiiyak na…Kahit pagod na pagod ka na, pero [‘pag] nakuha mo yung loob nila, doon pa lang bawi ka na.”
(In the end, they come to you in tears… And no matter how tired you are, once you are able to gain their trust, all your hard work is paid off.)
Within the walls of a mortuary exists some of the purest expressions of human compassion and solidarity. Grief is the one emotion that many are all too familiar with, and there is mutual sympathy amid all the pain and exhaustion of having to bid farewell to those that they have lost.
After all, it is the comfort of companionship and shared empathy that makes it easier to say goodbye.