If you saw me, I’d probably look to you like a regular young professional Pinay who goes to her office job five days a week, meets up with friends in her downtime, and makes it a point to travel every once in a while. Those are all true, except my office job is probably not what you’re expecting.
I work at a funeral home. I’m a licensed mortician, life celebrant, and postmortem cosmetic and reconstructive surgery specialist. I hold an associate degree in Mortuary Science, and I passed the US Funeral Service board exam. Working with the dead is my calling.
I’m used to getting awestruck reactions from people when they find out what I do. Even within the field, men in particular are shocked because they’re not used to working with a woman. The last time I went to pick up a body at a hospital, the guard on duty looked at me dumbfounded when I emerged from the car.
I’ve seen some reactions I have mixed feelings about, too. Back when I was working at a funeral home in the US, I opened the door for an elderly male client. He looked at me from head to toe, smiled, and said, “I’m dying to get in here.”
A day in the life of a funeral director
Currently, I’m vice president of Angel Funeral Homes, my family’s business. We’ve been operating for 39 years now in Davao City; to date, we have nine locations in Mindanao, with another one underway in Iloilo. In my present role, I’m in charge of human resources and customer service, training our employees in the company’s commitment to provide excellent funeral service to our customers.
I’m also an all-around employee. I do everything from funeral arrangements to setting up rooms for visitation to cosmetizing and reconstructing decedents to organizing the funeral procession and directing the committal service in the cemetery. Sometimes, I even do removals—transporting the deceased from the place of death to the funeral facility.
There is never a typical day in a funeral director’s life, but to give you an idea, my day starts by taking reports of death, followed by removal, then embalming. When the bereaved family arrives, my team and I find out necessary information about the deceased from family members. Then, we ask them to choose the casket and the services they want for their departed. Once the family and the deceased are in the funeral chapel, we perform any requests the family has to ensure that the service is much more personal. (For instance, one daughter wanted to change the lip color her mother was wearing to the one she often wore when she was alive; one son wanted to spray the deceased’s favorite perfume all over the casket and the funeral chapel.) On the day of the burial, I meet with the family for the day’s plan and assist them as they get ready to leave the funeral chapel. I join the funeral procession to the church, attend the mass, then head to the cemetery for the committal service, assuring the smooth flow of the ceremony.
That may sound like a lot to take in, but as someone who was born into this business, I now know it like the back of my hand.
A vision becomes a calling
When we were growing up, my brother would often joke to his friends, “Even in my mother’s womb, I could already smell formaldehyde.” In fact, my family used to live in the funeral home compound—only a wall separated one of the bedrooms from the embalming room! Plus, I had been going to funeral conventions with my parents since I was young, so it was easy to imagine myself in the business. When I was in high school, I used to have this recurring vision of myself dressed in black, walking in a cemetery, and directing a funeral, saying, “Release the balloons.”
But it wasn’t always what I wanted to do. When I was in college, I wanted to try other things, so I got a part-time job in real estate. But the more I pulled away from the funeral industry, the more I had that vision of me walking in the cemetery. I remember asking God why I was having these thoughts when I was enjoying being a property specialist.
A few months later, my mother told me she needed me at the funeral home. I left real estate and returned to the fold, although still not fully convinced it was the right thing to do. That is, until my own grandmother passed away.
I was completely involved in funeral arrangements for my grandmother. I created a slideshow of her photos to show visitors during the visitation. I made cut-out doves for people to write on and hang on twigs. I placed a table near her casket showcasing her favorite things: a vintage bag, her shawls, sepia photos, even some mahjong tiles because mahjong was her favorite pastime.
As people began to leave, I sat near my grandmother’s grave, looked at the sunset, and thought about where I had ended up. There, I felt alive and purposeful. The seed of a God-given calling bloomed in my heart.
On the day of my grandmother’s burial, my vision came true. Dressed in black, I found myself walking in the cemetery, directing a farewell ceremony, and at the end of it, telling my relatives, “Release the balloons.” As people began to leave, I sat near my grandmother’s grave, looked at the sunset, and thought about where I had ended up. There, I felt alive and purposeful. The seed of a God-given calling bloomed in my heart.
From then on, I went through the process of becoming a licensed mortician. I realized that I wanted to be a funeral director; I saw myself as that person who, aside from embalming the body, would physically, professionally, even psychologically walk with the family during their time of loss. But no institution offered a course in funeral directing in the Philippines at the time, so I left to study at the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service, one of the top mortuary schools in the US.
I learned a lot in the years I studied and worked in the US. I’m particularly proud of the cosmetic and reconstructive surgery I now do. Restoration is when an embalmer tries their best to make a decedent’s appearance look close to what they looked like when they were alive. In normal cases, this is done through cosmetics; in cases where the deceased suffered heavy physical trauma, restoration is much harder.
When I was studying in the US, I encountered a decedent whose head was two-thirds devastated because of a vehicular accident. Imagine a table filled with broken pieces of the skull—everything looked like a jigsaw puzzle taken apart. I had to work on it for hours, guessing and connecting every piece to make the skull whole again. After that, I had to suture the skin together and fill in the dents and gaps. Only then could I put on cosmetics.
Are you afraid of the dark?
I know some of you are wondering if I have any scary stories. Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t have much to share—any scary stories we’ve had at our funeral home can be explained away by science! For example, our seasoned embalmers have seen some small movements, a flick on the fingers or the toes. I asked my embalming professor about it, and he said it’s simply the effect of the formaldehyde making its way through the body.
One night, I came home late and had to use the back door. I unlocked the door and pushed it partly, slipped my hand through the small opening to feel for the light switch, and peeked through the door into the dark. I could’ve sworn I saw a man’s face.
I do have one scary experience from my time working and living alone (!) in a funeral home abroad—although I hope it doesn’t spook you too much. I had been given a key to the back door, an access door that was used to take a body to the embalming room. One night, I came home late and had to use the back door. I unlocked the door and pushed it partly, slipped my hand through the small opening to feel for the light switch, and peeked through the door into the dark. I could’ve sworn I saw a man’s face.
Lessons from working with the dead
The scary stories may be more exciting, but it’s the life lessons I’d rather tell you about.
Every day at this job is an exercise in empathy. I have to deal with people’s emotions, and many times, it’s not pretty—and I’m not just talking about legal wives meeting their husbands’ mistresses or family feuds erupting, Barretto clan-style. Growing up in a funeral home, death and grief have become familiar strangers to me, but for my clients, it’s something they’ll never get used to. So, despite the weight of this job’s physical and emotional demands, I still try to put myself in my clients’ shoes so I can understand their needs. And when their voices start rising and their tears start flowing, I’ve found that the best thing to do is to let them be, and assure them that they have me if they need a shoulder to cry on. As a funeral director, my role isn’t to put a stopper on their emotions, but to let those emotions flow, which ultimately helps them heal.
While you’re alive, seize the moment to tell, and more importantly, show your loved ones how much you love them. The real treasures aren’t things you acquire; it’s what you can feel, hug, and say.
I’ve also learned that death really is an equalizer—the rich, the poor, and everyone in between all end up in the same place. I’ve never seen a house or a truck filled with the deceased’s belongings follow a funeral procession to a cemetery; I’ve only witnessed family and friends speaking up about the person they knew and loved. So while you’re alive, seize the moment to tell, and more importantly, show your loved ones how much you love them. The real treasures aren’t things you acquire; it’s what you can feel, hug, and say.
It may seem like a strange job to you, but what I do, it’s one of the noblest callings in the world. To take care of and prepare the departed for that last goodbye, to talk to bereaved families and walk them through the grieving process, to have a front row seat to the family’s raw emotions and the stories of how a life once was, and then, to put a momentary smile to people’s faces and some sweet relief in their hearts as they struggle with their loss—what a great honor it is.