The Art and Science of Embalming Bodies (And Everything Else You Need to Know)
On a bright and early Thursday morning, I suit up in protective wear, while Gerald Gasmen puts on a plastic apron, two layers of latex gloves, a face mask and a pair of black rubber boots. He says a little prayer, and the next thing I know, there is a dead man on the metal table. Despite standing outside the room, I’m still close enough to the body to see everything clearly.
I knew I was going to witness an embalming session (a process that delays decomposition) when I woke up today, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the sight of blood spilling from the deceased’s mouth, let alone the image of sticking a giant metal tube into a dead body. My breakfast threatens to resurface after I catch Gerald making an incision at the inner thigh—a procedure certainly not for the faint-hearted.
“Breathe in, breathe out. It’s just a body,” I remind myself, fending off superstitious thoughts. I’ve done some uncomfortable things in my life like eating fruit from the garbage, but this is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. The clinical, colourless embalming room emanates a nauseating scent of antiseptic chemicals—akin to the set of a horror film. Yet, for Gerald, it’s a sacred space where he carries out duties of utmost importance, duties he considers his life’s purpose. However, this unorthodox conviction didn’t come naturally.
Having studied nursing and grown up with a father who is a part of this underappreciated industry, working with human bodies has never struck him as odd. “Maybe it runs in my blood,” quips the Catholic-raised undertaker, whose sister and aunt are also in the funeral business. “Although I’ve always known my father was an embalmer, I never asked him about his job. I never entered a funeral parlour either until I started working here.”
The 33-year-old used to work at a call centre before he joined his sister at Direct Funeral Services. It wasn’t to fulfil some deep personal calling. He just needed the money. Noticing how his sister obtained financial freedom shortly after taking on the job, he decided on a whim to do the same. It took a year for him to get his licence in the Philippines, the closest country to Singapore that offers professional embalming courses. Soon after, he was earning around $2,400 a month making dead bodies look pristine. Within three years, Gerald has not only risen up the ranks to become the head embalmer, but also found his true calling in mortuary care.
“My focus for the first year was to practice this craft well enough so I can be as good as the seniors. After that, I started enjoying it. No matter how many cases I got, I never felt tired. I’m happy when the family of the deceased is happy,” says the Philippines-born embalmer, who is planning to stay in this line for life.
At Direct Funeral Services, case managers handle the extraction of the body and deal directly with clients, while the embalmers work behind the scenes. Embalmers rotate between three shifts (7am to 2pm, 10am to 5pm, and 12pm to 7pm), but every now and then, an urgent case will be assigned after hours, which pays $40 per body. “If you embalm alone at night, it helps to listen to mellow music to distract yourself from everything else,” he shares.
Gerald deals with a minimum of four bodies every day, the majority of which are Chinese individuals who’ve died of old age. A sobering reality hits me when he reveals that about two out of 10 bodies belong to children, and most teenagers are linked to suicide.
Walking me through his process, Gerald explains how the entire embalming room has to be sanitised from top to bottom before and after each session. “When the body arrives, it usually comes in a hospital bag. After unwrapping and undressing the body, I have to cover up the parts of the deceased. I then bathe the body, set the features of the face, and close the eyes and mouth.”
Rigor mortis, the stiffening of the muscles, starts about two to six hours after death. “The body becomes like a rock,” he describes. To loosen up the muscles and ensure the embalming chemicals will flow smoothly through the body, he massages the body thoroughly, then makes an incision to insert the fluid. Incisions are commonly made on the right lower neck, but because the stitches may be visible, Gerald prefers to do it at the groin, where it’s less conspicuous.
He continues, “I inject the formaldehyde through the arteries, then drain the blood out through the veins. It’s done with two tubes with a pressure machine. You’ll notice a bulge in the veins, especially on the head, when the body is ready. If the veins aren’t rising, it means there’s a blockage and you have to make another incision on a different part of the body.”
The next step involves a long metal suction tube, which is used to puncture the heart, lungs, liver, stomach and intestines. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to drain the fluids from them and dry up the organs. “The main purpose of this is to avoid purges and leakages during the wake. When we die, a lot of gasses will be released through the orifices of our bodies. If that happens during a funeral, it means the embalming process was unsuccessful.”
Before my very eyes, Gerald transforms from an embalmer into an artist. With the gentlest touch, he brings colour back to the body with a brush and a palette, so that instead of a lifeless doll, it looks like a man in peaceful slumber. Family members occasionally offer a photograph as a reference, and request a certain look that calls for the expertise of a skilled hair stylist and beautician—roles that Gerald has become well-versed in. Looking through his makeup kit, I find blushes, eyeshadows and lipsticks from every brand imaginable—MAC, Revlon, Silky Girl, Estee Lauder, Chanel, Sephora. This goes on top of an opaque makeup base from Dodge, a company that specialises in cosmetics for dead bodies. There are even airbrushing tools for evening out light and dark skin tones.
“Singapore is very hot so sometimes there will be moulds on the face, and I’ll have to retouch it,” he explains. “Sometimes, the clients will provide a specific lipstick to be applied to the body. After cleaning the face and doing the makeup, the body will then be transferred into the coffin.”
All this takes Gerald, a seasoned embalmer, 45 minutes to finish. Emotions are kept at bay, as he gets into the zone and endeavours to do the body justice. The only thing he thinks about is how he can serve the people who are grieving. “It’s all about making a loved one look presentable to their families who need closure or a final goodbye,” he expresses.
“As an embalmer, you need to respect the body. Most of the time, there’s urine and faeces, and purges have already occurred. The physical features are also deformed, which can be scary to look at. But it’s mind over matter. I’m not afraid of it. In fact, I love everything about my job.”
Despite how technical and essential the job is, it’s nonetheless plagued with a bad reputation, exacerbated by the public’s limited understanding of it. “People say a lot of bad things about embalmers, especially in the Philippines where there are cases of molestation,” Gerald laments.
“Sometimes it’s very hard to explain my job to other people. The first thing they usually ask is, ‘How do you embalm? Do you take the organs out?’ In the Philippines, they don’t practice proper embalming, so I need to explain it’s not actually like that. It’s prohibited by law to remove organs from the deceased. It’s slowly improving over there; they’ve even implemented licensing and schooling in the industry to let others know embalming is a legitimate profession.”
Thanks to his occupation, he’s learnt to adopt a more laid-back approach to life. Blabbermouths and scandalmongers hardly bother him, and neither do the hurdles and hardships of life. “When I’m embalming, I think about how we’re nothing. The same goes for our problems. It’s okay to face them. It’s just a problem. Once you die, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
“What do you think happens after we die?” I ask.
“I don’t really think about what happens after we die. But life is precious. As long as you’re young, value your time, your family and friends. When your time comes, you won’t regret anything because you would’ve fulfilled your purpose here.”
Gerald never set out to be an embalmer, but with time, he’s learnt to find meaning in the least likely of places. By shining a light on these unsung heroes of society, we’ll be able to look past the unglamorous façade of their occupations and recognise the larger roles they play, which for Gerald, centres on honouring human lives.