He was the elephant in the room, the one person everyone could see but no one was willing to look at.
His lack of clothes did not deter us. The smell did. He’d been dead for a couple of hours, but the smell was already filling the room.
We huddled together, victims of our own circumstance, in the one place we didn’t think we’d see while we were still alive.
My teammate and I were in a white tiled embalming room to film a documentary, along with two crew members. But the bruised corpse of an old man on the table still threw us off-balance.
This was the first time we had seen death in anything but a pristine white coffin. Embalmer Edgar Cadiz though has seen more than his fair share of corpses. The 36-year-old Filipino is the sole resident embalmer at the Singapore Funeral Services.
He began his career in the industry when he was eight, as an apprentice under his grandfather who owned a family business. He spent much of his childhood around funerals at his grandfather’s office after school.
Choosing caskets as hiding spots when playing hide-and-seek gave him no fear when he saw dead bodies arrive.
The sticky, sweet cloying smell causes our eyes to tear. Edgar smiles understandingly.
He hands out surgical masks before donning one himself, along with latex gloves. He has to be careful, as diseases present in a dead body like AIDS and tuberculosis could still be transferred to him through human contact.
I train the camera lens on the old man’s arm, where stitches trace his elbow. He’d landed on it when he jumped off a building.
He was sent to a hospital first for an autopsy to examine the cause of death before he reached the embalming room. That explains the stitches that run from the man’s shoulders down to his pubic bone, which would otherwise not be present in a normal post-mortem body.
Edgar pumps out the blood through the heart using a trocar. He replaces it with formalin, a mixture of water and a chemical formaldehyde, that goes through another tube in the neck.
Then he peels the intestines out of the body, along with other organs. They’re not unlike something I’d see in a butcher’s window.
Once we got over the idea of a dead body in the room, we found the smell of both the body and embalming fluid far more suffocating.
To calm her nerves, my teammate moves outside to light a cigarette. For the first time in my life, I wish I could have one too.
Even Edgar, who’s been exposed to bodies for twenty years, isn’t completely immune to the smell.
Before he begins embalming a body, he smokes a stick, then washes his hands vigorously. Once he dons his apron, his mind is ready for what lies ahead.
One of my crew members stumbles to the door. He admits later that he almost blacked out as his head began to spin from the smell.
Formaldehyde is a potent chemical, even when mixed with water. Used as a disinfectant and a preservative, it can cause eye, nose and throat irritation. Long-term exposure is associated with cancer.
“That’s why they don’t allow outsiders inside while I am embalming. Because if anyone comes in, they cannot tahan (stand) the smell.”
Sweat drips down his forehead, despite the fans that spin overhead. But his hands are steady, his fingers moving methodically as they trace the procedures they’ve gone through for so many years.
Every move is efficient and precise.
He places the bag of organs into the body and sews it up. The four-inch half curved needle pierces the skin, which flaps open like paper.
We watch as reality shoved the fragility of life in our faces. We aren’t the only ones. Many families are often shocked and unable to comprehend the death of their family member, to the point of anger or disbelief.
The death of children and teenagers are especially heart-wrenching, and some who appear on the embalming table are as young as nine. It’s hard to see a parent come in.
No parent wants to bury their child. Edgar recalls an anomaly when a young girl passed away in the Philippines. Because one eyelid still had a heartbeat, the family refused to allow Edgar to embalm the body as they believed her to still be alive.
Two days later, they reluctantly surrendered the decomposing girl to him.
Her eyelid was still beating.
Death doesn’t take a break. Most employees in the funeral industry are on standby 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Holidays, weekends and off-days can be burnt up at any moment and any available free time is considered a commodity.
Just as Edgar finishes shaving the man’s face and applying makeup, funeral director Hung Chye bustles in. The funeral is about to begin, and they need their V.I.P.
They lift the body onto a stretcher, while Edgar gets out a pail of soap and water. We move the camera closer. The smell of rotting flesh and embalming fluid assaults us. Little would I know that four years later, the smell of death with its sticky fingers would continue to linger in my mind.
The table is clean but the air is still suffocating. Now that Edgar has nothing to work on, his shyness emerges.
He settles into a chair and pulls out a cigarette. It’s a quick reward for a hard day’s work.
Just as we wrap up, someone knocks on the door. Hung Chye has brought a new body. It announces its presence with its smell.
Edgar throws a brief smile at me and snaps on a new pair of gloves. It’s not over for him. But it is over for me.
I run out. Thanks to the Singapore Funeral Services for their permission to film. I am currently opening this space to feature interviews of interesting people. If you would like to be featured, contact me via email or my social media channels.
Interested in understanding more about the life of embalmers? Check out my video done in conjunction with this piece: