Choosing to be happy: An embalmer’s story
In this day and age when true happiness is hard to find, a man has found joy and fulfillment in life working in a job that many others would frown upon.
Hermes Sanchez, 48, finds joy in preparing the dead for their wake and burial.
His happiness comes from knowing that he is able to help the grieving family by making sure that their loved one is ready for public viewing.
“I have made it a habit to always treat each body as sacred,” Sanchez said in Cebuano, explaining that he handles each corpse with utmost concern and care even though the dead could no longer feel the pain.
As a sign of respect for the dead, Sanchez would pause to say a short prayer before the embalming process begins.
Sanchez has been working as an embalmer at the St. Francis Funeral Homes along Natalio Bacalso Ave., Cebu City, for the last three decades.
He said that although he isn’t paid much for the job, this decent line of work has allowed him to send all his seven kids to school.
His eldest Hermes Jr., 26, a criminology graduate, works as a radio operator for the Cebu City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office (CCDRRMO).
To Sanchez’s surprise, his second child Jesus, 23, though an Information Technology graduate, very happily followed into his footsteps.
Sanchez tried to convince Jesus to get another job, but his son insisted on becoming an embalmer just like him and joined his father at the funeral home since 2014.
“I could see that my father is happy with his kind of work. I want a job where I could be happy just like him,” Jesus told Cebu Daily News in Cebuano.
Sanchez’s wife Conception said she had nothing against her son sharing the interest of his father.
“Bahala na si Hermes (It’s all up to Hermes),” was Conception’s response when asked by CDN if she had, at times, preferred that her husband would take on another job.
Conception met Sanchez in 1992 or five years after he found work at the funeral home in 1987 when he was only 18 years old.
“Basta kon asa siya (Sanchez) malipayon ako lang siyang supportahan (I will support him in whatever makes him happy),” said Conception.
All their kids, she said, support their father’s work.
Their five other children — Leslie, 19; Jessa, 17; Maricar, 14; Maylene, 12; and Angelo, 10 — are currently enrolled in college, high school and elementary, respectively.
Working for the dead
Sanchez said he started as a helper at St. Francis Funeral Homes 30 years ago in 1987, when he left his hometown of Aloguinsan, southern Cebu, to find work in the city.
With his father working as a farmer and his mother a housewife, Sanchez dreamed of a better life for himself and was desperate to find a job.
The elementary graduate tried his luck by applying at the funeral parlor, willing to get his hands dirty and toil for many years to earn a decent living.
For P600 per month, Sanchez was told to clean his employer Nolan Diaz’s vehicle along with two funeral cars and the funeral parlor’s surroundings.
While he worked as a janitor, Sanchez said, he was fascinated by the embalming process and never failed to observe how it was done.
In 1991, he began to work as an embalmer when deadly Typhoon Ruping hit Cebu.
Sanchez recalled that because of the number of casualties left by the storm, the demand for funeral parlor services was high.
Undermanned, Diaz tapped Sanchez to help the funeral parlor’s three embalmers.
But uncertain if he was up to the challenge, Sanchez said, he observed the embalming process first and only took the job as embalming assistant after a week.
With Ruping’s death toll, he processed ten to eleven bodies per day, he said.
A month later, Sanchez became a full-fledged embalmer and earned the title of “senior embalmer” in charge of training new recruits in a year’s time.
Making both ends meet
An embalmer’s job is never easy, said Sanchez.
It is low paying and is never appealing to others.
While the demand for funeral services has lately dwindled due to competition, Sanchez said having an embalming license allows him to collect minimum wage and the benefits provided for by law.
To augment his income, Sanchez works as a barangay tanod (village watchman) during his spare time from 12 midnight to 6 a.m. in Barangay Basak for P1,500 per month.
Sanchez said he does not mind the low pay and his eerie work environment because he is happy with a decent job that allows him to support the needs of his family.
Caring for the dead
For three decades, Sanchez has cared for the dead, and while work has been routinary at times, he continues to make sure that the embalming process does not violate the dead.
Every embalming session would normally take Sanchez an hour and twenty minutes to do as he carefully prepares his kit and the chemicals to be used and the clothes for the dead.
Rich with experience, Sanchez has several stories to tell but none that includes ghost sightings, he said, except for that one time in 1995 when he and a friend had to rush a man back to the hospital after they both saw the body trembling at the morgue.
Sanchez recounted that the man’s body was placed on one of the morgue’s aluminum tables for processing when it started to move as he was preparing his embalming kit.
Worried that the patient was still alive, Sanchez said, he called his companion and asked his help to bring the body to the emergency room of the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center (VSMMC).
At the hospital, the man was given first aid to determine whether he could still be alive.
But a few hours later, hospital personnel called the funeral home asking them to fetch the patient that they had brought back earlier.
Sanchez said that he no longer bothered to ask for an explanation from the hospital for fear that the attending physician would get mad at him.
Sleeping with the dead
According to Sanchez, aside from that strange occurrence, there had been several instances when he would sleep with the dead as he often would rest
on any of the morgue’s vacant tables.
“It is a perfect quiet place to take a nap from the noisy world outside,” he said.
“Sometimes, I would wake up to find a dead body next to me,” he added.
Waking up to find a dead body next to him never spooked him even just a bit, said Sanchez.
He is, after all, a licensed professional.
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