Stupidity is Forbidden
I followed her through a grand lobby, passed walls lined with magnificent wilting flower arrangements, and through a metal door to a sight of gurneys and hearses. We came to an office with the sign, “Bawal ang Tanga” taped to the window.
She entered, and holding the door open, urged me to go inside, “Come, come, go!” I entered, the door softly jarring as it closed, and she was gone.
I did a full 180 degree scan before I found him. He was sitting behind his desk, waiting for me to see him. Not until we made eye contact did he invite me to sit across from him. I sat facing a greying bowl cut, paunch belly, and gentle eyes. This was the Head Embalmer, Sir Limuel Espino.
I introduced myself and apologized for being an hour early.
“When Ma’am Lumen told me an American was to be my trainee, I couldn’t believe it! We have many foreign students, but from Malaysia and Singapore who graduate and then gain license [sic] in their country. You’re the first American.”
Espino was framed by a Duterte sticker covering the top portion of a file cabinet, and a red t-shirt displaying a portrait of himself with a large smile, holding an unopened bottle of Barangay Geneva gin.
He told me about the facilities, with an emphasis on the importance of being thoughtful, attentive, safe and sanitary. “Bawal ang Tanga, never any mistakes.” Or as I would later learn, Stupidity is Forbidden.
He categorizes his work as soft, and the best: “The cadaver is never like wood. When you touch, the skin has cushion.”
“We want this effect for the family and for business. The Sanctuarium caters mostly to wealthy Chinese, but anyone can be here. You will see, there are many Chinese customs and rituals. You will learn them, and please, ask lots of questions. You will learn a lot here.”
“The final desired effect is why we have business. We have a joke, if you see a zombie and it is running you know it came from The Sanctuarium because the body isn’t like wood. Its like in your country — no wood.”
“Unlike in your country, we accomplish the cushion without soft embalming chemicals. Everyone in your country uses soft embalming chemicals, but we can’t use those here. Your country is cold. The Philippines is tropical and the soft embalming has a bad effect on the appearance.”
I sat speechless. I’d never seen a cadaver before, or considered the effect of climate on embalming practice.
“I used once and the wife became very upset. She came to me and said, ‘Go look! My husband is Chinese! He looks like an Arab!’ When I went to look at her husband the eyes had sunken deep into the face. So, we don’t use.”
We both laughed. Smiling, I nodded and expressed excitement to learn and to be a trainee at The Sanctuarium.
“We must wait for Ma’am Lumen and your Malaysian classmate before you meet the Boss and he accepts you. So, if you are hungry, there is a Chinese restaurant here.”