Before dictator Ferdinand Marcos and a host of other famous Philippine figures met their Maker, they met Frank Malabed.
An assassinated democracy hero, a soft-porn star, high-profile socialites and political statesmen are others to have been sent to the afterlife by the country’s most prominent — and arguably passionate — mortician.
“I make people beautiful even in death,” the bespectacled 62-year-old grandfather with a sparse walrus moustache told AFP from his home office in a working-class Manila neighbourhood.
“Embalming is either 100 percent or zero. It cannot be 99 percent. A dirty carpet or scratched casket can be changed, but if you botch the job you cannot tell the family you’re going to replace the body.”
Malabed dreamed as a child of becoming an engineer, but his father was a mortician and his teenage years were spent learning the art of caring for the dead.
He tagged along in the 1960s when his father went to work each day at Clark, a then-huge US air base in the Philippines that played a key role in the Vietnam War.
The father retired as the war escalated, leaving the 18-year-old son to take over on the embalming frontline as thousands of dead US soldiers were brought back from Vietnam to be prepared for their journey home.
“We had 30-40 casualties a day,” Malabed said, recounting how Filipino and American morticians worked at a hangar on bodies wheeled out on gurneys from the nearby runway.
Malabed later married the daughter of a family that ran a chain of provincial mortuaries, and found life caring for the dead was very comfortable.
“It was not my first choice, but when I got into it I found out I was good at it,” he said, adding the pay was also reasonable.
Malabed is a devout Catholic and he prays before he starts work.
But he said he never believed in ghosts, witches or evil spirits. Neither did he suffer nightmares from being with the dead alone for hours at a time in a room, armed with with hypodermic syringes and make-up kits.
Malabed’s most famous client was Marcos, the dictator whose two-decade rule of the country ended in 1986 when millions of protesters took to the streets in a “people power” revolution.
After Malabed moved to Manila in the 1970s to work for a large mortuary, he embalmed a brother and a sister of Imelda Marcos, the president’s wife.
The family noted his good work and he was later tasked with looking after the bodies of other Marcos relatives, including the president’s mother.
In 1987, a year after Ferdinand Marcos was toppled and sent to exile in Hawaii, Malabed set up his own business that offered luxury US-made bronze caskets and personalised mortuary services.
Business really kicked off when Marcos died in exile 1989 and the family wanted his body preserved for an eventual return to the Philippines.
Malabed shuttled between Manila and Honolulu every month to take care of the body until 1993, when the Philippine government finally allowed it to be flown to the dictator’s northern Philippine hometown of Batac.
The widow demanded a hero’s burial in Manila, but when that was rejected Malabed pumped in special cavity fluid to make sure the body remained intact for 25 years.
He put the corpse in a glass case for public exhibit at a mausoleum built at the family’s provincial home, where the body remains today.
Even now Malabed remains on good terms with the family, and attended an 82nd birthday party for Imelda Marcos last year.
But unknown to many, Malabed also embalmed Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, the Marcos family’s arch-political foe whose shooting assassination at Manila airport by government forces in 1983 altered Philippine history.
“I don’t care about political affiliations. If anyone needs my service they just have to dial my number. I am on call 24 hours a day,” Malabed said.
Dressed by Malabed in the same bloodstained jacket the democracy champion had worn on his fatal homecoming from US exile, the Aquino corpse became the rallying point for street protests that later led to Marcos’s downfall.
The murdered politician’s wife, Corazon, would lead the “people power” revolution and assume the presidency from Marcos. Aquino’s son and namesake is the country’s current president.
Other famous clients include recent plane-crash victim Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, both parents of ex-president Fidel Ramos, and local soft-porn actress Claudia Zobel, a 1984 car-crash victim.
Malabed boasts his reputation for attention to detail has some wealthy clients signing him up for future services while they are still alive.
“I am a perfectionist… I cannot be rushed,” he said.
Bodies must be washed and disinfected by hand, he said, and blood thoroughly squeezed out from their veins through massage. Otherwise, the injected chemicals could lead to grotesque skin discolouration.
He accused some fellow Filipino embalmers of taking dubious shortcuts so they could earn more money working on more corpses.
“I am probably the only mortician in the Philippines who does not snip a dead person’s funeral clothes down the back to make them fit. Those are the last clothes they will ever wear on earth, so they must be intact,” he said.
He said he worked on just five corpses a month and charges only “about half” the 550,000-1.8 million pesos ($13,300-43,500) in professional fees quoted by top Manila funeral homes.
Malabed was reminded of his own mortality when he suffered a mild stroke last year, but this has not slowed him down. And he is content knowing he will be in good hands when called by his Creator.
“My two daughters are also licensed embalmers. They will know what to do,” he said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]