Beautiful Departures

Report and pictures by: 
Jeremy Long

He beautifies them — the young, the old, male and female. Mr Pio Lobenaria puts so much effort into his work that he might be mistaken for a professional make-up artist because of his skilful brush strokes to the face. The 60-year-old embalmer at Direct Funeral Services ensures that the faces of his “clients” glow again, even in death. 
 
At work, the Filipino, who is also a Singapore permanent resident, wears a blue apron, N-95 mask and latex gloves, just like a medical professional. But instead of just surgical tools, he also uses brushes, lipsticks, eyelash tweezers and make-up palette. Embalming can take between one to three hours, depending on the extent of the work. 
 
A postmortem would require longer time as embalming liquid would have to be injected into the arteries to preserve the body, Mr Lobenaria said. He received his on-the-job training in Quezon City, Manila, and has been an embalmer for 31 years. He worked initially as a mortuary technician at a hospital mortuary in the Philippines before switching to his current position. He said: “I was afraid of the dead initially, but gradually lost the fear after being around them for a while.”
 
Mr Lobenaria, who came to Singapore in 2001, added that there is a shortage of embalmers around the world. While most people may be willing to learn the trade, they drop out when it comes to working with the dead, he said. The upside to this shortage is job security. He also sees a future in embalming because it allows him to work anywhere. 
 
The most memorable incident for Mr Lobenaria involved a plane crash on a mountain when he was still in the Philippines. He recounted: “We flew in by choppers but when we got to the site it was tough identifying the bodies as they were all burnt and scattered. We literally had to take the body parts piece by piece back to the mortuary.” 
 
Now, he embalms about three bodies a day on average, although he is on call 24/7. Mr Lobenaria said the most challenging job is working on people who die after falling from heights, as their faces are often mangled from the impact. But with pictures provided by the families of the dead, he would then work his magic to reconstruct the faces of his “clients”. 
 
He finds it most fulfilling when families of the dead are satisfied with his work. “I feel very happy because it helps people and their families as embalming makes the deceased look good in their final farewell,” he said.
 
The article related to these pictures was first published in The New Paper on October 15, 2013.