Mortician Frank Malabed is Philippines' embalmer to the famous
Mortician Frank Malabed has handled the bodies of many of the Philippines' famous
Agence France-Presse in Manila
When dictator Ferdinand Marcos and a host of other famous Philippine figures met their maker, they also 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 grave by the country's most prominent and, arguably, passionate mortician.
"I make people beautiful even in death," said Malabed, a bespectacled 62-year-old grandfather with a sparse walrus moustache, speaking at his home office in a working-class Manila neighbourhood.
"Embalming is either 100 per cent or zero. It cannot be 99 per cent. 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 which played a key role in the Vietnam War. As thousands of dead US soldiers were brought back from Vietnam to be prepared for their journey home, "We had 30 to 40 casualties a day," Malabed said.
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 that 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 his hypodermic syringes and make-up kits.
Malabed's most famous client was Marcos, the dictator whose two-decade rule ended in 1986, when millions of protesters took to the streets in a "people power" revolution.
When Marcos died in exile in Hawaii in 1989 and the family wanted his body preserved for an eventual return to the Philippines, Malabed shuttled between Manila and Honolulu every month for four years to take care of the body, until the Philippine government finally allowed it to be flown to the dictator's home town of Batac.
Imelda Marcos, Ferdinand's widow, had demanded a hero's burial in Manila for her husband, 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.
But unknown to many, Malabed also embalmed Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, the Marcos family's arch-political foe, whose 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.
Other famous clients include the soft-porn actress Claudia Zobel, who died in a Manila car crash in 1984.
Malabed was reminded of his own mortality when he suffered a mild stroke last year. 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.