More than just a body bag

Should there be a survey of the top 10 most desired occupations among kids of school-age, I suppose a mortician or embalmer will surely not be in the list. A pathologist may probably hit the scale somewhere, though quite far, and becoming a funeral director might elicit dropped jaws in naiveté. Many will agree that a career in post-mortem care (or bluntly, the management of the dead) may be unsettling at the very least. Though never deficient in significance, jobs in the mortuary business are definitely not the most sought after. After all, dealing with a corpse is not commonly desired.

More than possessing technical skills, jobs that deal with cadavers require emotional stability, a commitment to handle the deceased with respect, and, of course, an exceptional ability to withstand pungent odors. Some may add a decent level of mental or emotional solidity, especially since those who deal with corpses are literally physically segregated, if not psychologically excluded from the rest of the “sane” and “safe” civilization. On top of it all, a lifeless body in a cold stainless-steel table is a mortician’s work “companion” in an eerily silent basement of a hospital.

Not that we refuse to know, but most people (myself included) have experienced the grief of losing a loved one, either at a hospital or in the streets. Soon after hearing the news of one’s death, the next place we usually find ourselves in is either at the funeral home or the cemetery. We miss out (and sometimes ignore) the fact that an intricate process involving a group of professionals necessarily ensues during the period from the last breath of the deceased up to his burial. For one, a morgue assistant cleans and prepares the body for post-mortem examination. And like any medical assistant in a surgery room, the assistant hands over tools, supplies and instruments to the medical examiner (or a coroner) during the autopsy. The coroner then collects tissue samples, even organs, and analyzes the data, and also prepares a death certificate, especially if the death was caused by non-natural causes. For uncertain or suspicious causes of death, the medical examiner even coordinates with law enforcement. In other countries, medical examiners are doctors with training in forensics and pathology. Pathologists, on the other hand, are doctors who perform autopsies to confirm the cause of death, especially if the initial assessment was questionable or questioned by surviving relatives. Embalmers come into the picture whenever requested for memorial services and interment or cremation. Embalmers must be adept at sanitation laws and procedures. A desairologist, or cosmetologist, may style the hair and apply makeup. Evidently, from that last breath until the memorial services, these procedures have been performed by embalmers, morticians, coroners, and the rest of those professionals in the “corpse management industry.”

I narrate these details not only with particularity but also with the highest regard for people engaged in the dignified management of the dead. With the onslaught of Covid-19, these professionals have been working doubly hard yet may feel that theirs is a thankless job. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, newspapers were drenched with photos of piles and piles of body bags carrying corpses with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 cases. During this time, those who are in the business of caring for the dead are just as equally burdened as those in the business of saving lives! Those who worked in the morgues were just as weighed down by stress, lack of sleep, overwork and overtime as those who worked in hospitals. To add to the challenge is the discomfort of wearing a specified personal protective equipment (PPE), which included a respirator-type facial mask, in conjunction with a gown, gloves, and eye protection. I believe what sets the procedure apart during the pandemic era is that a body bag labeled with a “Covid-19—Handle with care” sticker bespeaks of the confluence of that extra and special work carried out by our mortuary professionals. They make sure that no unnecessary manipulation of the body can be made to expose risks of air expelling from the lungs, leakage of fluids from the body, and of course, hand hygiene. A dignified management of the dead can still be followed, regardless of the infectious nature from which the deceased suffered. In sum, a mortuary work is more than just a body bag! And these professionals deserve to be considered as our modern-day heroes!

In the spiritual realm, the work carried out by Jesus Christ while he was on earth was scoffed at initially. He went about doing every good thing yet he was nailed on the Cross leading to a shameful death. His early followers were persecuted and scoffed at. Back then, to be a Jesus follower was not among those sought after vocations. After all, all but one of Jesus’ disciples died under excruciating painful circumstances. To this day, there are still some who view Jesus as the one whose body was covered with a shroud and had been entombed. To openly declare one’s faith can be seen as a “holier than thou” attitude, subject to ridicule at times. However, a more personal relationship with our Heavenly Father will lead a person to believe that His Son is more than just a cloaked body! Through his costly sacrifice, our God sees us clean and sinless because we have been made the righteousness of God in Christ. The Bible reminds us constantly that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) And because Christ is more than just a “body bag,” so to speak, nothing about his work is mundane for his righteousness propels us to goodness. With the consciousness therefore that there is grace in the shrouded body, every believer is naturally drawn to walking the right path and leaving his old, evil ways. For it is biblically said that: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6: 1-2). The “corpse” of Jesus Christ has far greater meaning and impact, similar to the works done by those in the “management of the dead.”

Having been enlightened with the significance of the work performed by mortuary professionals, we likewise recognize the contributions of cemetery workers, maintenance workers of hospitals and funeral parlors, and even our delivery drivers for our online orders. Their work may be the kind of job not avidly desired, but because they do what they are called to do, our lives have been made much easier if not safer. What they do is more than just a body bag, or a trash bag, or a germ-infested vehicle. Their jobs ought to remind us that we are comfortably safe today because of their sacrifice! The least we could do is to walk and work with these workers, take care of ourselves and our homes to make their jobs easier to manage—just as we should maintain a posture to walk and work with Christ so that we can demonstrate in our lives the grace which he selflessly gave us. That way we can honestly say that our heroes’ sacrifice was never laid to waste.

A former infantry and intelligence officer in the Army, Siegfred Mison showcased his servant leadership philosophy in organizations such as the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Malcolm Law Offices, Infogix Inc., University of the East, Bureau of Immigration, and Philippine Airlines. He is a graduate of West Point in New York, Ateneo Law School, and University of Southern California. A corporate lawyer by profession, he is an inspirational teacher and a Spirit-filled writer with a mission.

For questions and comments, please e-mail me at sbmison@gmail.com.