Ashes to Ashes
The baby was not embalmed. She was stillborn. Her skin was pale, so pale, as she lay lifeless, swathed in a pink fabric inside a rattan Moses basket. Mother and father sat next to their baby and were very quiet. They shed silent tears, more painful than any howl or wail that could echo in the silence of the mortuary. The baby, the daughter of the newscaster father, was going to be cremated.
In another funeral, in a cemetery, there was this very respectable family. The husband just died and his wife and children were there together with the siblings, uncles, aunts, and mourners.
It was going very well, when the wife discreetly called his attention.
“How may I help you?” he said.
“My husband’s mistress is here and none of my children nor any of the other family members are aware that my husband had another woman.”
“How would you want me to address this?”
“I do not want to make a scene, please ask her to leave,” she said.
“Say no more. Tend to your children and the rest of the mourners. You shall have this moment, I will take care of the rest.”
He approached the mistress and ushered her a little farther from the crowd.
“The wife is asking very nicely for you to leave for reasons I believe you understand,” he said.
“Who are you to tell me to leave!”
He very calmly replied: “The wife is asking very nicely. But as you can see, I am not. As Funeral Director, I reserve the right to ban anybody from the cemetery, particularly for unruly behavior. The wife is not banning you from visiting the headstone. Whatever it is you shared with the deceased is none of my business. And I believe the wife is gracious enough to not ban you from the premises. However, this funeral, this moment, will be their last as a complete family. You give it to them.”
He added: “We can come back later, I can wait for you, we can wait for them to leave and I will escort you there, where your deceased lover will be placed. I will walk with you. I will share those quiet moments with you. But right now I’m gonna ask you very nicely to leave. And by leave, I do not mean leave the premises, but just go somewhere where nobody can see you. Let them have this.
The woman left and went to the office. She walked inside the chapel halls, strolled in the park. She made herself scarce.
He kept his word. He walked with her when the family had gone. And he consoled her as well.
This woman was 52 years old. She died of an auto-immune disease. When he entered the Crematorium, it wasn’t an entire family that was crying. It was an entire clan.
It was his first day on the job after training for two days. He approached the daughter and asked if she was the one in charge. She said yes. He asked if someone had already done the eulogy.
“Somebody wrote the eulogy but could not bring herself to say it out loud,” she answered.
He read it for them.
The daughter, after his reading, looked up to him and said, “I have a brother who is in the United States. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it. You look just like him. I think your being here is a blessing from God because you are the closest to having him here.”
The daughter cried on his shoulder. Quietly, he wept, too, later pretending to wipe sweat from his face, instead of tears.
For two years, from 2010 to 2012, Matthew Pirante Perez, 30 spent every waking day as Funeral Director in one of the biggest and oldest memorial companies in the country.
“The day I started my job, while I was facilitating, everybody from the office watched and observed me. The bosses, the head, along with the supervisors were looking. And when the ceremony was over, I walked past them and ushered them out of the crematorium and said, ‘I quit. I can’t do this. If I will be facing crying people all day, I will be crying with them.”
He recalled: “Most of them smiled or laughed, probably they have seen this happen before. They said, ‘Take a deep breath, relax, you did beautifully. You were empathic, you were personal. You weren’t just an employee. You showed them the human side of this job. So, take a load off, eat your pizza, and mentally prepare yourself for the next two ceremonies.’ I was speechless. I wanted to cry, and I was laughing in resignation. And I told myself for the very first time that I must have been crazy to accept this job.”
Tall at 5 feet and 9 inches, with a muscular build that hints of long-ago chubbiness, Matt possesses the face of a television actor and displays a good command of the English language.
Straight, raven black hair fashionably cut close to the nape frames a squarish face of smooth, fair skin, thick eyebrows and expressive, dark eyes. It is hard to imagine him as a funeral director.
The good looks Matt traces back to his family’s Spanish roots; his mastery of English he attributes to his late father who exposed Matt to Hollywood films so he would have a good grasp of the language.
Acting is in their blood, too. Ten of them—three uncles, three cousins, two aunts, Matt’s father, and later, Matt himself, worked at one time or another as bit actors in many television soaps.
Alan Perez, Matt’s father, appeared in a series of TV shows in the ‘90s, one of them starring actress Hilda Koronel. He also appeared as an extra in “Mula sa Puso,” “Esperanza,” “Saan ka man naroroon,” and “Pangako sa iyo.”
When Matt turned 20, he followed his Dad’s footsteps and tried acting. “I first appeared in GMA7’s ‘Magpakailanman,’ the Mel Tiangco show. In 2007, they paid an extra P500 for work that went from anywhere from 18 to 24 hours. And then I got some speaking lines. Once you have lines, you’re paid P1,000 to P2,000 to P2,500 for work that lasts from 2 hours to 26 hours (especially when its a location shoot).”
Of their acting days, Matt has this to say: “We were all struggling to get roles so I jokingly call my family the poor man’s Eigenmann,” referring to one of the most famous clans in local showbiz, that counts, among others, Gabby Eigenmann, Sid Lucero, and Andi Eigenmann.
Matt’s mother, Loida, was one of the very few computer parts suppliers in Greenhills. The business crumbled in 2000 with the advent of CD-R King, a Filipino retail chain that sells discounted computer parts and gadgets, electronic appliances, and accessories. Matt was then 13. His parents split the following year.
At 14, Matt started taking odd jobs—doing voice- overs, selling beaded jewelry, and even food at the Makati Medical Centerl where he also got paid P400 for tending to the father of one of his rich aunts.
“By the time I hit 20, I had worked in two call centers and in between, I acted.” He later quit acting altogether because it didn’t fit with his schedule at the call center.
DEATH IN THE FAMILY
Matt’s grandfather died in June 2009 and it was around that time that he was offered a job as funeral director.
Essentially, he said, his work is like that of a wedding planner, but in his case, it’s funerals and on-the-spot coordination.
“Basically, what they did was tell me what my job entails, which is essentially, you’re practically hosting a funeral and you are to take care of the family’s needs and you were supposed to be considerate, careful, kind, and welcoming. We are to assist the family in any way we can for as long as it does not violate the guidelines.
These guidelines, according to Matt, included not taking sides in case there is a family feud. He also recalled that he got paid P400 per body, but that he didn’t have to stay in the office for eight hours.
During the time he was funeral director, Matt worked with Jackie Merculi, who is the frontline family relations adviser.
Jackie has been in the memorial business since 2003 and regards Matt as one of the best and funniest funeral directors she ever worked with.
There is also Alicia Garcia, 72, a retired import-export company worker who sells columbaries and cemetery lots at the memorial home where Jackie works. Alicia has been selling lots for 25 years.
Today, Matt is a Grab car driver and is remains on call for work that he once did full time at the memorial company.
As to how his family regarded his work as funeral director, Matt said: “At first they found it weird. But it later proved invaluable because when there is a death in the family, they ask for me. I’m usually at their bedsides at the times of their deaths.”
Matt said he has cremated two uncles, an aunt, a cousin, and his father.
“I found cremating every family member very personal and painful. With my Dad, I was horribly unprepared. He died of a sudden heart attack. The day before, he just purchased a car. I drove to his apartment to help him get his car. And less than 24 hours later, he was on his way to a shoot, I believe it was ‘On the Wings of Love.’ I received a phone call telling me that he had died. And that was a couple of days shy of the New Year. It was December 30, 2015. And when I posted about his death, there was a photo of me standing next to his casket. I said, ‘Never, not even in my darkest nightmares did I think that this year would end with you inside a casket of my choosing. That was one of the most unbearable moments of my life.” G