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Inside the life of a mortician to the stars

Before dictator Ferdinand Marcos and a host of other famous Philippine figures met their maker, they met Frank Malabed.

Philippine former first lady Imelda Marcos looks inside the coffin of her late husband and former president, Ferdinand, in Hawaii. Mr Marcos’s body, now on display at a family mausoleum, has been injected with a special cavity fluid to preserve it for 25 years.
Philippine former first lady Imelda Marcos looks inside the coffin of her late husband and former president, Ferdinand, in Hawaii. Mr Marcos’s body, now on display at a family mausoleum, has been injected with a special cavity fluid to preserve it for 25 years.

MANILA // 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," said the bespectacled 62-year-old grandfather with a sparse walrus moustache from his home office in a working-class Manila neighbourhood.

"Embalming is either 100 per cent or zero. It cannot be 99 per cent. 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."

Mr 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 airbase 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 front line 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," Mr Malabed said, recounting how Filipino and American morticians worked at a hangar on bodies wheeled out on gurneys from the nearby runway.

Mr Malabed later married the daughter of a family that ran a chain of provincial mortuaries, and found that 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.

Mr Malabed is a devout Roman 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 hypodermic syringes and make-up kits.

Mr 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 Mr 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, Mr 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.

Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr Malabed remains on good terms with the family, and attended an 82nd birthday party for Imelda Marcos last year.

But unknown to many, Mr 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.

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.

Mr 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.