Funeral Industry News

Crazy Embalming Getting Lots of Attention

June 4, 2010

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Crazy Embalming Getting Lots of Attention

imageAngel Luis Pantojas was just 6 when he saw his murdered daddy lying in a casket and declared: Not me. At my wake, people will see me on my feet.

So when he was shot 11 times, twice in the face, and tossed over a bridge in his underwear 18 years later, Pantojas got his wish. Pantojas’ family tethered his corpse to the wall, where streams of strangers came from throughout Puerto Rico to see the latest curiosity they dubbed “el muerto parao” – dead man standing.

“You couldn’t fit another soul in this room,” his aunt, Ana Delia Pantojas, recalled, showing the holes in the housing project living room wall where the corpse was bound the summer of ’08. “All sorts of people came here to see him – lawyers, judges. Everyone was talking, saying things like, ‘for my wake, I want to be in my recliner with a cup of coffee.’ “

The buzz eventually faded, until last month, when David Morales Colon, another young neighborhood murder victim, was embalmed hunched over on his motorcycle. Both were members of San Juan’s growing urban youth subculture where guns are rampant and lives are often short. Their so-called “exotic wakes” caused such a sensation that everyone from the Department of Health to the state attorney started pouring through the penal code.

Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives convened special hearings. The funeral home owners association held an emergency board meeting.

But even as the funeral directors decry exotic wakes as sacrilegious offenses to tradition, this much is certain: The practice is legal. And when a third Puerto Rican man was embalmed on a motorcycle in Philadelphia last week, experts scratched their heads as they watched a childhood wish become the latest fad in a subculture marked by violence and bravado.

“I see it as a challenge to the authorities: ‘You killed me, but you didn’t knock me down,’ ” said Jorge Lugo Ramirez, president of the Puerto Rico Funeral Home Association. “These kinds of people are surrounded by easy money and guns. We can’t be promoting that.”

The association asked the Department of Health to investigate and make a rule prohibiting such wakes, requiring that viewings be conducted in a coffin – horizontally. Although the burials were normal, morticians fear exotic wakes will become such a hit that the funeral homes that prepare the most outrageous cadavers will steal business from traditional competitors.

“It could get out of control,” Lugo said. “What if one of these guys kills a police officer and wants to be buried with his hands in the form of a V for victory? We’d be supporting something very negative that’s going on in our country. The point is that we should not lose our traditions.”

But Lugo acknowledges that people have been abuzz about it, requesting funerals on bikes, cars or buses they drove for a living. “I guess then we’d have to conduct the wake in the parking lot,” he said with a laugh.

Technically speaking, Lugo was impressed.

“As a professional, I had to admire the work,” he said. “The funeral director said she had a secret formula. As an embalmer, let me tell you: It should not be secret. I would like to know how they did it.”

The Marin Funeral Home, which handled both wakes, is not telling. At first, funeral home manager Elsie Marin talked to the media, and at the Morales’ motorcycle wake, even handled the body to show the gawking crowds and cameras that it was real.

When it was revealed that she does not have an embalmer’s license, Marin hired a lawyer and declined further interviews although she later said that the work was contracted to a licensed embalmer. Morales’ family also declined to discuss it.

“We’re done talking about that,” said an uncle who would not give his name.

Cultural anthropologist Melba Sanchez, author of the Spanish-language book “Death: Social Aspects and Contemporary Ethics,” said the funeral directors shouldn’t be in such a tizzy. They should know that funeral traditions change with the years and have become more and more tweaked to individual tastes.

If anything, the trend shows that in parts of Puerto Rico, death is so common that young men are fearless about expressing how they want to be viewed, said University of Puerto Rico sociologist Jose Mendez.

“It clearly expresses a contemporary tragedy: how we lose a large sector of our youth,” Mendez said. “It made me sad. It didn’t take me long to understand the ‘why’ behind it: They are in constant search of originality and looking for ways for their lives to make an impact after their death.”

Rep. Jorge Navarro, who chairs the House of Representative’s Consumer Affairs committee, said there is nothing legislators can do to stop it, because legal advisers said it would be unlawful to regulate a person’s last wishes, Navarro said.

People in the Quintana public housing complex where the victims lived said everyone has been discussing how they want their wakes.

“I already told my wife that for my wake I want to be posed doing what I like to do most: dance,” said Irving Figueroa, 34, a former hip-hop dancer and now street vendor.

“At most wakes everyone is standing around looking and thinking, ‘Poor guy. Look at him,’ ” Figueroa said. “I want everyone to look at me, and say, ‘Damn, he looks good!’ ”