Feature: Funeral workers need grit

By Weng Yu-huang and Stacy Hsu  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Wed, Aug 14, 2013 - Page 5

With the arrival of “Ghost Month,” superstitious Taiwanese are preoccupied shunning a long list of taboos during what they believe to be the most ill-fated time of the year. However, during this month the nation’s funeral parlor workers are keen to emphasize the importance of respect for the dead, even as they recount their paranormal encounters.

While handling corpses is par for the course for funeral parlor workers, there are still a few places at work that make their skin crawl.

According to funeral home employees who spoke to the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister paper), the eeriest place in a funeral parlor is the dissecting room, where forensic experts perform autopsies on the bodies of people who die either from unknown causes or are victims in criminal cases.

There are two funeral parlors in the Greater Taipei area that have a dissecting room, including New Taipei City’s (新北市) Banciao Funeral Home and Taipei’s Second Funeral Parlor, they said.

The workers said these rooms are found in the darkest corners of funeral homes, and are equipped with nothing more than an autopsy table and corpse freezers.

Such rooms often also come with an interrogation office where investigators question suspects, and which cannot have a large window due to privacy concerns, and so are generally dim and gloomy.

“An aged ceiling, often hung with spider webs and with yellow stains along the edges of corpse freezers left by bodies that were stored for too long, make the room look like a scene from a horror movie,” the workers said.

A funeral parlor manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he feels faint every time he goes into the dissection room, and the feeling of discomfort persists until he leaves the room.

The second-creepiest room at a funeral parlor is the male mortuary, where workers wash, dress and apply makeup to the corpses of men on the eve of their funerals, the employees said.

“About six months ago, a funeral parlor recruited some new employees. One day, two of the newcomers were working the night shift, which runs from 11pm to 7am, when they heard some strange knocking sounds coming from the male mortuary,” the workers said.

After summoning the courage to check the room, they found that everything appeared normal and all they saw were 20 bodies covered with white cloths lying motionless where they were supposed to be.

However, shortly after they returned to their seats, the knocking sounds started again, the employees said, adding that the two employees were so terrified that they kept chanting amituofo (阿彌陀佛) the entire night until dawn.

Amituofo is a phrase commonly recited by Buddhists to increase their spiritual strength and it is believed that by chanting the phrase people can emit a light that frightens paranormal creatures away.

When the newcomers told their colleagues the story the next morning, their co-workers laughed it off, saying: “People who never wrong others do not fear sounds in the night,” the employees said.

“Such inexplicable incidents are the norm in our line of work,” the funeral parlor staff added.

Other spooky places are the crematorium and the mourning hall, the employees said. According to Taoist priests, these rooms are where the spirits of the dead linger most often, they said.

“It is believed that the spirits of the dead free themselves from their bodies before being cremated. They then rest in peace inside their memorial tablets if the evocation ritual goes smoothly. If not, they roam the crematorium forever,” the employees said.

They said that as lavish food offerings are made by bereaved families to their lost ones in the mourning hall, these “banquets” are said to attract ghosts roaming nearby to join the feast.

People who want to work at a funeral home must be able to overcome their fears and adjust to the gloomy atmosphere, they said, adding that newcomers might experience dizziness and faintness during their first three months on the job.