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Life of an Embalmer - Mrs Phyllis Ganapathy

“When the bereaved family see their dear ones looking so nice as if they were not dead, it made me feel that I did a great job.” Mrs Phyllis Ganapathy, more affectionately known as ‘Fawn’, was born on 25 November 1923 in Selangor, Malaysia. An affable character, she relocated to Singapore in 1945 after the war through acrimonious circumstances. During her initial years, she eked out a living as a sales assistant at Robinsons. To supplement her meager income, Phyllis started helping her uncle at the Singapore Casket in the mid-60s. The following are extracts of her oral history interviews on being Singapore’s first lady embalmer.

On embalming a post-mortem case…
“After cutting the scalp, I have to scrub and sew it back. The body is cut from the chin to the stomach to determine the cause of death. I put the intestines back and sew it up using a four-inch needle. Then I get the tube and machine to pump formalin into the body. It circulates and goes all the way in. From blue colour, it later becomes clear. A hole is then made on the stomach using a trocar – a long steel with hole in it. After drawing the blood out, a machine or
pump is used to insert green or white formalin through a trocar into the stomach until it becomes clear again. When the body is firm and embalmed, the stomach is then sewn up with a little button.

On bathing and dressing the body…
“After embalming, the body is placed on a table and given a shower to remove the smell of formalin. After bathing, the bodies are laid out to dry. A hair dryer is used to dry the hair and put curlers. Those with no hair are given a wig to make them look nice. For ladies with long hair, some families may request to bun them. Occasionally, the deceased’s family will provide some perfume or hair spray. After drying, we dressed the men in full suits and girls in their favorite dresses. For younger ones who are not married, we dress them as a bride to make them pretty and beautiful.”

On handling difficult cases…
“When people commit suicide, it makes me feel sad to see their bodies all broken up or their faces get flattened. So the family requests us to make it as good as possible. We try our best to sew back their eyes, noses etc and make them look nice. Burnt bodies from air crashes are equally horrifying. You just only see parts of the body and all burnt. It just makes me very distraught and breaks my heart to see them. There's nothing left of this person, just burnt up, just ribs or one small part of it. Really horrifying and very pitiful…”

Since retiring in 1990, Phyllis has already embalmed more than a thousand bodies. “I like my work at the casket. I have led a happy and good life...” When asked who she would like to embalm her after passing away, Phyllis chooses to remain blithe: “I don’t care how or where I die as long as I die peacefully. They can do whatever they like with me!”


Information extracted from the Oral History Interview of Mrs Phyllis GANAPATHY
Embalmer, Singapore Casket
Accession No: 002126