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Ng Kwai-lun Pasu, Caretaker of 'Silent Teachers'

Mr. Ng Kwai-lun Pasu
Embalmer, School of Biomedical Sciences

Please tell us about the scope of your work.

I'm responsible for body embalming, specimen production and the operation of teaching at the dissecting laboratory. I also attend to the promotion and operation of the Body Donation Programme, which includes answering telephone enquiries, liaising between potential donors, their families and the University for the best possible arrangement that fulfils their expectation.

How would people respond upon knowing that you are an embalmer?

Some people think that an embalmer deals with food processing or canned food. When they know more, those about my same age, the so-called post-80s, would ask: Is it scary facing dead bodies? Have you ever met ghosts? More mature people are more concerned about things like: What does the job mean to you? Will you scare the girls away? Are you married?

So are you married?

It's really not easy to find the better half.  But I'm lucky to have found mine.  My wife is a social worker for the elderly.  We celebrated our wedding anniversary by joining a delegation to visit hospitals, senior homes, funeral homes and cemeteries in Taiwan, Korea, etc., to see how these places differ from Hong Kong in their views about life and death.  It's good that we have a job-related common interest. Of course my wife would also love to choose a more romantic destination for our next trip.

Do you work in solitude?

For most of the time the body embalming process is done by one man, both in the funeral homes where I worked before and at CUHK now.  Sometimes I work alone until midnight. I feel not as lonely now since I started meeting people for promoting the University's body donation programme.

What changes has your job brought to your daily life?

I have to be highly cautious with hygiene and protection since some of the bodies I handle could have been sick. The smell of antiseptic or even the odour of decaying dead bodies may stain my clothes or stay on my body, so sometimes I need to wear perfume.  Friends may feel uncomfortable when I meet them right after work. Also, some chemicals we use at work could contain carcinogens which pose potential risk.  Both mainland and overseas statistics show a much shorter life span of people in this profession. To be frank, I'm concerned.

What qualities and training should an embalmer possess?

First of all, you have to be fearless of dead bodies. People who love watching ghost or horror movies claim that they are immune to fright, which is not true. The more you watch these movies, the more easily you will be scared—very often by your own imagination. Patience and focused attention are prerequisites, whereas knowledge and skills can be acquired. There will be on-the-job training on anatomy and embalming. I have been offered a chance to study overseas.

How did you join the profession?

I was not a science stream student in high school. I majored in design in college and worked as a designer after graduation. These seem to be irrelevant to what I'm doing now. But since I followed my family members to work as embalmers in the funeral business, I already had five to six years of experience dealing with dead bodies before I applied for the post here.  This gave me a bit of advantage. So far, I have dealt with the bodies of about 1,000 persons who died of various causes at different ages.

Is aesthetic training useful at work?

Yes. I'm very meticulous with details. I used to try my best to restore the complexion of people who died in a car crash or committed suicide. With this zeal for perfection, I believe the specimens I help produce may be more beautiful.

I learned from the design programme at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University about branding and marketing. These are useful when I need to set publicity strategies, e.g. in designing website and publicity materials for the body donation scheme. You can see it from the scheme logo which I took the liberty to design—a surgical knife slitting the tissues of the donor's embalmed body, symbolizing the opening of a path leading to the development of a benevolent doctor.

Studying arts sharpens my sensitivity towards human nature, my observation and compassion, which enhance my understanding of the feelings and concern of the donor's family members. I have been able to add in suitable elements to the programme to relieve them from fears.

Is it easy to get new recruits?

We're never short of applicants. But as you know, satisfactory performance in interview is no guarantee.  It's how you react when facing the flesh and blood with a knife in your hand that counts. And what's more, it does affect your social life, dating, etc., and pose negative impact on health to a certain degree.

What are bodies donated to CUHK used for?

First, they are embalmed for medical students for two years of anatomical studies. About 10 students will be assigned a body. Second, they are dissected and plasticized as specimens for teaching in medical, nursing, Chinese medicine, pharmacy and human biology programmes. Third, they are stored in the freezer without being embalmed, and will be used in the most natural condition after defrosting for doctors' simulated surgical training or research.

Have people in Hong Kong changed their views on body donation in recent years?

In the first year the Body Donation Programme was launched, there were just a couple of donations and fewer than 10 registrations. Last year alone, we received more than 80 bodies and over 4,000 registrations. In the past, people found the dissecting laboratory creepy, and those who worked here look gloomy. During the past three to four years, Prof. Chan Sun-on, coordinator of the Dissecting Laboratory and Body Donation Programme, led me and other colleagues to organize some 100 visits and talks to promote the programme. Gradually, people know that body donation helps facilitate students' and doctors' learning, and will lead to better cure and higher surgery success rates for patients. Their fear subsides to reflection on how to add meaning to death.

Traditionally, it's of vital importance to keep the dead body intact.  Nobody will accept having hundreds of cuts on the body.  Now that people understand how every single cut on the body means, they have become more open-minded.

Why did the programme stop receiving body donation for a while last year?

The mortuary was full in November last year, partly due to the unexpected increase in donations, and partly due to the fact that public crematoria were too slow taking in bodies from our laboratory after they had served their purpose. As a result, we did not have space for newly donated bodies. In the long run, we hope that we could have better coordination with the government departments concerned to shorten the waiting time for cremation, so that we could take in more new bodies.

What have you learnt from your job?

You can pursue many things in life, but you can bring nothing with you after death. So I look for meaningful rewards from my job.

I love interacting with students, encouraging them to learn with their heart. The donation programme has been able to bring comfort to some lonely elders and disadvantaged members of society, as they feel relieved to know that their bodies will be taken care of after death, and in that way, they too can contribute to society. These are the non-monetary rewards I get from my job.

I begin working as a volunteer after work. I'm learning from medical practitioners and social workers at the Society for Life and Death Education how to spread positive messages about life and death. I have also created a Life and Death Education group on Facebook with Rev. Chris Wong, with an aim to discuss related topics on a public platform. The group has attracted about 3,000 members.

The donated bodies are honoured as 'Silent Teachers'. What are their relationships with the students?

A professor once said we can foresee how a medical student will treat the patients by observing how he/she treats the dead body under study. Students here are about 18 years old, nervous when facing a dead body. Prof. Chan Sun-on will inaugurate the first lesson by giving a speech, telling them not to take the donated bodies for granted or just treat them as a tool. He will also lead them to observe a moment of silence to show respect to the donors.

'Silent Teachers' are exemplary models who make selfless contribution and teach with their bodies, not their words. By studying how the body has been affected by disease, students learn beyond textbooks. After lessons are completed, students would write thank-you cards to their 'teachers'. Some have organized a ceremony in the laboratory at the request of the family to bid farewell to the teacher before sending the body for cremation. I know that there will be students scattering the ash for a single elderly. Students acquire from these interactions with 'Silent Teachers' both knowledge and the ability to reflect on their mission.

We hope that medical students of the Chinese University will develop into doctors with compassion and expertise who know how to attend to the patients’ needs, but not robots who busy themselves with inputting data to the computer during consultation.

Is there any literary work which makes you echo as an embalmer?

Some people think I'm a mortician after watching the Japanese film Departures.  The film has succeeded in conveying the message of how to respect and do the best for your job, though a mortician is different from an embalmer.  Besides doing a job well, one should discover deeper meanings from it.  When the protagonist enters the profession, what he fears most comes not only from the dead bodies, but also from how to cope with people around him, how to explain his job to his wife, how to work on the body of a family member, etc.  It strikes a chord in me.


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