Death of an Expat
“Ma’am, you need to come over here now. Edward has died”, said my husband’s live-in housekeeper over the phone, almost exactly two years ago today.
Edward and I had not lived together for several years, but we were still legally married. I had planned to visit him in two days’ time. Now he was dead? My knees buckled and I had to sit down.
“What happened?”, I asked.
“I don’t know, Ma’am, it was my day off today and the weekend girl texted me that Edward is dead in his bedroom so I came back here and he is dead. Ma’am, you need to come now.”
She has phoned me at 11:30 on a Sunday morning. Apparently, the weekend girl thinks Edward may have died at about 10 a.m., but Pia was not sure that he was really dead so for 90 minutes the two girls sat beside him, poking him and watching him and feeling his body to see if he might still be alive. Now they have decided that he is getting cooler, though the day is hot hot hot, probably hotter than the body temperature of a living human.
The next boat off the island where I live is at 1 p.m., and it’s doubtful that I’ll make it to Edward’s house before 3. I’m concerned about him lying there in this heat and maybe starting to smell.
Let’s get one thing clear. In the Philippines, there’s no 911 to call. We’re pretty much on our own to solve our emergencies. Pia doesn’t know what to do and her neighbors don’t know what to do and the weekend girl doesn’t know what to do, nor does the weekend girl’s mother, who has come to Edward’s house because the two girls are scared to be alone with a dead man. I don’t know what to do either, but apparently, I’m in charge.
I still can’t believe that Edward is really dead. I’m shocked and upset, but I can’t think about this now. There’s just too much to do. I text Pia when the passenger banca leaves the beach at exactly 1pm, unusually punctual for once.
“Pia, please turn on the air conditioner. Are you sure he’s dead?”
“Yes ma’am the aircon already open day and night he’s dead.”
I decide that the first order of business is to get Edward out of his house. When I arrive at the pier in Batangas City I go straight to a jeepney driver. I explain that my husband has died in his house and we need to get him to the hospital or something. Do jeepney drivers do that kind of thing?
“No ma’am. I’m sorry about your husband. Maybe you go to the hospital.”
I hire a tricycle and am driven to a hospital where the staff are sympathetic but not offering any help. “He’s dead already, ma’am. No need to bring him to the hospital. You try the funeral service.”
Ah yes, I have passed one many times. The waiting tricycle driver takes me there, about twenty minutes away. The funeral home staff are prepared and ready for action. It is explained to me that certain procedures must be followed. When a foreigner dies outside of a hospital in the Philippines, an autopsy must be performed. Also, there are documents which must be signed by the captain of Edward’s village. Finally, an official death certificate will be issued, which I can then take to the U.S. Embassy. Would I like Edward buried or cremated? “Cremated”, I answer.
I ask how much all of this will cost. I’m not shown a formal brochure, which I’m sure they must have. A discussion takes place in front of me in Tagalog, which I don’t understand. Finally, a price is quoted which I suspect is higher than the real price, but I only care that everything be done properly and legally. They assure me they will take care of all the details. I agree to the price.
A man pulls up in a jeepney-style wagon and says “Ma’am, get in front. Let’s go!”. We bounce around in the front seat of the wagon, which has no seat belts, of course. Two “boys” in their early twenties sit in the back, holding onto a gurney. Unlike your typical funeral home in a western country, no one is wearing a formal suit to go meet the dead. They have on faded t-shirts and jeans. Edward’s house is almost 30 minutes away.
To make conversation, I ask, “Are many people dying these days?”
“Yes, many, many. When it’s hot like this, many people die, especially the old people.”
When we arrive in Edward’s neighborhood, we see Pia on the street, waving and motioning for us to make a detour. Access has been cut off by a gigantic street party which is in full swing in front of Edward’s house. It looks like a birthday party, with dozens of tables decorated with festive cloths and balloons. Sun awnings cover the entire street, keeping the blazing sun off the party guests.
We park down the street and the two boys maneuver the gurney in between the party tables. The guests are craning their necks to get a look at me. “The widow”, I hear someone say. Another says loudly, “ah, it’s the wife”. I suspect this is not what they expected when they showed up for this birthday party!
I walk into Edward’s house, not sure what I will see. I walk toward the bedroom, with at least six people following me. Everyone wants to watch the widow’s reaction.
I’m shocked to see him, sitting on the floor, with his head and right arm resting against the side of the bed. Like he wanted to lie down but couldn’t quite make it. His eyes are wide open and he’s extremely pale. He looks terrible, but I understand why the girls weren’t sure that he was dead. His pupils are not dilated. I softly walk over, sit down beside him and poke him. Maybe he’s in a deep coma? But he’s definitely cooling. When I see him like this, I want to cry, but not in front of all these gawkers.
“Can’t you leave me alone with him for a few minutes,” I ask. The spectators back out of the room and I shut the door. What do you say to someone when you’ve come to the end of a twenty year relationship, especially one that was as complicated as ours.
Edward is placed in a body bag and wheeled away through the birthday festivities. He would have enjoyed the dramatic exit, I think.
Back to business. I have already withdrawn my full daily limit from an ATM, but it’s not nearly enough to cover the cost of Edward’s autopsy and cremation. I hand over a deposit to the funeral man, which leaves me with just enough money to pay for a hotel room and dinner.
The funeral man says he needs some nice clothes to change Edward into. The tears finally come when I look through his closet and realize that Edward has no nice clothes. He doesn’t even own any long pants. Edward, what happened to you? The funeral man offers to buy him a formal Filipino outfit, which of course, takes the last remaining money from my wallet.
It’s too late to get a boat home and hotels all require payment up front. I do not want to sleep in Edward’s house tonight. I can get more cash out of the ATM tomorrow so I explain my situation to a hotel receptionist, who agrees to let me pay in the morning.
I spend the mostly sleepless night processing what has just happened. I’m so sorry that Edward died alone.
Three days later, I arrive at the funeral home to pick up a copy of the autopsy report. I am anxious to know what killed Edward. While I’m waiting in the lobby, some old movie is playing on Cinemax and there is a morgue scene. One of the staff members gets excited:
“Morgee!”, he shouts. “Morgee!” Several employees come running out of various rooms. They laugh and point at the cadavers on the TV. I feel sick to my stomach and really need to get out of this place.
BI-LATERAL PNEUMONIA is listed as the cause of death.
“Was he coughing?”, I ask Pia later.
“No ma’am, but his back was aching.”
On the day of his cremation, I arrive at the funeral home and Edward has already been loaded into the back of the wagon. I can see the familiar shape of his head despite the body bag. We drive the 30 kilometers to the nearest crematorium, where I sign several documents. I’m told the process will take between two and three hours.
The funeral man leaves me at this point. His work is done and in less than one week, I have all the documents that I will need to take to the U.S. embassy. Edward’s cremation takes about two and a half hours. They bring his ashes out in a box.
I reach out to take the box, when an employee shouts, “Ma’am be careful, it’s hot!”. Yes, it is scorching hot, fresh out of the oven. I carefully place the box in a shopping bag and walk over to the bus terminal. Apparently, the funeral home only provides one-way transportation.
“One last trip together, Edward”, I whispered to the box, as we rode the bus back to Batangas pier and boarded a banca to cross the Verde Channel to the island where I live.
Edward wanted his ashes scattered in the ocean and as he disappeared into the sea, I thought I should do something solemn, like say the Lord’s Prayer. Less than halfway through I realized that I couldn’t remember the words.
In summary, the U.S. Embassy in Manila was extremely efficient and helpful. Everything that needed to be done was done easily. They are used to this kind of thing. The most important piece of paper which needs to be issued is the “Report of Death of an American Citizen Abroad”. This is what is recognized by state-side banks and financial institutions, rather than a local death certificate.
Had Edward died in a hospital or on a holiday tour, I suspect that the situation would have been somewhat easier for me, but honestly, the funeral home handled all the paperwork that needed to be done. It gets very expensive and complicated if you want to fly a body or even ashes out of the country — but in Edward’s case, he didn’t want to be returned to the United States.
Filipinos were kind and compassionate and went out of their way to help me through the process.
I’m sure that I will always stop and remember Edward on the anniversary of his death. And I choose to remember the happy times that we shared rather than the bad. And hopefully, I will not see the inside of another funeral home for a good long while…
Thank you, Shelley!
Very moving to read and very practical. Dealing with death shouldn’t be a taboo sunject. Thanks for writing this and hope all will be well for you.
Thank you for writing! I agree that death shouldn’t be a taboo subject, after all, it happens to all of us. Dying without making any preparations or leaving instructions for our survivors definitely adds to their stress.