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Bubbly young woman surrounded by death

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THEO PANAYIDES discovers that few people understand the circle of life better than Florentina Mela, the 28-year-old funeral director

Last Sunday, April 3, was Florentina Mela’s birthday; she turned 28. She’s trim, friendly, personable. Her hobbies include going to the gym, hanging out with friends, “learning new things and exploring everything”. She’s on Instagram (@thesnobbear) where, beneath a rather cryptic quote – ‘M7:1-2NIV’ – she chirpily refers to herself as “a New Yorker at heart”. She’s a bubbly young woman who’s surrounded, most of the time, by old age and death. Florentina is a funeral director.

The funeral home in question – one of the oldest in Cyprus, founded by her dad in 1980 – is called Archangel Funeral Services, with the main office in Limassol and a branch in Nicosia. We meet in the latter location, surrounded by the usual muted colours and tastefully sombre trappings, and she talks about being a 20-something – especially a woman – in a profession more noted for middle-aged men in funereal black suits. “Imagine seeing a family who’ve lost a loved one, their father, mother, maybe even a child,” she posits, thinking back to the days when she first got into the business in 2014. “You’re 20 years old. They’re like ‘Are you sure you can do it?’.”

Actually, that’s not even the worst of it. ‘Are you sure you can do it?’, after all, is a practical question; the more profound, more intractable question is ‘Are you sure you understand what we’re going through?’. Or perhaps, ‘Are you sure you understand death, as a person so near the beginning of her own life?’. It can work the other way, of course – it might even be refreshing to encounter a young undertaker, as a reminder that life goes on – but it surely takes a little more effort for Florentina to connect with her customers’ pain as fully as an older person would, despite having studied Mortuary Science (in New York, hence that Instagram line) and been trained in psychology so as to discern “at which stage of grief they are at the moment, and how to talk to them”.

profile2Studies aside, there’s a more visceral reason why – despite her youth – she’s surprisingly familiar with death; simply put, she’s been in the business all her life. As far back as she can recall, she was hanging around the funeral home – not all the time, maybe just a few hours a week as a little girl, but she saw it all: “I watched my dad doing the embalmings, I saw my mum taking care of the families, arranging the funeral for their loved ones. I saw that side too.”

The sadness? The crying and wailing?

“The sadness, the crying, yes. Everything.” It’s not like she was thrust into packs of screaming relatives as a five-year-old; she’d be in a corner, “sitting in the office, drawing”. Still, she saw enough to be potentially traumatic. “My parents were always there explaining to me. Not ‘supporting’ me” – support wasn’t necessary – “but they were there, telling me. They told me about the circle of life, how it works. Like the plants and animals, one day we’ll all die… And slowly I understood”.

“Psychologically, it never caused any problem to me. But now, working in the business, sometimes – it’s not a psychological problem, but you leave the office and you feel a bit down, from the stories you hear. But you also learn to appreciate life more.”

The technical work of embalming is bad enough – though Archangel has about a dozen employees, so Florentina seldom has to do it herself. You take the cadaver out of the fridge, she explains (just the word ‘fridge’ applied to a corpse is a little creepy), put it on a special slab then make an incision here – she indicates the throat – in the carotid artery. Archangel is unusual in Cyprus in embalming the American way, using special fluid imported from the States (some homes still use formalin, she sighs, even though it’s been widely banned for being carcinogenic; the erratic standards of the profession in Cyprus are a constant bugbear). The fluid is inserted via a very thin needle, the process taking between one and three hours – at least in conventional cases. “There are also people where there’s been an autopsy, so you have to enter through the middle, you have to open up,” she says, gesturing vaguely at the chest area. I don’t ask for details.

profile3It’s not really about embalming, though. Mortuary science isn’t really about the science; it’s about compassion, and helping strangers through one of the worst days of their lives. Nor is it as simple as looking concerned and spouting platitudes. Death is very personal – even different people from the same family will experience a loved one’s demise differently – and all-purpose sympathy is bound to seem fake and irrelevant (it’s a truism that one never knows what to say at a funeral). Florentina has an interesting answer when I ask how she comforts her customers: “You can’t comfort someone. Because they know that it’s your job, so they won’t trust you.

“The way that you comfort them is that you arrange everything for them. They don’t have to call the florist, they don’t have to go to the newspaper. We can do that. They can choose a coffin, we’ll talk with the priest, we can talk with the cemetery… As long as they know that everything’s arranged, this comforts them to grieve.”

Her duties, depending on the family, might also include explaining the procedure to its youngest members, incidentally echoing what her parents used to do for her. “If a child loses his favourite grandfather, what we do usually – if the family wants our help, of course – is the child comes here, we have a talk, we can make a card for the pappou. We’ll have a juice, we talk about whatever they want”. She’ll explain to the youngster “that he’s going to see his pappou in a coffin, we have to explain what is a coffin… The coffin is a box where we put the people when they die – you have to explain, you have to say the words ‘death’, ‘coffin’, ‘dying’.” Florentina believes in being honest, even in the most painful cases. She recalls a seven-year-old boy who’d lost his dad, and been fobbed off with the soothing idea of Heaven. “Daddy’s up there,” insisted the boy again and again, looking up at the sky. She didn’t say anything at the time, of course, but shakes her head disapprovingly: “Why would you do that to the poor child?”.

What does she think happens after death?

A pause, as if gauging how much she ought to say. “The big unknown,” she admits with a chuckle. She doesn’t really believe in Heaven and Hell. How about reincarnation? “That the souls go somewhere else, yes,” replies Florentina (incidentally presuming that the soul exists, which of course is another big question). “That the souls go to a more – holy place, this I can believe. But I don’t know, do we get reborn later? Do we become something else?… And then sometimes you’ll also – I don’t know if it’s happened to you, someone dies then somebody else gets born in the same family and you think, ‘Oh, he’s the image of his grandpa!’.” She shrugs, as if to say ‘Whatever that means’.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect a funeral director to be spiritual. The job is so matter-of-fact, after all, treating cadavers like pieces of meat, shuttling them in and out of the fridge as needed – not to mention that she’s a Millennial with an Instagram account, and no time for the old superstitions – but in fact Florentina is devout, not a regular churchgoer but a woman who prays and believes. (The cryptic line in her Instagram bio, M7:1-2NIV, is actually a Bible verse, Matthew 7:1-2 from the New International Version: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”.) Her parents are also religious, which partly explains it – the three of them are a team, professionally speaking; her dad is semi-retired but still at the firm, while her mother is managing director – but one also wonders if the job itself, that close proximity to death, has ever revealed any hint that there might be something more, something that persists when the flesh passes. She shrugs again, reluctant to go on the record.

She believes in fate as well, a hidden design to our lives – and indeed her own life makes a fairly intriguing test case, given that she was adopted at 16 months and summoned (by fate?) into this unusual milieu. Florentina seems entirely at home in the funeral business, maybe because she never had a burning desire to do anything else (what might she have been, without Archangel? possibly a lawyer, she replies, or an accountant); still, she has to admit it’s unusual. Back in New York, in her Mortuary Science course, “almost everyone” hailed from a family with a funeral home, just like hers; it’s not the kind of subject many choose to research for two years without a good reason.

What about when she’s meeting someone for the first time – or indeed dating? Don’t they find it creepy when she says what she does?

“Nooo!” replies Florentina, her delighted giggle making her sound quite 20-something. “My boyfriend knew from before,” she admits, thinking about it – but “no, it’s not awkward… Actually everyone’s like, ‘Wow, tell us more’”.

What about being a woman? Has that ever made a difference in the business?

“I think – for the business, it’s good. Because, being a woman, sometimes you understand a bit quicker the reactions of the family, and what they want. There’s more empathy. But person-wise, it’s worse – because, again, we’re more emotional. This empathy makes you sad sometimes.” It’s easy to talk about the job in general – and indeed the job is generally fine; even the drama of grieving family members can be overstated. (“It’s never drama,” she says acerbically. “People – especially these days – all they think about is the money, the debts, it’s about the car of the deceased, it’s about the house. Trust me!”) Still, let’s not pretend that spending every day face-to-face with a deep, primal mystery that’s haunted humanity since our earliest consciousness is just another job.

“There are times when you go home, and you might cry,” admits Florentina. “You feel lost.” A certain distress – and fear of death – is understandable; if anything, the more unusual thing in our conversation is how un-lost she seems, how natural. She’s close to her parents, refugees from Famagusta who started out with nothing and taught her a great deal. She’s hard-nosed about the profession, repeatedly calling on the government to close down the many unlicensed rivals who are bringing the whole sector into disrepute (fun fact: there are only around 17 legal funeral homes in Cyprus, with only three for the whole of Limassol). She’s phlegmatic on the subject of cremation, hoping it’ll someday be allowed but judging it unlikely as long as the Church keeps opposing it. Above all, she’s a young, cheerful woman who gives the impression that she might’ve done anything in life – but chose, for some reason (or maybe it was fate, who knows?), to embalm cadavers and console grieving relatives.

Florentina Mela makes it work for her: “I’m good, I’m happy with what I’m doing. I mean, going home at night and knowing you’ve helped someone – even in this situation – it’s a nice feeling”. The work has changed her as a person, made her more giving and appreciative, more inclined to value time and enjoy every moment – and meanwhile she spends her days literally at the interface of life and death, surrounded by numb regret (mourners always regret not having said a real goodbye, or a last ‘I love you’) and the sadness of strangers. It reminds me of a comment in the visitors’ book at her Nicosia office, from a grateful relative: “The work you do is hard, and you make it look easy”. Being 28 probably helps too.

 

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