Death. It’s an inevitable part of all life, and yet, we’re terrible at speaking about it, even if the pandemic has kept the thought on our minds. What if funerals weren’t a prolonging of despair? A new service in Malta has sprouted up, with a mission to change the way we honour life after death.
Celebrate Life, run by former pharmacist Miran Sapiano, goes beyond what is expected of funeral undertakers.
“We’re always on call, around the clock to support people in their darkest moments. We help them get things done,” she told Lovin Malta.
From the bureaucratic tasks like death certificates to deeply intimate funeral celebrations and an ear to listen to in the aftermath, Sapiano has dedicated her life to giving a helping hand.
“People are so upset at that time they see these tasks as extra. For me, it’s no problem. I give them the moral support to get even the most menial of tasks done, I try to give that extra care. You don’t even release how people appreciate the little things when they’re at a loss.”
Sometimes, Sapiano said, she spends eight hours with a family at a time.
“After the bureaucratic things are settled, we try to be there as a shoulder of support and make their funeral really special. Because if you love someone, you’d want to remember and celebrate the good things,” she said.
How do they do that? By making the affair as personal as possible.
“We had one family for example, who lost their mother. She was obsessed with pink flowers. We decorated the church with them and the colour scheme of her and her husband’s wedding. We helped them announce the news online, guided them when writing speeches, picked out the Santi, the poems and other extra details. It’s just about that extra care,” she added.
Another woman had told her family that when she passed, she didn’t want a funeral in black. So Sapiano stepped in and helped coordinate the whole colour scheme, from funeral outfits down to the colour of the hearse.
“It’s about post-funeral care too. After the funerals, I meet with families to see how they are months after. We see if there is anything they need. Sometimes it’s encouraging them to seek professional help or simply doing some errands for them like groceries.”
COVID-19 has brought another conundrum of pain for grieving families. When a relative dies of the virus, a funeral must be held the following day, whether or not relatives are in quarantine.
“Emotional support for those who lose someone to COVID-19 is so important. It’s a new phenomenon. In a lot of cases, you see an overwhelming sense of guilt in the family. They can’t see them at their last moments.”
Sapiano recalled one case where a 38-year-old man lost his mother to the virus.
“He was very cautious but he was asymptomatic and passed it on to his mother, even though they didn’t live together. She was perfectly healthy, but passed away within five days,” she said.
After testing positive for COVID-19, he had to undergo quarantine for two weeks. His mother, also isolated, was in the hospital alone. He was beyond scared and guilt-ridden and became suicidal.
“We met with him to speak outside his house. Then, we spoke for eight hours a day.”
“We made all the arrangements online and to include him in all the decisions from beginning to end. We went to a supplier for example and video-called him so he could pick decor, Santi, the flowers and other things. We went to the morgue so he could say goodbye. It doesn’t cost money but I think that is what I would want if I was in his position.”
Today, he is coming to terms with his feelings and feels more in control of his thoughts.
The idea to run such a service came to Sapiano after experiencing indescribable loss herself.
“I miscarried with twins. There is no way to describe the pain and no one knows how to care for you or what to say,” she recalled.
This sparked her interest in learning how to care for those grieving.
Sapiano has been doing this work since November when her previous employer shut its doors in Malta. Now, she’s studying to become Malta’s first certified thanatologist, studying death and dealing with those mourning.
She hopes that she can help break down the stigma around talking about death.
“It’s still such a taboo. I don’t even speak to certain members of my own family about what I do.”
As a mother of two, Sapiano has already approached the subject with her eldest son.
“We have a very sensitive conversation and speak about the loss in terms of animals. Children understand when you take the time and put in the effort. Even if children experience a death in the family themselves, there are certain games they can play, which helps them speak more about what they feel.”
Five months into the business, feedback has been impressive for Celebrate Life Malta.
Sapiano, together with the help of her father, is working on curating an open space in Ħaż-Żebbuġ, complete with sofas, coffee and tea to welcome grieving families.
“I just like to give that female touch. I’m not a feminist, but I see what a difference it makes.”
What do you make of Sapiano’s approach to funerals in Malta?