Doing the Write Thing: Angjolie Mei
Angjolie Mei is a certified funeral director and celebrant at The Life Celebrant, a provider of boutique funeral services.
Formerly a financial advisor, she left her shining career in management to take care of the dead. In 2020, Angjolie not only marked the 10th anniversary of her funeral services company, The Life Celebrant, but also published a new edition of her memoir, Dying to Meet You: Confessions of a Funeral Director, first published in 2017, which includes two new chapters.
She shares about how her perception of death has changed since she entered motherhood (her baby was born last year), how Covid-19 has impacted the funeral industry and ritual, and how she wishes her book may change perceptions about death.
What can readers expect from this new edition that wasn’t in the first edition? After the first edition was published, we started to take care of more funerals for children. So, I added one chapter talking about how children face their own mortality and our accumulated experience in our (then-new) Showers of Love service. And because of this pandemic going on I have one chapter that addresses the Covid-19 cases that we've taken care of during this period.
How has the pandemic changed the way funerals are conducted? It has shaped a different way of handling funerals now, because of the number of people that can attend a funeral wake. In the beginning, when the circuit breaker started, our instructions were that we could only have 10 people at a wake. Even at the final farewell – which is at Mandai Crematorium, or at a burial plot – there could only be 10 people. But imagine if there are more than 10 people in your family!
So, we've had to use technology – for example, using live streaming for those people who are not able to join us, so that they can watch it.
For example, I had a gentleman – whom I mentioned in my book – whose family wanted to plan a big, grand farewell for him because that was his instruction. It was shortly after the circuit breaker started that he passed away. But instead of a very grand funeral, in the end, the family had to choose a very short, private funeral in their home – and it was only held as a one-day funeral wake. The next day, we sent him to the crematorium. I remember this family who apologised to their father for not being able to fulfil his final wishes.
Now, because of Phase 2, it's much better as we can have up to 20 people in attendance. But again, it's still not enough. There are still so many family members who want more people, and we have to stagger the visitation hours, instead of everybody coming at the same time. So, the pandemic has resulted in shorter funerals, and people have started to hold them at parlours instead of at the void decks.
Which part of your job do you love the most? The part that I love the most is actually learning about the stories. So I always say that a funeral is like a life graduation ceremony. Learning the stories of different individuals, even when they have passed – their values, their lessons, their legacies that they leave behind – those are lessons that I love and enjoy the most. That's the reason Dying to Meet You was possible – because I learnt so many stories about the departed.
Recently, I learnt about how a mother chose her husband. She actually learnt this value from her grandmother, who said: "If you want to choose your husband, you need to see how he organises his wallet. If he organises his notes properly, that means he's very good with his finances."
I thought it was a very interesting eulogy when it was shared by her son. So, that's the thing that I enjoy the most – by learning these stories, I also learn how to live my own life through them.
How do you feel about women who say they are inspired by your story? How do you feel about being a role model? I've never really seen myself as an inspiration, to be honest. A lot of people ask me: "What do you hope to achieve with Dying to Meet You?" I enjoy sharing stories that I learnt.
I also believe that by sharing all these stories with readers, or people who join me in seminars ... if one of the stories or any part of my book can motivate or inspire them to make a difference in their own lives, or to make a difference even in their loved ones' lives – that is what I hope to achieve with my book.
One day, I met a friend from college after Dying to Meet You first came out. I didn't even know she bought the book. We met up for lunch and what she told me was something that I still remember now: that she was very inspired by the part where I wrote about how, being in this industry, I don't really bear grudges anymore.
She had an argument with her sister, and she actually brought up my book to talk about how the argument doesn't matter anymore. So, she shared her experience with me about how my book inspired her and her sister, which I was taken aback by because I wasn't expecting it.
It doesn't matter if you're a woman in a male-dominated industry, most importantly, it's all about teamwork. A funeral can never be completed by one person, it's about coming together to give the final farewell to the departed. So, if my book can inspire you, I hope you continue to pay it forward to inspire and touch more lives.
Have you found that people's perceptions of death have changed since you wrote this book? Do you find people talk about it more openly? My book isn't just about death alone. I think the stories that I've shared also helps families understand how they should live their lives.
I do think recently ... not only because of my book but also with the government's efforts in helping to increase awareness and getting more people to talk about the final farewell and pre-planning for it – or even asking about power of attorney and writing a will – people are more open to talking about legacy planning. Unlike in the past where, if you talk about will-writing, the older generation will say: "Choy, choy, choy! if I write today, tomorrow I will die."
No longer do they have this kind of mentality. People want to be more prepared now. In fact, during the Covid-19 period, there was an increase in the take-up of will-writing. Right now, people are more open about speaking about death and also preparing for the final farewell.
What is the biggest lesson you've learnt since the book came out? Ever since I've written my book and had it translated into Chinese, I do get approached by bereaved family members who come to me and say: "I've read your book, and I was very inspired by it."
Some of them even contact us at The Life Celebrant and engage us because of my book. So it makes me really glad to hear how my book has helped them, and also to open up a morbid topic and converting it into something about gratitude, forgiveness, and love as well. I was very pleased when I heard that the first edition had run out, and now we have the second edition. I'm really glad for this opportunity from Epigram, Edmund, and whoever believed in me.
What's the best or worst thing about being Angjolie Mei now? Last year, in October, I gave birth to my baby. And this year, we are celebrating my very first baby's – The Life Celebrant's – 10-year-old anniversary. Entering into motherhood is a very brand new thing for me, and I'm very grateful.
The best part about being Angjolie now is being a mother – not just a sister, not just an aunty. Being promoted from aunty status to mother status is one of the biggest joys I have! Also, last year, when we won our Women Entrepreneur Award, together with my entire team being there, I really felt it was a recognition of our work in the industry. Not just being a female, but a recognition that this industry can be transformed. There is a need for us to professionalise this industry.
The worst thing about being Angjolie is also related to motherhood: In the past, I remember when I took care of funerals for children, I would relate to the bereaved families as a funeral director, and as someone who would give them support as a daughter, and as a sister.
But ever since I became a mother, all the emotions get even deeper with me. When we have to take care of a child's funeral, I get very affected. I actually made sure that this particular story could be in this book as well, where I had to take care of a funeral for a baby who was a few days younger than my baby girl. I remember I couldn't even get myself to look at the girl because I was so affected. My other team who was taking care of the funeral was secretly crying in the hallway as well.
The next day, I remember asking one of my staff: "Could you be the funeral celebrant? I don't think I can do it." But she got busy and I had to step in as the funeral celebrant. I always think it's all fated. After the funeral, I went up to the mum, and I expressed my condolences to her. We hugged each other because we both understood the pain of being a mother and losing someone.
So, that's the challenging part–being a mum and a funeral director who can empathise. It's a challenge for us to overcome.
How do you feel about baring yourself to the public? By baring all these stories, I'm sharing about my life lessons. There are a few ways we learn about life. One, you experience it, you fall, you pick yourself back up, and you continue again. Or you can learn from other peoples' mistakes, other peoples' lessons, and apply it to yourself.
I believe that being a funeral director, I have the privilege of learning from other family members, other individuals, and then applying these lessons to my own life. It helps me understand how our time on Earth is temporary. We would want to make the best out of it, to touch as many lives as we can.
That's why I have no issues sharing all these stories. In fact, I am more than happy to. Every time we serve a family, we are increasing and accumulating stories – not just from me, but from my team's experiences as well. It really impacts our lives, and hopefully, it will impact yours as well.
Get the second edition of Dying to Meet You: Confessions of a Funeral Director here.