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General News

Gregory Apostle on Living the Ephemeral Every Day

NEW YORK – If we give a certain definition to life, that it is the totality of forces that resist death, then those who ’meet’ death daily and “stare him in the face,” must have enormous mental strength to withstand the misery and trauma it causes, to themselves and to people who have lost loved ones and who must be supported. Gregory Apostle (Apostolopoulos) is a calm, cultured man, who has dedicated most of his life to discreetly helping those who knock on his door during the painful personal moments when a loved one has departed. An intermediary between the living and the dead, he devotes time to the living, helping them to overcome the shock of loss and to tame the abysmal pain left behind – and facilitating the long journey of the beloved dead.

With a family tradition from 1921 in funeral arrangement, when his uncle, George Apostolopoulos, his father Nikolaos’ older brother, from Stranoma, Nafpaktos, opened one of the first two Greek funeral homes in Manhattan, the George C. Apostle Funeral Business, and a chapel in Brooklyn on Court Street, and then around 1940 with the purchase of the business by his brother Nikolaos – the sympathy for the people who lose their loved ones had already nested in the soul of Gregory Apostle.

The new Nicholas C. Apostle Funeral Home, named after his father, opened at 455 West 43rd Street in Manhattan, and a few years later, in 1960, it changed neighborhoods and moved to Broadway, in Riverdale, at 214th Street, not too far from the St. Spyridon Church in Washington Heights, under the name Riverdale Funeral Home.

In 1968 the business was transferred to Nikolaos's four sons, Christos, Vasilis, who was a lawyer, Jim, who was an accountant, and Gregory, who became a manager and soon bought the whole business from his brothers, who had other occupations.

In 1973, Gregory Apostle bought the Constantinides Funeral Parlor Company and expanded operations even further. Today, he lives with his beloved wife Maria in Westchester County, has three sons, Nicholas, Christopher, and Andrew, seven grandchildren, and is an active member of the Parish Council of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in New Rochelle. His services were recognized by Archbishop Spyridon and he was awarded the title Archon for his contribution to the community, in which, among other things, he was the coach and later director of the Metropolitan Greek Orthodox Basketball League. In addition, he was a member of the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association for over 20 years.

In 2005, Gregory undertook the burial of Archbishop Iakovos in Boston, while shortly before he had undertaken the funeral of Theodosis Athas, a famous media personality.

Apostle, who travels and mixes with many ethnic groups, is especially loved and respected, both as a person and as a professional, because he has realized the ephemerality of life and together with the support of his family in this difficult task, and his faith in Orthodoxy, he has acquired immense mental strength to negotiate daily with death and suffering.

TNH: What was it that motivated you to start your own family business? Didn't you have any other dreams as a young man?

Gregory Apostle: In 1960, at the age of 17, I worked for two years in a candy store. When I told the owners that I had to leave in order to pursue my future, they offered me a partnership, realizing that I was very good at their business – I worked consistently and I never stole anything. But our company, Riverdale Funeral, I think was my destiny. I had dreams, like all young people my age. But I really believe that my calling was to follow the family business and take over.

TNH: At such a young age when you started the business, how did you deal with the fear of death? How difficult was it?

GA: I believe that my family and my religion helped me to deal with death and the fear it causes. I felt like I was helping people in need. It was difficult at the beginning, but my father who came to America at the age of 13 from Nafpaktos, and the people I worked with supported me a great deal.

TNH: How do you deal with death – I ask because the pandemic has brought fear back into our daily lives?

GA: I always felt that my wife and family, as well as my Greek Orthodox faith, help me deal with most problems. This pandemic intensified our efforts to alleviate pain in these tragic moments, because most people had to wait because of mass funerals and requests for burial and cremation. People have not yet realized what happened during these difficult months for all of us, especially in March, April, and May.

TNH: How did Riverdale Funeral respond to this new reality of countless deaths and successive funerals?

GA: I made a plan in time to cope with so many funerals. We ordered a refrigerated truck to be on our premises to accommodate the dead who could not remain in hospitals or be buried in cemeteries or cremated in crematoria or be present at any services, in any religious setting. We did the best we could. It was very painful to have to help families with different cultures and religions and to alleviate the tragedy they were experiencing at that time.

TNH: How did you handle your emotions in the midst of such a catastrophe that you faced during the difficult months of the pandemic?

GA: It was an intense and trying period for us because we could not help people in time. We had to wait for the churches, the cemeteries, the crematorium, and to see whether it was possible for the families to arrive for the funeral. The traditional ceremony disappeared in those months. At night, all the workers would return home to their families and try to relax, to prepare for the next day. We did not know what was waiting for us! I personally am devastated by the death of many of my friends, because they were lost and I could not do anything for them, not even be with them during their greatest need.

TNH: How did you handle COVID-19 and the restrictions at Riverdale Funeral?

GA: My eldest son had COVID in the beginning, as did his wife. No one else in our offices got sick and everyone was able to help the families. The restrictions imposed by the state of New York were followed to the letter and most families showed great understanding and patience. They respected us and we respected them unconditionally.

TNH: What is the most difficult part of your job?

GA: Having to be available at all hours, day and night, and being very careful to fulfill all the wishes of the family. Death is hard and we must be by the families’ side flawlessly!

TNH: What does "impeccable service" mean in your profession?

GA: Customer service is our primary goal. Personally, I always try to be available to everyone and help in everything that may be needed. Many years ago, my mother had spoken to a lady whose husband we had undertaken to bury. She then told her that whatever she asked for, we would not deny her. She was particularly impressed. Fulfilling wishes is all we can do for the unfortunate people who lose their loved one. In such moments, the person in pain does not need to hear “No.”

TNH: In addition to the pandemic, tell us some other stressful moments you encountered at work.

GA: Two of the most stressful times I have personally suffered, in the 60 years of my work, have been the funeral of our beloved Archbishop Iakovos in the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral and the burial in Massachusetts. Everything had to be perfect for a perfect person. I would like to thank Bishop Antonios for all his help at that time. There were many priests and his secretary, Ms. Paulette Poulos. My Apostle family and I were very proud to be invited to arrange the ceremony. A second event was the funeral of Theodosis Athas, a radio personality we all loved. This funeral took place in St. Spyridon with Professor Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas of the School of Theology in Boston.

TNH: How do you separate your work life from your family, especially in your profession, which requires so much emotional charge?

GA: My wife, my children, and especially my seven grandchildren help me to separate my work from my personal life, but it is quite difficult. Someone who wants to take up this profession must understand that the family that calls him for help comes first. I was blessed with my wife, Maria, who always stands by me with great patience. Families need emotional support and my family gives it generously to me.

TNH: What do you predict to be the developments after the coronavirus?

GA: We must use everything we have learned during this time of the pandemic. We must also keep in mind that the ceremonies we used to hold – with many people coming to give their support to the family – will take some time to return, if ever, on a large scale. Neighborhoods and people will determine what happens. We are always there to help whoever needs us. We can return to many of the things that happened in 2019, but not to others. There has been a huge shift to cremation and this will continue in the future. The Greek Church does not want cremation, but we will see in the future what its perspective will be under the leadership of our new Archbishop and how [this issue] will evolve.

TNH: Are you worried about the future?

GA: I do not worry about the future. My sons, Andrew and Nicholas (named for his grandfather), and Ralph and Kayla who are also in charge of the company, are always available to help anyone who calls us. I believe that what I have taught my sons and others who work with us will bring us into the future. Always remember that no family wants to make such a phone call to us. That is why we should treat people who mourn with respect and dignity. The Apostle Family Riverdale Funeral Home operates according to these principles, and it will continue to operate with them, so I should not worry about the future.

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