Mourning – Where Tears Mean Money and Laughter Brings Hope

by M-Berens

Professional mourners used in Victorian times added to the pomp and ceremony of a funeral.

Professional mourners have played a part in funeral ceremonies for thousands of years. In many countries, tradition dictates that the family of the dead, especially children and grandchildren, must express their grief in a very outward manner. Not crying enough or at sufficient decibel levels would be seen as a lack of filial piety so people started hiring professional mourners to ensure a noisy and very passionate farewell.

While the idea of paying for grief makes many people uncomfortable today, in the past, professional mourners were paid well for their services. In most cultures, the mourners were primarily women because of their ability to cry and wail with ease. Mourners are mentioned in the Bible and were used regularly by Egyptians for thousands of years before that. In Egypt, during the time of the Pharaohs, a person’s status was judged by how many mourners were present at the funeral. Families would hire professional mourners to ensure that there were large numbers of participants at a funeral and these mourners would cry hysterically, throw dust in their hair and wave their arms. The better the performance the more money they were paid.

In Victorian times, professional mourners called mutes were hired and walked behind the hearse. They wore black and deployed a suitably miserable expression despite the fact that they had never even met the deceased or the family. In those days funerals were very elaborate affairs and there was a very strict etiquette in place that gave rules for everything from the colors of mourning dress to mourning timelines that had to be observed. Victorian mourning practices spread throughout Europe and professional mourners began to band together, even going on strike for higher wages. As motorized hearses were introduced into the funeral procession, professional mourners began to be phased out of the ceremony.

Many churches began to forbid the practice in the 17th century and the keening, done mainly by women, died out by the end of the 18th century because those in power, church and state, thought women wielded too much public power with their mourning profession and because the promise of Heaven itself should be enough to comfort the grieving.

However, many people of Orthodox Judaic faith still rely on the services of professional mourners today. When a relative dies, strict Jewish laws require mourners to go to the temple every day to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. Families employ a professional mourner, usually an elderly gentleman to cite the prayers for them.

In Rajasthan, India, professional mourners are known as Rudalis and families still hire them to take part in funeral ceremonies. Rudalis’ fees are determined by the decibel level of the wailing they accomplish and the vigor displayed in their acts of grief.

Today, professional mourners, are seeing somewhat of a resurgence in popularity at funerals in some Asian and African countries. In China today, wailers have developed into a professional, competitive market over the last decade. Studies show that these wailers are mostly laid off workers who support themselves by weeping and singing melancholy songs for cash. Women make up the majority of wailers and they try to keep their job secret as they are looked down upon by other people because of their choice of profession. Fees generally run from $30 to $120 per performance but often, if their performance is successful they will receive a gratuity. The ritual starts with mourners lining up outside a funeral parlor and then crawling into the service hall, which symbolizes the daughters who have rushed back from their husbands’ families on hearing about a parent’s death. Most people believe the tradition will die in a few decades as people will no longer want elaborate funerals and there are even some cities that have banned professional mourners because of the noise that they make.

In Kenya professional mourners are trying to start a new funereal tradition as a much needed means of employment but many of the citizens have had mixed reactions. Many believe that hiring people to cry at a funeral is shameful and unethical. The Christian council in Africa is against the profession and says that the service is ungodly.

A professional mourner’s job description in Kenya varies, some families prefer them to weep and prostrate themselves while others ask them not to cry but to sing joyously along with family members. The professional mourners are served with ugali and meat and provided with alcoholic drinks to stimulate their crying. Payment for one session includes, a crate of beer, konyagi and banana, a local alcoholic drink.

And in the west? Tom Lutz, who wrote Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, believes that, “Professional mourners have not so much disappeared over the last millennium; they have simply donned robes and stopped crying”. But even that viewpoint is changing in western culture today. As people continue to stray from their churches, traditional mourning etiquette at funerals is also changing. While the grief is still there, the traditional, somber funeral is evolving into a cheerier life celebration. Hawaiian shirts are replacing black attire, formal church services are being replaced by more casual memorial get togethers, laughter is replacing tears and the focus of the funeral is no longer on the death of a person but rather has become a personal celebration of a life.

While professional mourners have gone out of style in western countries, professional rejoicers might be a suitable replacement to think about for the future. Paying someone to initiate a hearty chuckle at a viewing would be well worth the money because laughter is much more encouraging than tears and helps just as much in the grieving process.


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