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Professional Mourners: An Ancient Tradition

The role of the paid mourner today.

Malcolm Green/Unsplash
Source: Malcolm Green/Unsplash

Most of us dread going to a funeral, no matter who has died. However, some people actually make their living by attending these events. They are professional mourners—also known as moirologists, sobbers, wailers, or criers. In South Africa, you can pay someone to cry and threaten to jump into the grave, if you are so inclined; of course, they charge more for that.[1]

Having paid mourners is an ancient tradition and has been found in many societies. It can also be found in the Old and New Testaments. For example, 2 Samuel 14 says, “…and fetched thence a wise woman, and said unto her, I pray thee, feign thyself to be a mourner, and put on now mourning apparel, and anoint not thyself with oil but as a woman that had a long time mourned the dead." The practice of having paid mourners is believed to have begun in China and the Middle East, but it was also found in ancient Egypt and Rome. In Egypt, there were always two professional women mourners present at a burial who were representatives of the goddesses Isis and Nephtys. To be a mourner, the women could not have born children. Their body hair was shaved and the names of Isis and Nephtys were inscribed on their shoulders.[2] In Rome, the more wealthy and well-known the person was while living, the more ostentatious the funeral procession. Professional mourners would make up a large part of the procession. They could not be members of the family and would be paid to go to the burial crying and wailing loudly, ripping out their hair, tearing their clothes, and scratching their faces.[3] The more professional mourners that attended, the more it signified the status of the deceased. Throughout time, professional mourners have been women because they could more easily express emotions. It was also socially undesirable for a man to weep in public.

Today, one can still find professional mourners. For example, in Essex, England, there is a service called Rent-A-Mourner. As one might expect, these mourners are more reserved, well-dressed, and polite. In China, mourners have been used for over 2,000 years. Recently, there is a well-known mourner named Hu Xinglian. She and her brother work together by dancing and singing. She will then begin to cry and wail. She will also crawl toward the coffin to beg the deceased to come back home. Her mourning is more like a theatrical production. It is said that she is widely sought after and is well paid.[4]

In the United States, paid mourners were used at the Golden Gate Funeral Home in Fort Worth, Texas, where they also were trained and paid for their services. This funeral home was the subject of a program on TLC called “Best Funeral Ever.” The funerals were described as being most like the traditional African American homegoing celebrations but more so. John Beckwith, Chief Executive Officer of the funeral home, stated that although paid mourners can be requested, it is not currently an active program.

While researching this post, I came across a group called the Arlington Ladies at the Arlington National Cemetery. They are quick to say that they are not professional mourners and take offense if you do so. The Ladies do not see themselves as mourners since they do not know the deceased. They see their purpose as to pay homage to the deceased. They do not receive money for their work. They are quiet, sedate, and unobtrusive. They always dress in black. The funeral itself is somber. There are strict rules that they must follow. They may introduce themselves to the family but demonstrate no emotions during the service. After the funeral, they present the flag to the bereaved and give them two cards. One is a message from the Chief of Staff and the other from the Lady. The program began in the late 1940s as a way of insuring that no service member would be buried alone. The women are typically wives of service members or served themselves. The Ladies volunteer one day a month but might attend 6 or 7 funerals in a day. To join the group, a woman must be nominated by a current member. Each military branch has its own Ladies attached to it. Currently, there are approximately 64 members attached to the Army branch.[5]

Today, paid mourners are used for some of the same reasons as they were 2000 years ago. People still tend to equate the number of people at a funeral as an outward sign of the status and worth of the deceased. Mourners are hired to increase attendance. Another reason to use a paid mourner may be if the deceased has few living relatives or those that are alive live too far away to attend, professional mourners may be called in. In some cultures, wailing and crying are still part of the burial service. Some relatives may be uncomfortable displaying these emotions and mourners are brought in to do so. Regardless of the reason you may want to hire a mourner, it is always best to meet with them before they are needed to let them know what your expectations are.







More from Marilyn A. Mendoza Ph.D.
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