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The first time I heard about “professional mourners” was during literature classes in high school. We were discussing famous Polish Renaissance poetry by Jan Kochanowski, specifically Treny (Threnodies, usually rendered in English as Laments, 1580), a series of nineteen elegies on the death of his beloved two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Urszulka (source: Wikipedia).

Our teacher – a man known for jet-black hair and orange makeup – introduced us to the idea of usually older women (60+ only) called “płaczki żałobne”, Polish for, literally, “funeral criers”. These village women would wail and lament at funerals to send off the dead. As far as I remember, he never mentioned them being paid. I suspected – knowing Polish customs – that they considered this activity part of their roles as matrons of smaller communities and volunteered.

I recently remembered about them and decided to read up to see if this was a Poland-only thing. To my surprise, it is very much a humanity-wide thing. And it’s very much paid.

Who Were Moirologists?

Professional mourners, officially known as “moirologists” from Ancient Greek μοῖρα (moîra, “fate”) + λόγος (lógos, “speech, oration”), are often referred to as grief facilitators or mourning specialists. The profession is deeply rooted in ancient traditions, which is not a surprise as the one thing that we humans have known forever is the surety of death. 

There was also symbolism attached to mourning. Where quantity signals abundance, mourners were also seen as a sign of wealth. In some cultures, where funerals are shrouded in customs and elaborate practices, hiring mourners helped families in coping with the responsibilities of making sure they give their relatives a proper send-off.

One thing I got out of my research is that the practice of professional weeping is not dead. It’s not as common in Europe as it used to be, but it still is part of funeral proceedings in Greece, as well as in Africa or Asia, especially in China and India. Aligned with the bit of information I had gleaned from my professor’s brief comments, turns out that, indeed, with one notable exception, it was women that got busy with lamenting and wailing at funerals. In ancient cultures, men were explicitly not allowed to partake because showing emotions had always been considered the domain of women, especially emotions of despair, sadness, and grief. 

Professional mourners formed a large part of the procession. These were women who were not members of the deceased’s family, and had to be paid to participate. According to accounts of funerals, they would wail loudly and literally rip out their hair and scratch their faces in mourning.

Source: The Roman Funeral
Female mourners, ca. 535-525 BC. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Professional Mourners in Ancient Times

Ancient Egypt had elaborate funeral traditions therefore the presence of people employed specifically to mourn at funerals seems like a no-brainer to me. Among the crowd of weepers, who were expected to act uncontrollably and let the reins of their emotional composure go, two women were appointed to act as representations of Isis and Nephthys, two Egyptian goddesses who were significant when someone died.

China came up in my research on professional mourners as a country which considered funeral weepers part of old-fashioned funeral proceedings. For that reason, moirologists and the practice of organised wailing were frowned upon when the Cultural Revolution in China started in 1966. In his book, The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up, Liao Yiwu interviews people who were caught up in the communist government’s rush to part with the old ways, including those engaged as professional mourners. 

 “People are not what they used to be,” he laments. “They don’t even bother to pretend to be sorrowful.” 

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up, Liao Yiwu

Female professional mourners (called Rudaali) were common in many parts of India, especially in the Western Indian state of Rajasthan. Rudaalis once played an important role in Rajasthani society. It was considered inappropriate for high-class women to grieve openly, so when their husbands died, the Rudaalis would mourn on their behalf. There’s an Indian movie titled Rudaali released in 1993 about a woman who cannot express her grief in tears and is challenged to become a professional mourner. 

In this tradition, women belonging to the low castes are hired for mourning over the death of a person belonging to the upper section of society. Rudaalis come over, cry their heart out, beat their chest and show grief inconsolably.

Since the ladies of the upper-class households are not permitted to show up amidst the outsiders and express their grief openly, so these women are made their substitutes to fulfill the need of mourning.

Rudaalis carry black outfits and a long veil; possibly to hide the contradictory vision of their eyes. Rudaalis are sent with the brides of upper caste as part of the dowry and then they live in small huts near the Havelis for entire life.

They do not have a family of their own and are taken care of by the Thakurs and the landlords of the village; no less than prostitutes. They give birth to the illegitimate child of the upper-caste men and if it’s a daughter then she also bears the stigma of this community and is pushed to be in this profession and the loophole in the fabric of equality seems to get bigger every time.

Source: The Women Who ‘Have To’ Cry For Everyone – Rudaali Of Rajasthan

However, the practice has seemed to become less popular and not much talked about in the news UNTIL just recently. A 2023 movie titled “Balagam” features a funeral scene where a band performs an emotional song of lament “Thoduga Ma Thodundi” (“Be our companion” in Telugu). The coupe hired to do the scene is a real funeral performers troupe, and they spoke to some news outlets about the practice they learned from their parents and grandparents when they were 12 years old. 

“Some may consider crying for living objectionable, but Mogilaih and Komuramma say their line of work has a long history in Telangana, a tradition that the deceased must receive a loud and grand send-off. “When a loved one passes away, you mourn so intensely that, by the time the funeral rolls around, you have dried up,” says Komuramma.”

Source: Mourning for money: Balagam singers comfort others in their grief

Professional Mourners in Victorian Times

Victorians were weirdos when it came to death and the way they coped with the topic. We have death photography. Using a dead person’s hair for jewellery. Funerary dolls or Victorian mourning dolls. We have the irrational fear of being buried alive and safety air pipes. And we have funeral “mutes”.

In contrast to funeral rites in other countries and cultures and at different times in history, Victorian professional mourners were quiet, unassuming ones. This fit with the austerity of Victorian times and their focus on propriety. It is no wonder then that in England, the professional mourners were referred to as “mutes”.

And most shockingly (or maybe not), mutes were most commonly men. Sometimes children, including Charles Dickens’ famous character, Oliver Twist.

The undertaker offered no reply to this raving; but producing a tape from his pocket, knelt down for a moment by the side of the body.

‘Ah!’ said the man: bursting into tears, and sinking on his knees at the feet of the dead woman; ‘kneel down, kneel down —kneel round her, every one of you, and mark my words! I say she was starved to death. I never knew how bad she was, till the fever came upon her; and then her bones were starting through the skin. There was neither fire nor candle; she died in the dark—in the dark! She couldn’t even see her children’s faces, though we heard her gasping out their names. I begged for her in the streets: and they sent me to prison. When I came back, she was dying; and all the blood in my heart has dried up, for they starved her to death. I swear it before the God that saw it! They starved her!’ He twined his hands in his hair; and, with a loud scream, rolled grovelling upon the floor: his eyes fixed, and the foam covering his lips.

The terrified children cried bitterly; but the old woman, who had hitherto remained as quiet as if she had been wholly deaf to all that passed, menaced them into silence.

Chapter 5, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

By the way, Dickens was not very keen on mutes and often criticised or poked fun at them.

The reason men were the ones to perform the job comes down to them being able to reign their emotions in – Victorians did not like excessive displays of feelings that women were known for and thought open grief would disturb the ceremony.

It sometimes happens among the poorer classes that the female relatives attend the funeral; but this custom is by no means to be recommended, since in these cases it but too frequently happens that, being unable to restrain their emotions, they interrupt and destroy the solemnity of the ceremony with their sobs, and even by fainting. As soon as the funeral is over it is usual for the mourners to separate, each one taking his departure home.”

Source:  Victorian London – Publications – Etiquette and Household Advice Manuals – Cassells Household Guide, c.1880s [no date] – Death in the Household

Mutes walked behind the customary hearse and had to observe a list of rules regarding mourning attire (black draped hats and coats and carried draped banners and they bore a suitably dignified, sombre countenance. Source.) and obligatory timelines that had to be followed.

Funeral Mourning in Modern Times

Professional mourning has returned to China but based on the info I found, it’s not gone back to its previous status as indispensable at funerals – it is rather one of these obscure jobs that surprise people at parties (if the person dares to talk about them). 

One of the top professional mourners in the southwestern city of Chongqing, Mao is famous for her kusang, which literally means crying and shouting. She became a mourner more than a decade ago after she lost her job as a department store clerk in downsizing and was casting around for new employment.

Source: Belly Dancing For The Dead: A Day With China’s Top Mourner

In 2019, a short interview with an unnamed woman went viral – she shared with Pear Video that she is a professional mourner and does well for herself. “The unnamed woman, who has worked as a paid mourner for more than 20 years, earns around 300 yuan ($42) for 30 minutes of mourning. She was able to build a house for her family and send her eldest son to a university using the money she earned from her career.”. (Source: People in China Can Earn $28,000 a Year as ‘Professional Mourners’ at Funerals).

Professional Mourning in Africa

Ghana is one of the African countries where professional mourning is a lucrative business for women.

“People in this African country will spend as much if not more on a funeral as they would on a wedding. A funeral planner told CNN that the average funeral should cost between $15,000-$20,000, and should feature as many mourners as possible. “

Source: Ghana’s Professional Mourners Get Paid to Cry at Strangers’ Funerals 

Hiring weepers is also considered by some as a reward to the person who has died. (Source: Ghana’s lavish funerals can last up to seven days. Now, a centuries-old tradition has gone online)

But the professional mourners in Africa are not always of the wailing kind. In Episode 5 of “East Africa’s Got Talent”, the Kenyan group from the Machakos School For The Deaf performed the sacred kilumi dance, which is lively and colourful. ”Kilumi is performed during times of sorrow such as lack of rains, drought and famine; during social occasions or times of joy such as harvesting, planting and initiation of medicine people; and as a means of protection, especially after the death of a person or after the birth of an illegitimate child.” (Source: Kilumi Dance as a Healing Modality). 

An article from 2014 describes another professional mourning practice in Kenya where men were paid to go around the city and blast the horns of their motorcycles or use whistles to make as much noise as possible. “Grieving families believe the louder the noise and the bigger the procession, the greater the honour for the deceased.” (Source: Kenya’s paid mourners face uncertain future)

Professional mourning practised in South Africa was described in the book Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda, which was adapted into a now-famous dance performance by an award-winning choreographer, Gregory Maqoma.

Funeral and Hired Mourners in Japan

Similar sentiment towards the mourning profession can be found in Japan. I remember watching the 2016 Japanese film Miewoharu, directed by Akiyo Fujumura. It tells a story of a woman who is forced to return to her hometown to take care of her nephew and discovers her vocation as a professional mourner. She is being looked upon as a weirdo until the support she shows to the families of the people she mourned reveals their appreciation. The Japanese society observes very strict rules of behaviour and death still is approached with reservation, Which is much better than what it used to be -in traditional Japanese culture the subject is considered unclean as everything related to death is thought to be a source of kegare – defilement.

I watched another movie where a man begins working at a funeral home, learning an old tradition of Nōkanshi, preparing the body of the deceased for burial in front of the person’s family. Similarly to Miewoharu, Okuribito tells a story of someone becoming involved in the funeral industry and facing criticism until their invaluable contribution is expressed in appreciation of their work by grieving families.

Professional Mourners make life easier in Vietnam and Taiwan

In Vietnam, professional mourners are hired to help take the attention off of family members so that they can handle other responsibilities. “Hiring professional mourners allows us to spend less time mourning in person, and more time to receive our visitors and do other things, such as preparing funeral banquets,” Bui Van Dinh, a Vietnamese man who used mourning services for his father’s funeral in 2013, told the Xinhua News Agency. (Source:  The Hysterical World of Professional Funeral Mourners)

I recently spoke to someone who lives in China and experienced loss. They put up a small altar in front of the house and, in days immediately after their family member passed away, were visited by neighbours, friends and family. It sounded tough, but it was also part of the customs. The person also shared with me that the influx of people and what they prepared to receive them was still much more modest than what other families have done in the past. I understand the efficiency of having extra pairs of hands.

In Taiwan, funeral mourners were sometimes called “filial daughters”. In the past, daughters, who left their homes to work in the cities, could not easily travel back because of transport being scarce. If someone in the family died, they often couldn’t make it home in time for the funeral, so the family would hire a “filial daughter” to lead the family in mourning. 

But the role of filial daughters wouldn’t be just to wail. Traditional Taiwanese funerals are elaborate, can last three days and tend to cost a lot. The professional mourners are expected to come in brightly coloured costumes and perform almost-acrobatic dance numbers. Liu Jun-Lin, Taiwan’s best-known professional mourner, will perform with her group and later change into a white hood and robe to crawl to the coffin on her hands and knees and wail.

Professional Mourners in Europe

The tradition of funeral mourning in Poland is not as common in urban areas but it does come up in the countryside. A documentary by Anna Molska released in 2010 titled “Płaczki” (literally, “[Female] Criers”) tells a story of a singing group from the village of Kocudza in the Zamość region, who also perform mourning rituals referring to the tradition of village mourners lamenting at funerals. I recommend you check the documentary (it has English subtitles) as it shows a rehearsal of songs sung at funerals. In some of the articles about Polish traditions of lamenting at funerals, it was stated that the Polish weepers were often leading in singing songs rather than howling in grief, with there being a main singer who led other hired mourners in paying tribute to the deceased. 

I also want to mention Greece, as there are still professional mourners performing beautiful ceremonies in the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece. Part of the funeral rituals involves older women, who are hired to sing songs and grieve, as well as lead the families through the complex death rituals. Considered an art, moirologia can be traced to the choirs of the Greek tragedies, in which the principal singer would begin the mourning and the chorus would follow.

These moirologists weave together religion, mythology, and village history in an impromptu performance to describe the life of the person being mourned, his relationship to those present at the funeral, and his journey to the afterlife. Young descendants of Mani have likened this quick thinking to a rap battle.

Source: The Professional Mourners of Mani, Greece

The Truth is in the Soil project by photographer Ioanna Sakellaraki explores “fabrications of grief” inspired by the lives of roughly a dozen moirologists called to mourn a person they know or have perhaps never met as part of their moral duty. The laments sung by moirologists are called “fate” songs and are improvised during funerals and tell the story of the person they grieve. These are quick-witted and creative.

Inspiration for the Professional Mourner Cross-Stitch Pattern

I got inspired by vintage advertising found on Flickr public domain search pages. I just love these bold fonts and bright colours. 

British Library digitised image from page 219 of “Pawson and Brailsford’s Illustrated Guide to Sheffield and neighbourhood, etc”. Source: Flickr.
Christmas gift advertisement by Campbells in Creek Street, Brisbane. Source: Flickr.
Prof. Dill’s Balm of Life: a Money, Pain and Life Saver, the World’s Great Pain Cure. Source: Flickr.

The reason the professional mourning company is called TODDLER is that I initially thought of mourners as professional crybabies. So toddlers. And der Tod means death in German. Tada! Tell me that I am smart, pweasie :3

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