Various cultures throughout history and geography have assigned important roles to key individuals during and leading up to funerals. Although the nature of these roles often shifts over time, it’s interesting to learn how there can sometimes be a degree of overlap between the types of roles people play at funerals across distinct cultures.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s a Chief Mourner?
- What Does a Chief Mourner Do?
- What Cultures or Religions Have Chief Mourners?
For example, in many religions, countries, and other groups, it’s been common for someone to serve as a “chief mourner” when a person dies. The specific responsibilities of a chief mourner will often vary somewhat from one group to another, but usually, they pertain to very important aspects of the mourning and funeral process.
This guide will cover the topic in greater detail. It explains what a chief mourner is, what they might do, and what the role of chief mourner has historically involved in certain cultures and religions.
What’s a Chief Mourner?
A chief mourner is often (but not always) an immediate family member of someone who has passed away.
Because many cultures have certain “rules” or expectations regarding how to properly mourn the dead, to an extent, the mourner ensures those expectations are met.
What Does a Chief Mourner Do?
The examples covered in the next section of this blog will help you better appreciate how the exact nature of the chief mourner’s role is different from one culture to the other. There isn’t one established set of responsibilities a chief mourner may have.
In general, though, a chief mourner’s responsibilities might involve planning the funeral and/or funeral visitation. Because many cultures have extended mourning periods, which often include traditions, the chief mourner might also be the one who practices those traditions.
What Cultures or Religions Have Chief Mourners?
It’s worth noting that the examples listed here don’t necessarily cover all the cultures and religions who’ve had chief mourners throughout history.
It’s also important to understand that many cultures have had roles that are similar to that of the chief mourner, but not exactly the same. These are just a few noteworthy examples to help you get a better sense of what a chief mourner’s responsibilities might involve.
A Hindu funeral is often a somewhat private funeral that only men traditionally attend. The eldest son of the deceased will usually fill the role of chief mourner during the funeral.
He leads the main funeral rites, which may include reading scriptures from the Veda or Bhagavad Gita, circling a funeral pyre three times while sprinkling water around it before lighting it, and removing ceremonial jewels from the deceased’s body.
The final symbolic responsibility of a chief mourner at a Hindu funeral often involves circling the funeral pyre as the body is being cremated.
They’ll hold a clay pot on their shoulder, which a relative will knock a hole into. This gesture symbolizes the idea of a soul leaving this world and traveling to the next.
Alaskan Inuit and Native American tribes
A chief mourner also had a role in an annual Alaskan Inuit ceremony. Some tribes held the ceremony in December, while others held it just before the beginning of spring.
Working was highly discouraged in tribal villages on the day of the ceremony. Instead, all the villagers would gather at an important spot in the village at midday. The ceremony began with close relatives of the deceased leaving large bowls of food and drink at the doorway. Next, they would join in singing an invitation to the dead.
They would then take the food and drink and pour a ladleful of each bowl into cracks in the floorboard. This symbolized feeding the dead, ensuring they fed them enough that they would not need to eat or drink until the next annual ceremony. After feeding the dead, the villagers shared the rest of the food.
The rest of the day featured singing and dancing. At the end of the day, the villagers would stomp on the ground to send the dead back to their resting places.
The chief mourner was generally a member of the tribe responsible for organizing and leading the ceremony. However, every year after the feast, they would also begin saving up various items their tribes valued, such as skins and frozen meat. Once they’d saved up enough, they could invite their kinsman to a great feast.
The ancient Greeks would sometimes assign a chief mourner for the funeral of a slain warrior. The chief mourner was often the deceased’s mother or wife. They would stand at the head of the bier, a flat surface with high legs where the body would be on display. Sometimes they would hold the body, but once everyone was standing in their assigned positions, their main responsibility was to lead the chanting/singing of formal lamentations for the dead.
Evidence shows this type of funeral was particularly common in Athens. Some believe that explains why the women would lament the dead in a highly dramatic fashion during a funeral, while the men would typically stand in the back and remain quiet. This difference in mourning styles reflects the different expectations for men and women common in Athenian society at the time.
It was once a tradition among the Cubeo people of Brazil and Colombia to honor those who’ve passed on with a three-day funeral. This ceremony was called an Óyne, which translates to “Weepings.”
A chief mourner was typically involved in the Óyne ceremony. They would often be a close relative. They were responsible for inviting guests and organizing a traditional sequence of rituals.
On the final day of the ceremony, the chief mourner would conduct a lamentation that involved angrily chanting against a sorcerer responsible for the deceased’s passing. Usually, the chief mourner was a male, but a female Óyne leader would also accompany them during this phase of the ceremony. While the chief mourner chanted in anger for revenge, his female counterpart would sob in sadness.
That said, this role is no longer a major component of Cubeo culture because researchers believe they don’t practice the Óyne any longer. Missionaries suppressed it in the 1940s, and although it nearly came back into practice in the 1970s, it never fully returned.
Korean folk tradition
Sangju is the name for the chief mourner in Korean folk culture. Usually, the sangju will be the first son or grandson of the deceased.
The sangju is essentially responsible for organizing the entire funeral. They will also adhere to certain traditions during an extended mourning period following a parent or grandparent’s death. These traditions may include:
- Making offerings of food in the morning and evening, as if they were feeding a parent who was still alive
- Not wearing a sleeve on his left arm when his father passes away, and not wearing a sleeve on his right arm when his mother passes away
- Wearing one of two traditional hats: a bangnip or a gulgat
The sangju also has a variety of important responsibilities in the immediate aftermath of a parent’s death, such as finding an appropriate gravesite, preparing a coffin, and preparing a burial shroud.
The role of the chief mourner in Tudor society was somewhat unique when compared to other examples covered here. Researchers who’ve studied the topic have concluded that the chief mourner actually had no major responsibilities.
They didn’t make funeral arrangements or carry out any particular traditions. Their only responsibility involved walking directly behind the coffin during a funeral procession for an important royal figure and sitting near the coffin during the funeral ceremony itself.
Historians point out that in Tudor society, it was common for various official events to feature a hierarchy determining who stood or sat where during the ceremony. This was usually based on rank.
However, during certain periods of English history, when a female royal died, it actually wasn’t traditional for their husband to attend their funeral. This was particularly the case if the husband was a non-royal. Thus, the chief mourner would serve as a stand-in for them.
Chief Mourner: An Essential Funeral Role
Studying the mourning rituals of various cultures can help us learn more about those cultures in general.
For instance, as the examples covered here illustrate, many peoples have found it necessary to ensure a funeral and mourning period occur properly by designating someone as chief mourner. This tells us much about just how important they considered proper mourning to be.
If you're looking for more information on funeral traditions around the world, read our guides on death in different cultures and what countries celebrate Día de los Muertos.
- “Circle of Dance.” University of Maryland Department of Anthropology, The University of Maryland, anth.umd.edu/news/circle-dance
- “Daily Life in Vidarbha: Funerals.” Wide Angle, WNET.ORG PROPERTIES LLC, 28 August 2007, www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/uncategorized/daily-life-in-vidarbha-funerals/1960/
- Hawkes, Ernest William. “The Dance Festivals of the Alaskan Eskimo.” Hubert Wenger Eskimo Database, University of Alaska Fairbanks, www.wengereskimodb.uaf.edu/wenger.aspx?page=more&disp=105&disp=2391&disp=adoption
- Jang, Dongwoo. “Chief mourner.” Encyclopedia of Korean Culture, National Folk Museum of Korea, folkency.nfm.go.kr/en/topic/detail/241#:~:text=JangDongwoo(%E5%BC%B5%E6%9D%B1%E5%AE%87)-,Sangju%20refers%20to%20the%20chief%20mourner%2C%20the%20one%20who%20organizes,over%20the%20family%20ancestral%20rites.
- “Public Funeral and its Oration.” Michigan State University, Michigan State University, msu.edu/~tyrrell/public_funeral.htm
- “Question from D.J. - Duties of Chief Mourner.” TudorHistory.org Questions and Answers Blog, TudorHistory.org, 3 September 2015, queryblog.tudorhistory.org/2015/09/question-from-dj-duties-of-chief-mourner.html