Why Professional Mourners Exist (And What They Actually Do)

Updated

While the term “professional mourner” might evoke images of paid actors over-the-top bawling at funerals, this is actually an ancient tradition spanning human history. In many parts of the world, paid mourning is a professional occupation. It’s not as uncommon as it sounds to an outsider's ears. In fact, you might be surprised to learn it’s practiced in the United States even today. 

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Though most places no longer employ professional mourners, they still are relatively common in many parts of the world. They serve a very important purpose as one of the many ways death in different cultures appears in unique ways.

Today, professional mourners are still found in China and India, and it’s important to understand both why they exist and what they actually do. 

What are Professional Mourners (Moirologists)?

A professional mourner is known as a moirologist. As the name implies, these are individuals who are paid to attend a funeral to mourn. Even though they don’t know the deceased person, they still express sorrow and often take part in funeral customs. 

Why and how they exist

Many parts of the world have a rich history behind professional mourning. This practice dates back to Egypt, China, and the Middle East during ancient times. Professional women mourners were very common, and they’re even explained in the Old and New Testaments. These hired mourners serve a similar purpose today as they did in ancient times. 

In ancient Egypt, there were strict requirements to be a professional mourner. This was a role only for women, and they must not have any children. Because it was not socially acceptable for men to weep in public, only women could not be professional mourners.

In addition, they could not have any body hair, and someone tattooed the names of goddesses on their shoulders. These women evoked this goddess during the service. In ancient Rome, these professionals were only for the wealthy who would include large numbers of paid mourners. 

Why was this a common practice? Throughout history, having a large crowd of sorrowful mourners at one’s funeral was a great honor. To have a lot of people attending your funeral shows society the importance of your social status.

Paying mourners to attend your funeral was a status symbol in ancient times, and it still is in some circles today.  

Professional mourners duties

What exactly do these mourners do at the funeral? Since they don’t know the person who died, how do they respond on this important day? In ancient Rome, these paid attendees would cry loudly, tearing their clothes and hair with their stress. Over-the-top mourning was a sign of respect in some parts of the world. 

Today’s professional mourners are less likely to behave extravagantly, though more theatrical productions are not completely uncommon. Instead, most of these paid mourners undergo some form of training or practice to ensure they’re acting appropriately at the service.

They might cry quietly, say a few kind words about the deceased, or even comfort the family. For the most part, these professionals are quiet and respectful. 

Professional Mourners in Different Cultures

It’s surprising to see how common professional mourners are in different parts of the world. While not common by any means in the United States, these paid mourners are not that disconnected from our own funeral traditions. 

China

Chinese funerals are comprised of rich traditions dating back thousands of years. During funeral processions, theatrical performances would take place.

Unlike the somber occasions we know in the west, China features music, dancing, and ritual within the funeral tradition. Throughout history, professional mourning fell into and out of practice. 

Today, it’s still an important status symbol to show the community that a large crowd participated in your funeral. In China, crying or displaying emotion outwardly is not typically acceptable socially except when in mourning.

However, crying in public is still a big challenge, and many families hire professionals to ensure this is done properly. 

Some of China’s most well-known professional mourners are highly sought after. With unique dancing acts, karaoke numbers, and otherworldly crying, this is a unique way to blend ancient tradition with modern Chinese society. 

India

In the western Indian state of Rajasthan, only lower-caste women are allowed to mourn publicly. It’s seen as inappropriate for privileged, upper-caste women to cry in front of common people. Because of this, professional mourners known as rudaalis are the ones hired to perform the task of mourning. 

These hired women wail, beat their chests, and cry loudly. This sorrow theater continues for up to 12 days after the death of an important individual. A longer mourning period is a sign of a family’s status, so this is something that’s taken very seriously.

However, this practice is becoming less common as more people are choosing quiet, intimate funerals. 

England

Believe it or not, England has its own history of professional mourning. This practice stems from the Victorian era when there was a strong culture around grief and mourning.

Again, the more affluent the family, the larger the funeral was expected to be. To ensure your family member was “properly” mourned, professionals were hired to get the job done. 

However, this practice is still around today. The demand for these types of mourners is only rising, and you can pay around £45-an-hour for a “professional and discreet” mourning service. These services have a unique clientele.

For those who expect a low turnout to their own funeral or that of a family member, hiring a professional could offer peace of mind. 

United States

Finally, the United States also has a small industry of professional mourners. A reality TV show recently highlighted the ways a Texas funeral home uses these hired mourners to appeal to those wanting larger funerals. Today, the image of having a crowd of people attending your funeral is still in demand. 

There are also mourners who attend funerals in the U.S. out of respect for the dead. These are typically unpaid, but they still are symbols of mourning when honoring those who died, usually in service of the country.

The Arlington Ladies at the Arlington National Cemetery are a prime example of these. Though they are unpaid and don’t know the deceased, they attend funerals of fallen soldiers as a form of respect. 

How to Become a Professional Mourner 

There is no clear-cut path to becoming a professional mourner. However, as the demand for this service continues to increase, there is expected to be greater opportunity for those looking to stand-in during funerals. 

Experience or education

There is no experience or formal education required. For funeral homes that hire these professionals, you will likely need to audition or show you’re a good fit for the role. Because of this, having a background in theater or acting helps you fit your role as a mourner. 

Most people need to know how to cry on demand or evoke the right level of emotion. Depending on the situation, you might also need to be comfortable with public speaking. Experience with feelings of grief of your own is a great way to prepare for this role. 

Pay or salary

There is also no clear pay or salary for this type of service since this is not an established industry. Most professional mourners are paid per event (i.e. a flat rate for attending the funeral) or by the hour.

The price ranges between $35-$500 per hour, depending on the performance. For the well-known mourners in China, families pay top dollar. 

Finding Peace in Mourning

Though this type of professional sorrow might sound odd, these individuals do many families a great service. Even in modern times, the number of people at a funeral is a sign of social status and wealth. People feel obligated to have extravagant funerals for their family members, and these professional mourners help them achieve this wish. 

What type of funeral service is the right fit for you? Whether you want an intimate service or one with professional mourners, start end-of-life planning. These are questions worth answering for yourself. If there’s one thing we can all learn, it’s that there is no “right” way to mourn or feel grief. 


Sources

  1. “Belly Dancing For the Dead: A Day With China’s Top Mourner.” NPR: Asia. 26 June 2013. NPR.org
  2. “‘Best Funeral Ever’: Auditioning and Training ‘Professional Mourners’.” Huffington Post. 7 January 2013. Huffpost.com
  3. Mendoza, Marilyn A. “Professional Mourners: An Ancient Tradition.” Psychology Today. 15 
  4. February 2018. Psychologytoday.com
  5. “Professional mourners to street dentists: India's dying professions.” BBC. 18 January 2016. BBC.com
  6. Timms, Kate. “Rent-a-mourner company will pay you to cry at strangers’ funerals.” Plymouth Live. 7 February 2019. Plymouthherald.co.uk

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