"There's an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear ... which is very interesting. He would make a delightful mute, my love." Oliver Twist

By the age of seven, possibly earlier, I had learned what to do when someone came by the funeral home unexpectedly. I quickly slipped off my father’s lap, wiped the smile off of my face and excused myself with the most somber expression imaginable. Death was not funny or playful, and those who suffered were to be paid the utmost respect. Nor was death to be a curiosity. That was asking too much – nothing could hamper my curiosity.

From the top of the stairs, my unseen perch, my classroom, I observed a steady stream of people as they came to mourn and pay their respects. They spoke in low voices, sometimes weeping or wailing. They smelled of lavender water, Evening in Paris, hairspray, cigars and cigarettes.

By the time I was twelve, just about everyone who lived in our town had darkened our front door several times. It would have been the shock of my young life to learn that in ancient cultures it was deemed a worthy profession to be paid to mourn. There was even a fancy name for such a person: moirologist.

Years later I visited the Tomb of Ramose, Tomb number 55 in the Valley of the Kings, Luxor where I beheld the exquisite painting of the young king’s death scene. It depicts the ancient ritual of hiring professional mourners to follow the dead to their graves. It was predominately women who were charged with mourning and these were painted in the pale cluster you see below.

They would be expected to wail and pat dirt on their heads, a gesture of distress, as also shown in these terracotta statues.

Perhaps the most interesting contributions to proxy mourners are those of the Chinese and Taiwanese, called ‘professional wailers’.

Studies have shown that wailers most often are laid-off workers or those in low paying jobs wishing to supplement their incomes. They weep, sing mournful songs, and crawl during the funeral.

Wailing is considered a performing profession. One wailer was frightened that she would not be able to cry in her first performance, but when the day arrived she thought about how frightened she was of dead people and wept hysterically during the funeral.

For his book, The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up, author Liao Yiwu interviewed twenty seven people from the margins of Chinese society. One of these was a professional mourner paid to wail at funerals.

“I entered the mourning profession at the age of twelve. My teacher forced me to practice the basic suona (reed instrument) tunes, as well as to learn how to wail and chant. Having a solid foundation in the basics enables a performer to improvise with ease, and to produce an earth-shattering effect. Our wailing sounds more authentic than that of the children or relatives of the deceased.

Most people who have lost their family members burst into tears and begin wailing upon seeing the body of the deceased. But their wailing doesn't last. Soon they are overcome with grief. When grief reaches into their hearts, they either suffer from shock or pass out. But for us, once we get into the mood, we control our emotions and improvise with great ease. We can wail as long as is requested. If it's a grand funeral and the money is good, we do lots of improvisation to please the host.”

"How long can you wail? What was your record?" Asks Liao Yiwu.

“Two days and two nights...Voices are our capital and we know how to protect them...Frankly speaking, the hired mourners are the ones who can stick to the very end.”

Sometimes wailers receive gratuities. After the ceremony the bereaved may physically lift up the wailer and give them a bouquet that contains money, or, in a different area of China, the custom is to place red envelopes at the side of the wailer while the funeral is in progress. The amount varies. In China the profession is becoming so competitive that wailers are reluctant to take on apprentices these days.

I think my father would have been fascinated to learn how differently people mourn and pay respects to the deceased and their families… Perhaps I should have presented him with a monthly invoice.


  1. So interesting. I can't imagine having to wail on demand!

    This post reminds me of the movie Departures. Have you seen it?

  2. Oh Susan, remind me please. Who was in it? Wait...Oh do you mean the Japanese film? No, I haven't, but I'm going to put it on my list. Thank you for reminding me of it! And thanks again for reading!

  3. I love this post. Did you know that Jews who bury the dead in 24-hours do not believe the body should be left alone and the shomerim who sit with the body in its shroud and in respect may not eat or drink in the presence of the body out of respect. Those who take on this duty stay until the moment of the funeral. I felt obligated to do this when my father died, the last of immediate family, following my mother and my sister. But I was discouraged by my family. I still wonder if I should have done so. Those who do this are never paid: their mitzvah is a debt owed that can never be repaid and reminds me each day of the importance of the "gift" with all the implications of that powerful word.

  4. Hi Mary,

    Thank you for your interesting and personal information about mourning traditions. What you describe sounds different from sitting Shiva, with which I'm familiar and takes place after the funeral as well - as you well know. What you describe is somewhat similar to an old Southern tradition of "sitting up" with the deceased. Thanks so much for reading.