What is a professional mourner? And what do they do? Learn more about the history and meaning of this ancient funeral practice.
What's a professional mourner?
Professional mourners are people who are paid to go to funerals. They don’t know the person who has died. But it’s their job to feel sad – or at least look sad – no matter who the person was.
What do professional mourners do?
The role of a professional mourner varies depending on culture and location.
In ancient Egypt, for example, professional funeral mourners were expected to look as pained as possible. The louder they were, the better – mourners would cry, wail and smear their bodies with dirt.
On the other hand, professional mourners in Victorian times were much more reserved. They dressed in smart clothes and often walked quietly alongside the coffin as it was taken to the burial ground.
Some say professional mourners only exist to increase the number of people at a funeral and make the person who has died seem more important. While there might be some truth in this, it isn’t the only reason people hire professional mourners. Often, they play an important cultural or religious role at the funeral and are highly respected in their society.
What are professional mourners called?
Professional mourners are sometimes called ‘moirologists’. This comes from the Ancient Greek moîra, meaning ‘fate’, and lógos, meaning ‘speech’ – literally ‘fate speakers’.
You might also hear them called ‘hired mourners’, ‘funeral criers’ or ‘wailers’. In Victorian Britain, they were known as ‘mutes’.
Where did professional mourners originate?
It seems that no one is quite sure where professional mourning started, though we know it goes back many hundreds of years. Professional funeral mourners were once common in the Mediterranean and ancient Egypt.
Professional mourners appear in the Bible too. For instance, this passage talks about inviting ‘wailing women’ to mourn for their fallen homeland:
Consider now! Call for the wailing women to come;
send for the most skilful of them.
Let them come quickly
and wail over us
till our eyes overflow with tears
and water streams from our eyelids.
This is just one of many mentions of professional mourners in the Bible. Because they appear so many times, we can assume that professional mourning was considered normal when the Bible was written. The passage above comes from the book of Jeremiah, which was probably written around 580 BCE.
Do professional mourners still exist?
Yes, there are still professional mourners.
Here are a few places where professional mourning is practised today:
There is a long tradition of professional funeral mourners in China. Historians believe they’ve been part of Chinese funerals since the 8th century CE.
In those days, the mourner’s job was to provide entertainment, as well as grieve for the person who had died. Once the main funeral rite had taken place, they would act out scenes alongside the funeral procession.
It’s not too different today. Modern professional mourners often act as funeral officiants and sing songs, as well as performing their mourning duties.
In the north Indian state of Rajasthan, there are women called rudaalis (meaning ‘professional mourners’). Their job is to go to the house of the person who has died and perform loud displays of grief.
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.
As time goes on, though, it’s becoming far less common to see rudaalis at funerals.
Professional funeral mourners still exist today on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece.
The mourners are all elderly women who perform a special ritual that’s believed to date back to ancient times. A group of mourners gather around the body and take turns chanting stories about the person who has died. These stories are improvised, meaning they’re made up on the spot.
This ritual was once seen as an essential part of a funeral. Ioanna Sakellaraki, an artist who has taken photos of the women, explained:
Families were asking for women to do this process because it was just so important — it was an important sort of collective goodbye to the person.
Though professional mourners were once common in the UK, it’s unusual to see them at funerals today.
A few years ago, there was a string of news articles that said professional mourning was on the rise again. However, these articles largely focused on one company – Rent A Mourner – which has since stopped trading. If there really was a trend for professional mourning, there’s little evidence to suggest it has continued.
If you do want to hire a professional mourners today, the best thing is to speak with your funeral director to see if they can arrange this for you. Alternatively, you could approach a local talent agency. They may be willing to hire out actors to go to a funeral.