We’ve all thought about our funerals – even if you won’t admit it, you’ve nonetheless pondered what it will be like. “What kind of music will they play? Will I get a kickass eulogy? Dear God, I hope Mom doesn’t get to dress me.” Among these thoughts, you’ve probably also thought about who might show up. “Why does it matter to me who shows up? Or if anyone shows up? Who cares? I’ll be dead,” you say, but you still wonder, all the same. If you’re worried you won’t get the proper goodbye you truly deserve, well, there’s a solution for that. Professional mourning – yes, it’s exactly what it says on the tin – is a concept you may want to take advantage of.
Professional mourners are individuals trained to attend funerals and blend in with the rest of the crowd. One may have several different reasons to hire a professional mourner. The soon-to-be deceased themselves may hire a few mourners to beef up attendance for their own funeral, whether because they’re afraid that very few will show up, or to make themselves look more important. Friends or relatives of the deceased may also hire professional mourners to help express grief properly. Every person on this Earth grieves differently – and for those who don’t express grief outwardly, hiring a professional mourner to put on a show for them may help with any lingering guilt they may have about that fact.
Despite sounding like a relatively new vocation, professional mourning has been around for thousands of years – since the ancient Egyptians, in fact. There was a special mourning rite performed by two official mourners at Egyptian funerals. These two mourners, standing in as representatives for the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, would stand over the body and shake and pull at their hair in an attempt to transfer the energy contained in their hair to the one making the journey to the afterlife. Neither of the two stand-ins were required to have a kinship with the deceased, so they could be appointed by the family for the role.
Professional mourning was big during the Victorian era – no surprise there, of course. The Victorians have long been known for going the extra mile when it comes to mourning. Funerals were very grand, theatrical events during the time period. The funeral procession, in particular, was a truly awesome sight to see. The hearse was generally at the head of the procession, followed by pall bearers and coaches carrying family and friends. Also included in the procession were mutes – the Victorian title for professional mourners.
Mutes were in charge of standing guard over the coffin. They would be dressed in full mourning clothing, and typically would carry a wand wrapped in black crepe. In the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, the title character works for a time as a mute, supposedly because of his serious, solemn face. Dickens despised mutes, undertakers, and the entire funerary practice during his time. He felt that public displays of mourning were ostentatious. Finding fault in the practice of making a profit off of the grieving process is a theme found in several of Dickens’ works. He was not the only one who felt this way, but on the whole, luxurious funerals continued to be the norm throughout the Victorian era.
Moirologists – another term for professional mourners – can still be found in the modern-day world. The occupation is currently huge in Asian, Middle Eastern, and African countries. In Taiwan, the profession has a long history. It was often difficult for daughters to travel home for funerals in the past, so a “filial daughter” would be hired to grieve in the real daughter’s place. The tradition has expanded and survived to the present-day. Taiwan even has its own celebrity professional mourner. Liu Jun-Lin’s family has been in the mourning business for decades, and she carries on the family tradition. Liu is sought-after in Taiwan; she is known for her signature wail, which is accompanied by her brother’s organ playing. Taiwanese mourning is almost as elaborate as Victorian mourning was; during the first part of funerals, up-tempo music is played, and complicated dance routines are performed. Liu Jun-Lin participates in these dance numbers, and then moves on to the more traditional grieving route. Liu has transformed her grandmother’s mourning business; she hired several female assistants to help funeral directors with service planning and the embalming process in the hopes that her company can survive the forecasted dwindling of business in Taiwan.
Meanwhile, the professional mourning trade has picked back up in the United Kingdom. Rent a Mourner, an Essex-based company, has received quite a bit of press coverage since opening its doors in 2012. They arrange for a planning meeting with the one utilizing their services, in which they discuss the deceased, and figure out a discreet way to integrate their mourners into the funeral crowd. The mourners will do extensive research on the deceased in order to blend seamlessly with the deceased’s loved ones. According to their website, Rent a Mourner has a “significant amount” of mourners they employ, and business seems to be increasing.
As the culture of death positivity continues to grow, so will frank and open discussions on the grieving process. While we may never see funeral processions quite as opulent as they commonly were in the Victorian era, the concept of mourning in public will slowly be brought back out from the shadows in the Western world. We have been taught for far too long to hide our sorrow behind closed doors. With the ever-increasing popularity of professional mourning, perhaps it will become accepted once more in our society to grieve loudly and freely, without judgment. Fear not, those concerned about low mourner turnouts – professional mourning seems to be here to stay, once more.
Alirangues, Loretta M. “Funerary Practices in the Victorian Era .” Morbid Outlook. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.morbidoutlook.com/nonfiction/articles/2003_04_vicdeath.html>.
Allingham, Phillip V., and George P. Landow. ““Well, Oliver, how do you like it?”: Dickens, Funerals, and Undertakers .” The Victorian Web. N.p., 19 Feb. 2015. Web. <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/funerals.html>.
Jaynes, Allie. “Taiwan’s most famous professional mourner.” BBC News. N.p., 26 Feb. 2013. Web. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21479399>.
New, Catherine. “‘Rent A Mourner’ Helps You Look More Popular At Your Funeral.” Huffington Post. N.p., 27 Mar. 2013. Web. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/27/rent-a-mourner_n_2964280.html>.
“Rent a Mourner | Discreet and Professional Mourners.” Web. <http://rentamourner.co.uk/>.
Valdesogo, María Rosa. “Isis and Nephthys in the Mourning Rite of Ancient Egypt.” Hair and Death in Ancient Egypt. 27 May 2013. Web. <https://hairanddeathinancientegypt.com/2013/05/27/hair-and-death-in-ancient-egypt-isis-and-nephtys-in-the-mourning-rite/>.
Valdesogo, María Rosa. “Requirements of Professional Mourners in Ancient Egypt.” 15 Oct. 2014. Web. <http://www.mariarosavaldesogo.com/requirements-professional-mourners-ancient-egypt/>.