Glarin’ or hollerin’?

Charles Cowling

Funeral mutes

Since most progressive developments in funerals are reinventions of or reversions to past practice, it’s always a good idea, now and then, to peer into the mists of history and see if there’s anything that can be plucked out, dusted down and dressed up for the 21st century.

The funeral mute, for example. Men dressed from head to foot in black, carrying staves and wearing expressions of fathomless gloom. They supplied mood. Or supplemented it. They were common in Europe, according to Wikipedia, from 1600 to 1914. Worth reinventing? Or dangerously giggle-inducing?

What about wailing women? I don’t know that we’ve ever had them in the reticent UK. We prefer mutes. I think they probably thrive only in warmer climates. Any market for them?

Over at How to Change the World, blogger Guy Kawasaki wondered out loud “Have you heard of the practice of hiring people to cry at funerals? Could you fill me on how this works? The more details the details the better: which country? Are there levels of crying? How much does it cost? Etc.” He got some interesting responses.

Funeral wailers seem to be alive and in good voice in Tamil Nadu, other parts of India  and Pakistan. In Chile they were called lloronas and may be extinct. They are going strong in the Slovak Republic, Vietnam and the Philippines, less so in Mexico, Russia and Spain. In Malaysia and Singapore between 1959 and 1968 “there would be so many paid mourners that you didn’t even know if the family was actually walking with the casket.” There are professional mourners in Egypt, but the writer doesn’t say if they ululate. They certainly still do in Romania. And possibly parts of rural Greece (they’ve got lots to wail about, just now).

It’s an intriguing custom, isn’t it? Why would you want to hire people to pretend to be grief stricken? Its universality shows that it fulfils a need. Presumabaly it is cathartic. And possibly beyond the grasp of an Anglo-Saxon mindset. This is a practice for poetical people.

Like the Irish. From Vol IV of the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy we learn that, in the twelfth century, the Irish then musically expressed their griefs; that is, they applied the musical art, in which they excelled all others, to the orderly celebration of funeral obsequies, by dividing the mourners into two bodies, each alternately singing their part, and the whole at times, joining in full chorus, “The body of the deceased, dressed in grave clothes, and ornamented with flowers, was placed on a bier, or some elevated spot. The relations and keeners (singing mourners) then ranged themselves in two divisions, one at the head, the other at the foot of the corpse.

“The bards and croteries had before prepared the funeral caoinan. The chief bard of the head chorus began by singing the first stanza in a low doleful tone, which was softly accompanied by the harp: at the conclusion, the foot semichorus began the lamentation, or ullaloo, from the final note of the preceding stanza, in which they were answered by the head semichorus; then both united in one general chorus. The chorus of the first stanza being ended, the chief bard of the foot semichorus began the second gol, or lamentation, in which they were answered by that of the head, and as before, both united in the general full chorus. Thus alternately, were the song and the choruses performed during the night. The genealogy, rank, possessions, the virtues and vices of the dead were rehearsed, and a number of interrogations were addressed to the deceased: as, why did he die? If married, whether his wife was faithful to him, his sons dutiful, or good hunters or warriors? if a woman, whether her daughters were fair or chaste? If a young man, whether he had been crossed in love? or if the blue-eyed maids of Erin had treated him with scorn?

From the mid-eighteenth century we have this lament of Morian Shehone for Miss Mary Bourke:

Silence prevails; it is an awful silence. The voice of Mary is heard no longer in the valley.

Yes, thou art gone, O Mary! but Morian Shehone will raise the song of woe, and bewail thy fate.

“Snow white was thy virtue; the youths gazed on thee with rapture; and old age listened with pleasure to the soft music of thy tongue.

Thy beauty was brighter than the sun which shone around thee, O Mary! but thy sun is set, and has left the soul of thy friend in darkness.

Sorrow for thee is dumb, save the wailings of Morian Shehone; and grief has not yet tears to shed for Mary.

I have cried over the rich man; but when the stone was laid upon his grave, my grief was at an end. Not so with my heart’s darling; the grave cannot hide Mary from the view of Morian Shehone.

I see her in the four corners of her habitation, which was once gilded by her presence.
Thou didst not fall off like a withered leaf, which hangs trembling and insecure: no, it was a rude blast which brought thee to the dust, O Mary!

Hadst thou not friends? Hadst thou not bread to eat, and raiment to put on? Hadst thou not youth and beauty, Mary? Then mightest thou not have been happy?

But the spoiler came, and disordered my peace: the grim tyrant has taken away my only support in Mary!

In thy state of probation, thou wert kind hearted to all, and none envied thee thy good fortune. Oh! that the lamentations of thy friends–Oh! that the burning tears of Morian Shehone could bring back from the grave the peerless Mary!

But alas! this cannot be: then twice in every year, while the virgins of the valley celebrate the birth and death of Mary, under the wide spreading elm, let her spirit hover round them, and teach them to emulate her virtues.

So falls into the depth of silence the lament of Morian Shehone.

What a marvellous thing that is. And, we reflect, while we may be willing to forgo professional wailers, is not singing grievously neglected in today’s funerals? And music, generally? Music and singing that are integral?

One thought on “Glarin’ or hollerin’?

  1. Charles Cowling
    Claire Callender

    We do so have funeral mutes, we call them bearers, you know those four or six comically solemn, otherwise retired gents in their cheap, shiny with wear, black suits who are left stranded by the grave.


    Charles Cowling

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