Proxy grievers

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Charles Cowling


Presently serving the bereaved of Essex and Suffolk we have a new concept in funeral service, the professional mourner. They’re called Rent a Mourner, we wish them every possible success, and you can find them here.

Did we say new? There’s nothing new in Funeralworld. Every innovation is an act of necromancy. In our scholarly and vigilant way we have covered this business of rentasob before, here and here.

And because our curiosity, like yours, is global, you may be interested to know what the market looks like in China.

One can make a decent amount of money being a proxy mourner … Wailers actually belong to an ancient profession that now keeps a low profile thanks to its singular characteristics. InChongqingandChengdu, wailers and their special bands have, over the course of more than a decade, developed into a professional, competitive market … wailers are predominantly laid-off workers.

Wailing is an ancient funeral custom. Texts show that dirges began to be used in ceremonies during the time of Emperor Wu of Han and became commonplace during the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Customs varied across ethnicities and regions. During the Cultural Revolution, wailing was viewed a pernicious feudal poison and went silent. In the reform era, it was revived in a number of areas.

Hu Xinglian’s hair is tied into pigtails pointing up in opposite directions. Her stage name means “Dragonfly” … and the two pigtails, which resemble dragonfly wings, are her trademark. She is fifty-two years old, and she is a professional wailer.

Before the ceremony begins, she asks the family of the deceased about the situation. She must do this every time. She says that wailers usually put on some makeup and wear white mourning clothes. Some of them are more elaborate, with white stage costumes and “jeweled” headdresses.

Hu calls the family of the deceased into the mourning hall and begins to read the eulogy. There is a formula to the eulogy that is adapted to the particular circumstances of the deceased. Most of these say how hard-working and beloved the deceased was, and how much they loved their children. The eulogy requires a sorrowful tone and a rhythmic cadence. As Hu reads, she sometimes howls “dad” or “mom.” And then the bereaved begin to cry as they kneel before the coffin.


Hu on the job

After the eulogy comes the wailing, a song sung in a crying voice to the accompaniment of mournful music. Hu says that the purpose of this part is mainly to create a melancholy atmosphere which will allow the family to release their sadness through tears.

Hu says that more time is devoted to wailing in the countryside. In video recordings, Hu can be seen howling, weeping with her eyes covered, and at times crawling on the ground in front of the coffin in an display of sorrow. At some funerals, she crawls for several meters as she weeps. This never fails to move the mourners. As she wails, the family of the deceased sob, and some of them weep uncontrollably.

After the wailing is done, the second part of the funeral performance begins. Hu says that a funeral performance is usually sad in the beginning and happy at the end. Once sorrow has been released through tears, then the bereaved can temporarily forget their sorrow through skits and songs.

She says that the performance is draining to both mind and body. When she wails, she says, “My hands and feed twitch, my heart aches, and my eyes go dim.” Wailing has more lasting effects, too: Hu says that her hands have gone numb from time to time over the past year.

Like many wailers, Hu also performs at weddings. She says that because of the transitions between such high-intensity work, wailers are liable to make mistakes. For example, if the line “Would the new couple please enter the mourning hall” is let slip at a wedding, that mistake would mean the forfeiture of the fee, and a beating as well. [Source]

Back to Rent a Mourner, we can’t help thinking that, in preference to bringing another separate specialism to the grief market, it might make more sense for secular celebrants to offer a joined up service here.


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Gloria Mundi
Gloria Mundi
10 years ago

Absolutely fascinating thanks Charles. Who would have thought we had common ground, in our very different culture? But we too often seek a ceremony that deals with the saddest matters at the beginning (how the person died, and summary statements about who the close family survivors are, and how much the dead person matters to them all, and how grief may be felt and lived through, and what were trying to do in this funeral, etc etc) and then moves through life story stuff with anecdotes and smiles through the tears. And the most uplifting cheerful bit of music saved… Read more »