Much like birth or marriage, death is an inevitable stage of life, and has been celebrated as such throughout history. Across civilizations, various customs and rituals have cloaked the funeral process, ranging from solemn to festive or macabre. During Ancient times, it gave rise to a prominent death-related industry: professional mourning.
The sociocultural diversity related to funeral celebrations spans epochs and civilizations. Cremations, burials, mummy-wrapping (the correct term is embalming), Viking-style ship burials, scavenging… We have treated our deceased counterparts with great care, either to carefully pave their way to the afterlife or, as exemplified by vampireproof burials, get them six feet under for good. According to some experts, the oldest funerary custom would be cremation, which happened some 40,000 years ago on today’s Australian territory. Several cultures and religions consider death a brief passage between two worlds, and post-mortem celebrations are therefore required to prepare reincarnation, ascension into Heaven or safe return by the deceased person’s ancestors. And sometimes, paid actors tasked with faking grief and sorrow could show up at one’s funeral!
Professional mourning can be traced back to the Bible: “Consider now! Call for the wailing women to come; send for the most skillful of them. Let them come quickly and wail over us till our eyes overflow with tears and water streams from our eyelids” (Jeremiah 9:17). ‘Wailing women’ were employed in Ancient Egypt to join in funeral processions, shed tears, grasp the dead body with a horrified glance or kneel beside him. Two of them were to personify the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, responsible for leading the deceased safely into the afterlife and, later, to reincarnation. Among the tearful women following the cortege, some were responsible for raising their arms into the air with an imploring look, while others buried their faces into their hands.
A similar ritual is said to have regularly occurred in Tang-dynasty China (7th – 10th century A.D.), with actors being hired to attend funerals and entertain the grieving family with historical reconstructions, staged combats, loud music and gargantuan feasts. Yet, the tradition lives on in modern-day China, where professional mourners keep on moving the funeral’s attendees to pity – performing heart-breaking lamentations about the loss in order to leave the relatives on the verge of tears.
And while those funeral traditions seem very peculiar to the foreign eye, Westerners may well claim responsibility for their origins. Wailing women were, indeed, very common in Ancient Rome, cradle of Western civilizations. To measure the wealth and fame somebody had achieved during his lifetime, one would have to glance at the size of the funeral procession carrying the dead body to its final resting place. Up to dozens of wailing women followed the coffin, faking grief in a theatrical manner: some would pull their hair out; others would scratch their distress-stricken faces – the processions sometimes got so violently realistic that rules had to be implemented to bring solemnity and simplicity back to Roman funerals…
Wailing women died out in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, but an oddly-similar tradition followed in their footsteps across 18th century Europe. ‘Funeral mutes’ were people paid to display sad, grave faces at funerals – typical characters of Victorian-era England. Wearing black clothes and gloves, those professional mourners said nothing but added, by their presence, to the sinister tone of the funeral procession. Oliver Twist, the main character of Charles Dickens’ eponymous novel (published in 1839) was himself a mute hired by an undertaker to attend children’s inhumations. At a time of rising social inequalities and booming unemployment, working as a part-time mute at least helped to bring the bacon home, as another novel by Dickens, Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), describes: “two mutes were at the house-door, looking as mournful as could be reasonably expected of men with such a thriving job in hand”.
Nowadays, however, those jobs have gone extinct. Although wailing women are still a thing across some parts of Asia and Africa, the Western world now focuses on sober, discreet funeral celebrations – while other countries welcome death as a party motive. Old habits die hard.
- Clifford A. Pickover, Le Livre de la Mort et de l’Au-Delà (2016), éd. Dunod.
- María Rosa Valdesogo, “Controlled Attitude of Professional Mourners in Ancient Egypt”, 2016.
- Geoffrey S. Sumi, “Impersonating the Dead: Mimes at Roman Funerals”, The American Journal of Philology, 2002.
- Joel Martinsen, “Performing at funerals: professional mourners in Chongqing and Chengdu”, Danwei, 2010.
- Eugene Byrne, “What are the origins of the ‘mutes’ that attended Victorian funerals?”, History Extra, 2012.
- Steven Fife, “The Roman Funeral”, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2012.