Saturday, April 9, 2011

Women as Mourners

(Apologies for the delay in this post, I was in Lexington, but my blog copy was not : )

Women have always been the expressers of emotions.  We are the ones who oversee the major passages that occur in life – the births, the marriages, the sicknesses, the deaths, each with its own rituals that women have performed for eons.  Death, in every culture, has always had many special rites and women have had the distinct responsibility of attending to that province.

In ancient Greece, women mourners performed the funeral dirge at a person’s death.

In ancient Rome, female mourners would be hired to keep long vigils while the body lay in state and then accompany it to its final resting place.



In ancient Egypt, women hired as mourners followed the funeral procession, wailing loudly. They were also depicted on the tomb walls.

In ancient Israel, women were the ones who prepared the body for burial, as we have though the ages, in all cultures.

In Ireland, women mourners would keen over the body.  This keening was more of a poetic nature set to a vocal wail while the women would rock or clap.

In China, women mourners are still hired today to show respect for the deceased and to help guide the grieving emotions of those attending.


Known as professional mourners, wailers, criers, weepers, keeners and carpideiras, these women were hired to lament the deceased with loud weeping, wailing, hair-pulling, clothes-tearing, even tambourine and chest beating, depending on the dead’s status and the amount of money invested in the mourning. This was done to encourage others to join in with organized, rhythmic expressions of grief.  In some countries, a hired mourner expressed all of the grief that the family could not bring themselves to do in public.

Demonstrative mourners were hired to attend the funeral services, to weep and chant.   The funeral procession not only bore the deceased to their final resting place, it also was a public display of their status in life. Hired mourners would take part in the procession, wailing and grieving, in an organized manner, as benefited the standing of the deceased.



Hired female mourners are depicted throughout literature.  From the Iliad to the Bible to Shakespeare, women have held the role of lamenter and griever.  Even in the cemetery, it is the women who stand over the graves, heads bowed, faces bearing sorrow and anguish, silently lamenting someone’s passing.

Professional mourners were used in Europe until the early nineteenth century, when they were replaced by the funeral mute.  The funeral mute was someone with a sad, melancholy face, dressed all in black, who would stand near the door of the home or church during the funeral to express grief.  They would walk behind the horse-drawn hearse, with a grieving, albeit, silent face.

The professional mourner and the public display of such emotions fell out of favor with the Catholic church and they began to suppress them.  Female mourners were replaced by religious figures such as priests intoning similar elegies and dirges, leading chants and funeral hymns, and heading up the religious procession to the burial grounds. In today’s contemporary world, funeral directors and undertakers have taken on the role as professional mourners, organizing the grieving process for families and leading the way to the cemetery. The only thing missing from our modern funeral mourners are the appearances of grief, and the tears.


Today in China, Taiwan, Brazil and Africa, female mourners are still hired to wail and grieve for the deceased.  But, during the past century, the world has changed its views regarding the vocal lamenting of grief and death.  We have become a quiet, stoic society. The tradition of the professional mourner has almost died out.  But the statue of the female mourner, I suspect, will always be there watching over us with saddened and sorrowful eyes.
Joy