Beef up the grief!
--Eddie Izzard

  • 6th century B.C.: Greek legislator Solon institutes curbs against the use of professional mourners.
  • 4th century B.C.: Plato forbids hired mourners in his Laws.
  • 4th century: Saint John Chrysostom derides the use of "hired women… as mourners to make the mourning more intense, to fan the fires of grief."
  • 12th century: Epic about Spanish hero El Cid shows him requesting only unpaid grief:

    When I die, heed my advice:
    Hire no mourners to weep for me.
    There is no need of buying tears;
    Those of Jimena will suffice.

  • 17th century: Irish church forbids the hiring of professional mourners.
  • 1800: Archbishop of Cashel prohibits "all unnatural screams and shrieks, and fictitious, runeful cries and elegies, at wakes, together with the savage custom of howling and bawling at funerals."

Professional mourners were widely used in ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle East, and the practice held strong in many countries through the Middle Ages and, in some countries, even into the present day. Many saw professional mourners as a crucial part of the ceremony of loss. Like hired event planners, mourners applied their expertise to a practice that might otherwise fall into chaos. Of course, the bereaved were capable of grieving by themselves, but the professional mourner helped them to marshal and coordinate their expressions of grief. Among Spanish Jews in the 14th century, the hired mourner made her position as coordinator of grief more than metaphorical, by accompanying her wailing with a rhythm-setting tambourine.

Of course, the idea of paying for grief makes some people very uncomfortable. The institution of professional mourning was subject to accusations of opportunism, insincerity, and mercenary motives. In the 18th century, French explorers in Africa (completely unaware, it seems, of the prevalence of professional mourning in the supposed fount of Western culture) sneered: "In default of real grief, wealthy people have the tears and cries by means of hiring certain women for the role." But mourners in ancient Greece and Rome, in medieval Europe, and elsewhere heard the same objections from within their own cultures. The need, however, was strong enough to sustain the practice through much of the Middle Ages.

Professional mourning was so widespread in the 12th century that, in the poem cited above, El Cid assumes that mourners will be hired for him unless he specifically demands otherwise. By the late Middle Ages, however, the church began to look down on the practice of demonstrative mourning in general (the thought of heaven should be sufficient to comfort the grieving parties, and dramatic lamentation implied a lack of belief in a happy afterlife), and professional mourning in particular. This was the case not only in Europe in the Christian church, but in the Islamic world as well: for instance, the regulations on custody in Islamic law link professional mourning with other "low trades" such as stealing and prostitution. Religious figures not only did away with professional mourners -– they replaced them. In the Christian world, priests would officiate at funerals, and in return, rich people often bequeathed money to orphanages and monasteries. In his comprehensive book Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, Tom Lutz writes: "Professional mourners have not so much disappeared over the last millennium; they have simply donned robes and stopped crying" (201).

Objections to demonstrative mourning, and to professional mourning particularly, were also related to the perception of grieving as a feminine activity. In ancient Greece, lamentations were traditionally performed by professional women and female family members. Later, the separate spheres of industry and domesticity ensured that death was largely the province of the women. Psychiatrist Barbara Dorian has suggested that women’s brains may be hardwired to feel loss and grief more strongly than men's. Whatever your feelings on this sort of determinism, the assumption remains that florid displays of emotion are seen as quintessentially feminine. Distaste for mourning and for hired mourners may be partly an effort to suppress this feminine emotion. Mourning in ancient Greece was one of the only ways in which women could wield public power, and theorists have argued that legislators, like Solon, who spoke out against professional mourning were trying to contain the subversive potential of the female voice.

Although professional mourning has largely disappeared from the consciousness of Western culture, it has left its mark on the language. The word "placebo," Latin for "I will please," was used to refer to paid lamentations before it meant "non-active medication." And "threnody" (sad song) comes from the Greek threnos -- the carefully constructed song of the professional mourner, as opposed to the disorganized weeping of family and friends.

Ashenburg, Katherine. The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die. New York: North Point Press, 2002.

Lutz, Tom. Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. New York: Norton, 1999.

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