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Friday 15 March 2013

Friday's Funerary Customs ~ Professional Mourners

Professional Mourners known as 'Mutes' were hired to walk behind the hearse in Victorian times. They wore black draped hats and coats and carried draped banners and they bore a suitably dignified, somber countenance. 
It was socially accepted that an elaborate funeral reflected the deceased's status and degree of respect they were therefore due. 
There were strict social rules of mourning etiquette to be observed regarding mourning attire and obligatory timelines that had to be followed. 
These mourning practices spread throughout Europe and professional mourners became affiliated and even went on strike for better wages. 
Later on with the advent of modern motorized hearses now leading the funeral procession, professional mourners were relegated out of the ceremony all together.

The Victorian attitude frowned upon personal displays of emotion by the grieving family and relatives, so the hiring of a professional mourner would publicly display the families grief on their behalf. These mourners may have never known or met the deceased or family before being employed by them. 

Professional mourners have been a traditional part of the funeral ceremony throughout history. It was felt that the greater the numbers of mourners in attendance was a symbol of the deceased's social standing and status and so it was believed that the loss was a more significant one. Additional mourners ensured a heartfelt show of grief.

In many cultures around the world, the professional mourners that were hired were women, due to their ability to weep and wail lamentably, which is known as keening. 

mourners are mentioned in the Bible and were used by the Egyptians, during the time of the Pharaohs, a person's status could be judged by how many mourners were present at the funeral. Families hired large numbers of professional mourners to weep, throw dust in their hair and wave their arms around. The better they performed, the more money they received.

Today professional mourners are still employed in Egypt and groups of women can be seen keening outside the homes of the deceased.

By the end of the 18th Century many churches across Europe had forbidden keening as the Church and State believed the Promise of Heaven itself was thought to be enough to comfort the bereaved.

Members of the Orthodox Jewish faith still use professional mourners today. When a relative dies the mourners are required to go to the temple every day to recite the Mourner's Kaddish. A professional mourner ~ usually an older man ~ will cite the prayers for them.

In India professional mourners called 'Rudalis' are employed by wealthy families, their fees are determined by the level of wailing and the enthusiastic way in ahich their grief is displayed.

In China professional mourners known as 'Kusangren' dress in white robes ~ the traditional colour for funeral attire ~ are hired to sing, dance and cry and ensure a noisy and impassioned farewell for the departed.

In Kenya, a new generation of professional mourners are appearing, they are generally young men who are trying to supplement low wages. Depending on what the family requires of them, they will shout, blow whistles, weep and prostrate themselves or enjoy singing loudly along with the family.
The traditional belief in making a lot of noise, was seen to ward of evil spirits that could hamper the deceased's progress to the next life.

As traditional mourning etiquette evolves and changes in the Western world the focus is shifting from somber mourning rituals towards the more personal Celebration of Life. Formal Church services are being replaced with more relaxed memorials where the dearly departed's favourite music has replaced the singing of hymns. Anecdotes that help to uplift the mourners are more in favour, than focusing on the level of grief. Smiles and gentle laughter replace the tears and help just as much in the grieving process.


  1. I find this entire thing intriguing. Who would have known such a thing was even a necessity. Interesting. Thank you for sharing.

    1. I think that it seems unusual to our western modern day thinking, but many cultures world wide still observe similar practices as did we until early in the 20th century. Whilst travelling abroad I have witnessed funerals where professional mourners are present and it doesn't seem as odd as one might imagine.
      There are far more unsettling funeral practices, such as post~mortem photography which I hope to include in another post later.

  2. Hello,

    I was wondering where you sourced your photos from? I'd like to use one on a TV show that i'm working on but I can't find any copyright information. Sorry, I couldn't find your direct e-mail on here. Would you mind e-mailing me? Any help would be gratefully received. Tasha.roche@rdftelevision.com

    Many thanks,


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