Funeral mourners: Crying for a living
I read in a newspaper column years ago that when the Chinese want to curse someone, they say “May you live in interesting times”…
Honestly, I think they invoked this curse onto one of our ancestors, as today’s generations, we are passing though really interesting times. One of the interest things that we witness nowadays take place during funerals: professional mourners!
In case you haven't heard, there is now a profession called funeral mourning, which even has its own institutions… Well, we read in 1001 Nights of people beating their chests and tearing their clothes in exchange for money, but, in fact, it is a bit awkward to see that this profession re-emerging a thousand years later.
Research studies show that hiring mourners for funerals is an old tradition in Central Asia and the Middle East. Nevertheless, things have changed a bit over the centuries. First of all, in the city İstanbul, those who are looking to have a dramatic and loud funerals are mostly people who moved to the city from the country's East.
Who are these mourners? Why are they crying? What is the logic behind crying after someone who passed away? I caught up with these professional wailers to inquire about their line of work.
One mourner, N.K. uses the pseudo name 'Leyla' during funerals. She is 45 years old and she has been working as a mourner in funerals for almost six years. Apart from that, she also works in a cleaning company.
When we asked her why she needed to work two jobs, she said: “Brother, jobs are hard to find in the country. Sure the angel of death comes to claim lives regularly. But they do not hire us for each death and tell us to cry. First of all, normally there are people already mourning for people who passed away. Those mourners cry after their loss as the friends and relatives of the person. And they cry for free. Therefore, people prefer those mourners.”
According to Leyla, one's job as a mourner is not as easy as it seems.
“First of all you need to be wearing all black, if you do not have black attire, you need to guy buy some. Dresses should be suitable for funerals and mourning. They should be modest. Secondly, the deceased person’s family should give you information about them. Sometimes they even show us a photograph of the person who passed away,'' Leya explains, adding:
''They tell us all the good things he/she did in his/her life. The mourner must memorize all that information and should mention them while lamenting for the deceased. I mean, the relatives and the heirs of the deceased give us every information needed in the lamentation. And the mourner sings them gently during the mourning session.”
According to Leyla, problems occur if the mourner is not given enough information. For example, if the person who died was single and the mourner cries for the children he/she left behind while lamenting, it becomes absurd. That's why all the information is given beforehand.
Leyla’s story about how she started working as a mourner is also interesting. Six years ago, a friend of Leyla’s lost her husband. However, her friend called Leyla to prove that her husband had a good deal of support: “My husband died. All my relatives and friends should see what a precious person he was. I will prepare him a magnificent funeral. But, there are a few people around me who will do as I say. You should help me. I will pay you and every other person you bring with you. I only want two hours from you. All will leave after the deceased is buried”.
Leyla took 45 people with her while heading to that funeral. All of them cried out about how much the deceased had been respected. The jaws of all people attending the funeral dropped in astonishment.
Two day later, Leyla met her friend. She explained how surprised she was during the funeral. “Look darling, we hired a cook for the funeral. Nobody found it awkward. Why should they find it awkward that we also hired people to cry during the funeral,” her friend told Leyla.
This was what prompted Leyla to start working as a mourner. She worked in nine more funerals since and claims that her tears during the rituals are real. She tries to remember tragic events while crying.
She also has conditions to her mourning. First of all she says she does not want to cry after people who were perpetrators of domestic violence and has rejected to attend funerals such people. She also says that her mother-in-law had been very cruel to her and therefore she would never cry after mother-in-laws who had treated their daughter-in-laws badly, adding that their death in fact makes her happy. She also refuses to attend the funerals of murderers.
So why do people need mourners to share the virtues of their deceased in funerals? According to mourners, there are many reasons. First of all, this allows for the deceased to be buried as a respected person. Moreover, since the close family of the deceased are really mourning, they are incapable of expressing themselves as they would like due to their shock, and there are always ones crying loud during funerals with the hope of having their share from the deceased’s estate.
Mourners also say that the profession is also popular throughout the rest of the world, including countries like the UK and Ghana. There are even web-sites offering mourners for hire. There are similar initiatives in Turkey. For example the Funeral Mourners Association and the Funeral Mourners Group.
The funeral mourners’ job is not limited to crying. According to mourners, the death of a person is a serious thing in Turkey and also in the world and even the most cold blooded person may not know what to do when a loved one dies. In fact, it is also important to talk to visitors and host people properly during funerals and professional mourners have both the education and the skills needed for that. While the close family live their own pain, the mourners welcome people and serve them with just the right amount of sorrow. There is no standard price for mourning - some get 100 Turkish liras for three hours, some get 500.
The mourners also have to keep their identities hidden. Leyla says that all eyes are on the mourners during funerals and people come and try to comfort the mourners as they cry a lot. In the age of social media, people also post photos and videos from funerals. “We should not be identified. Because we attend funerals as a person close to the deceased,” she explains.
Funeral mourners also attend some funerals for free. Another mourner, Salih Ü. says that he, up until now, was paid only for three funerals, but he goes and cries after the dead person, whenever he comes across a funeral in a mosque. He says that the job is more than a profession for him as he helps the purification of the deceased’s soul through his tears. Salih Ü. notes that many people are paid during funerals, the imam, the person giving the ritual wash of the body, the driver, etc.
“Why is it that only the mourners are seen as awkward?” he asks.
The president of the Funeral Mourners Association, Ali Öztürk earns a living through both his laughter and tears. He has a book about humour. In fact, those working under the two organizations also attend wedding parties and dances.
''Life is between two prayers. One is when you are born, the other one is when you are dead,” Öztürk notes.