The term might not make sense to a lot of people, but mourning is in fact a profession that has existed in many cultures for centuries. There are references to professional mourning in the bible, in classic literature, and even in today’s world where many services have started that will provide professional mourners for a modern funeral. Two of the most notable and well-known cultures that have traditionally used the services of professional mourners are Italy and China, by taking a look at this interesting perspective on funeral services; you might have your beliefs about grief changed.

Professional Mourners in China

In Chinese customs, professional mourning dates all the way back to the Emperor Wu of Han (somewhere around 156 to 87 BC). From this dynasty on, mourners could be hired to attend funerals and display grief. The reasons for this type of grief stem from Chinese beliefs in the importance of honouring the dead—professional mourners served as added piece of drama and theatrics that was mean to give a departed loved one a truly spectacular and honorary send off.

In today’s China, the practice has mostly disappeared, but there remain some performers who really tap into this theatrical aspect and have found work at modern burials. Some Chinese performers who are hired to attend funerals say that they help people who grieving to break through, and feel comfortable in really allowing themselves to become upset, releasing their sadness and grief in ways that they might not have otherwise. Even more interesting, many of these performers will then stick around after the funeral to entertain the family members thus trying to liven their spirits after helping them to express such deep sorrow.

Mourners in Europe

The image of the Sicilian women all in black and keening at a graveside is perhaps the best known image of professional mourners in Europe, but people brought in to cry and wail along with grieving family members occurred also in Ireland and even in England. Throughout the Victorian age, women and men dressed in black were hired to follow the procession or attend the funeral and heighten the atmosphere of mourning for all those involved. Many churches tried to discourage the practice, hoping that people would better embrace the promise of heaven.

Professional Mourners Today

Even though many of these practices were completely left behind within the last century, there has been resurgence outside of China. In the Ivory Coast of Africa, the profession is quite respected and sought-after. Women can make several hundred dollars a day by expressing their grief for people they might not have ever known. Even here in England, some companies have started offering the services of professional actors that will learn details about the deceased and attend services, acting like distraught friends that are sad to have lost whoever might have passed.

It might seem strange to have people who aren’t in mourning paid to do just that, but if the practice has survived this long, it just might have benefits for those of us dealing with real grief. Perhaps it can just be comforting to not feel alone while we let difficult emotions show—if that’s the case, then professional mourners are doing a real service to those trying to say goodbye to their loved ones.