Mourners And Screams: Who Are They And Why Are They Needed Today

A life 2023

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Mourners And Screams: Who Are They And Why Are They Needed Today
Mourners And Screams: Who Are They And Why Are They Needed Today

THE THEME OF DEATH REMAINS SO POWERFUL CULTURAL the taboo that interest in her continues to be considered "unhealthy", and that she herself is too "gloomy" to be discussed seriously. At the same time, death is one of the few areas where traditions are still alive, for example, the Orthodox custom of organizing a funeral on the third day and commemoration on the ninth and fortieth days after death. One of the customs - to hire mourners, special people who should grieve for the deceased - is gradually becoming a thing of the past. We decided to explore how this tradition has evolved over time and what this activity might mean for understanding funeral and mourning culture.

Text: Asya Pototskaya


History of the issue

The tradition of inviting people to funerals specifically so that they grieve for the deceased dates back to ancient times. For example, in Ancient Egypt, where funeral practices played an important role, the image of the mourner was associated with Isis grieving for Osiris. For the funeral, special mourners were hired (according to other versions, these could be local women who knew the deceased, but not relatives who simply decided to join the procession) - two of them spoke on behalf of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys. The mourners carried flowers, food and oils; some might carry furniture and clothes that were to be left in the tomb. In Assyria, it was customary to violently express grief for the dead: not only family members wept and sprinkled ashes on their heads, but also mourners who opened the funeral procession together with the musicians.

Funeral rites with music and funeral singing also existed in Ancient Greece and Rome. For example, in describing Hector's funeral in the Iliad, Homer mentions singers who sang funeral songs, and women echoed them with crying. Paul Guiraud's book "The Private and Public Life of the Romans" (a collection of excerpts from the works of historians and ancient authors) describes the funeral of a Roman citizen. They invited a hired mourner from the temple of Venus Libitina, who sang to the sounds of flutes and a lyre "nenii" - funeral songs. The funeral procession was also attended by mourners, led by the mother of the deceased with her daughters and daughter-in-law. The mourners are described as follows: "Their dress was in disarray, their hair was loose, they shed profuse tears and uttered cries of despair." The maids who joined the procession were taught how to grieve for the deceased by a professional mourner.

Wrestling in Russia

Orthodoxy has historically treated mourning at funerals with distrust - for example, John Chrysostom condemned the tradition of inviting mourners to them, which was associated with pagan customs. In the Christian world, church chants and a funeral rite take its place. Instead of excessive grief, one should pray for the repose of the soul of the deceased - it is believed that grief should be quiet and imperceptible.

Nevertheless, in Russia there were also mourners, albeit not approved by the church - they were called screams. This occupation was female: women were considered symbolic guardians of the hearth, rituals, practices, life cycles - all this was associated with the earth, which yields crops and receives bodies after death. The traditional lamentations have been called "speeches". The collection "Lamentations of the Northern Territory", compiled at the end of the nineteenth century by the ethnographer Elpidifor Barsov, contains funeral, funeral and burial lamentations - verses for the death of a loved one with a characteristic rhythmic structure. Here is how, for example, the lines from the lament for the deceased daughter sound: “Like the sun is lost behind a cloud, / Let the child hide from us in the same way; / How bright the month sets in the morning, / How clear the celestial star has faded, / My white swan flew away / To another unknown zhivlenitsa!"


A good screamer had to have thet of speech, acting ability, and have a strong voice. The summoned mourners, who were famous for their talent, were invited

from other villages

The laments were passed on by word of mouth and differ from region to region, from performer to performer. In Barsov's book, verses are interspersed with remarks like “on returning home, he turns to the girls and yells …”, “then he turns to his father,” “going out into the middle of the hut”. It turns out that the cry was not only a "mouthpiece" for the grief of those present and helped to "lead" the deceased into the world of the dead - she also performed the role of the steward of the ritual, where everyone had their own place and role.

A good voice was supposed to have the gift of speech, acting, and have a strong voice - according to the folklorist Svetlana Adonyeva, special breathing techniques are used in crying. The summoned mourners, who were famous for their talent, were invited from other villages - but, as Svetlana Adonyeva notes, they did not ask for money for this: the occupation was perceived as a mission, not as a job. For the first time lamenting about someone from the dead, the woman seemed to undergo initiation, after which she could decide whether to lament only about the deceased family members or become a famous mourner who is called to the funeral of neighbors. Today, the culture of mourners is dying out, although members of folklore expeditions have recorded crying in recent decades.

Culture of grief

In the film adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings" sounds a lament for Gandalf, performed by the elves of Lorien. In fact, the wizard did not die and will return in white, but the elves and the Fellowship of the Ring do not yet know about this. "What are they singing about him?" the hobbit Merry asks. “I cannot convey this,” Legolas replies. "My pain is still too acute." In response, Merry, who also wants to have his say, composes simple and touching poems about how great Gandalf set off fireworks. All this is logical in the world of Tolkien, inspired by ancient legends and epics.

Modern people have a much more difficult time. Traditional rituals are a thing of the past, and secular city dwellers find themselves practically defenseless in the most difficult moments. At funerals, in addition to grief and pain, people often feel insecure, awkward and embarrassed because they do not know how to "should" behave and what to do with deafening feelings.

The manifestations of negative emotions in modern culture are taboo, but the unlived pain remains inside, because of which a person can face it again and again. Traditions associated with funerals, on the contrary, help to “legally” live the pain, without being ashamed of their feelings. According to anthropologist Bronislav Malinovsky, the task of funeral rites is to relieve the anxiety that death naturally causes. From another point of view, their task is also to create anxiety, reminding of the inevitability of death and the importance of life.


Often young women left

to work in other cities and did not have time to return to the funeral of a relative - for these cases, the family hired a mourner to "replace" their daughter

Perhaps that is why in some countries mourners and mourners are still found today. For example, women who do this professionally in Ghana say they help relatives cry who are unable to mourn the loss on their own. Widows are involved in this work, and they pay according to the scale of the funeral.

Modern Chinese mourners and mourners are more likely troupes of artists who not only sing, but also dance, theatrically depict grief, sobbing and stretching out their hands. The ceremony is designed in such a way as to create at first a gloomy atmosphere that helps the relatives of the deceased to throw out their grief, and then console and calm them.Liu Jun-Ling, a professional mourner from Taiwan, where the art of lamentations is fading away, also believes that she helps the relatives of the deceased to realize and feel the loss: “When a dear person dies, you experience so much grief that when it comes to the funeral, there are no tears left. she says. "How can you change dramatically and show all the sadness that you are experiencing?" The tradition of mourners in the country is associated with the structure of society: often young women left to work in other cities and did not have time to return to the funeral of a relative - for these cases, the family hired a mourner to “replace” their daughter. Liu's work also looks more like a theatrical performance, but, according to the woman herself, every time she really cries and tries to feel someone else's grief.

In Japan, there is a service that is difficult to attribute to the traditional practices of mourning, although it is partly close to them. Ikemeso Danshi (roughly translated as "handsome crying men") offers "tear therapy" to help a woman get through a divorce. A man comes to the users of the service, with whom they watch a film, which should help them burst into tears, experience difficult emotions, and then feel lighter.


The experience of loss

everyone has

in different ways - there are no right and wrong ways. Someone loud mourning

and even silent tears at the coffin may seem inappropriate, but someone, on the contrary, will help

In other countries, the services of mourners are becoming more symbolic - they are needed not so much to live through grief, but to comply with formalities. For example, the British site Rent A Mourner offers the services of actors who will portray guests at funerals and commemorations, if the organizers need it for some reason. There is no talk of tears and rolling on the ground - on the contrary, the company promises to send "restrained" people who will first discuss with the relatives of the deceased an acceptable strategy of behavior. True, those who do this professionally note that they also help the relatives and friends of the deceased, even if this is not really their task - simply because the funeral implies communication with other people about difficult events.

Many theorists and practitioners of death studies, the sciences of death, draw attention to the "alienation of the funeral" and the problems with modern farewell rituals. Funeral expert and author Caitlin Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death, which aims to foster a more open and serene attitude towards death and to help families organize goodbyes where they can be personally involved. The Death Cafe (a branch of a "social franchise" existing in at least 65 countries), or "death cafe", has recently opened in Moscow, at these meetings everyone can discuss the topic.

The experience of loss for everyone happens in different ways - there are no right and wrong ways. To some, loud mourning and even silent tears at the coffin may seem inappropriate, while others, on the contrary, will be helped. Talking about the disappearing tradition of funeral lamentation is a reason to think about how practices that help cope with loss can be rebuilt in the modern world. The main thing is that the attitude towards grief and death in general does not appear on the list of forbidden topics.

Photos: Wikimedia (1, 2, 3, 4), loc (1, 2)


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