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August 28, 2019 Beyond The Dash

Professional Mourning: Why Some Families Hire Strangers to Cry

Cultural spotlight

Professional Mourning: Why Some Families Hire Strangers to Cry
A professional mourner is there to set the mood, support others and blend in with those who are grieving. (Getty Images)

Many families prefer to grieve in private, along with their closest loved ones. When death touches a family, the funeral is an early opportunity to visit with loved ones, acquaintances and other community members to acknowledge the passing and pay tribute to the person who is gone. This is often done in an intimate family environment.


Crying, sobbing and other displays of emotion are expected at a funeral, but it's generally considered tactless and rude to broadcast, dramatize or exaggerate grief. For some families, however, more drama at the funeral is good.


An ancient funeral practice


Professional mourners, also known as moirologists, are hired actors who attend funerals for pay. In this ancient tradition, professionals attend a funeral to cry, wail, beat their chests and otherwise display anguish over a death. This practice is referenced in the Bible (2 Samuel 14), and occurred in many parts of the world, including in the Middle East, China, Rome and ancient Egypt.


Unlike the tradition of Taiwanese funeral strippers, professional mourning is an occupation that continues to this day


Why hire a professional mourner?


Professional mourners are hired to make funerals more tragic. The more hype and drama there is, the more memorable the service or reception will be. Sometimes professional mourners, known as moirologists, are used to fill out crowds in a sparse funeral, as in the cases of folks who have outlived most of their friends and relatives.


For some, the idea of having professional mourners is outrageous and disrespectful. For others, it's a final gift to a departed loved one. Funerals, obituaries, permanent monuments and other forms of memorial can be part of the healing process for some people. Knowing that the deceased person was afforded every respect and given a distinguished final send-off can help survivors move on with greater ease. 


The duties of a moirologist 


Though it's not exactly mainstream, some people make a living or supplement their income by arriving at funerals to do any number of grief related tasks at the request of the family. Believing that greater funeral attendance speaks to the prestige and character of the deceased, hired mourners are expected to fill out crowds and cry. They may also offer more advanced services for additional fees, including:



  • Wail and moan

  • Beat at chest

  • Tear at their own clothing in anguish

  • Play a family role, like a distant cousin

  • Jump on the casket as it is lowered

  • Refuse to leave the grave

  • Visit with real mourners and share stories

  • Deliver a eulogy


However, a moirologist's most important job is to blend in with funeral guests. While some people in attendance may know that a professional mourner is in attendance, they often don't want to be reminded of the fact. The charade is to increase the deceased person's prestige in the eyes of guests. Those who were not directly involved in the funeral planning process should have no inkling of the ruse.


How to hire a professional mourner


Until March 2019, the most well known professional mourning company was Rent A Mourner, in Essex. The company is now defunct. The business of professional mourning is rarely done through established companies nowadays, and is more often done on a freelance basis.


Those wishing to commission the services of a moirologist may need to get creative, depending on where in the world the funeral is to be held. Job boards, classifieds, and local theater companies may provide clues for families hoping to amp up a loved one's funeral.


Criticism of paid mourners


While moirology may be an important part of the funeral for some families, there is very little demand for professional mourning nowadays. Those opposed to it consider the practice to be insincere, disrespectful, unnecessary and strangely morbid.  


Memorialization is personal. Mourning styles depend heavily on the social, cultural and religious values of the family that is grieving. Even if professional mourning is not for you, it can help others heal from grieve and move through the worst days immediately following the loss. 


Hired help


The concept of professional mourning may seem scandalous, but in some parts of the world funeral stripping is a way of adding excitement and energy to a funeral service for a prestigious individual who has passed away. In some parts of Madagascar, decedents enter the tombs of their ancestors to ceremonially reposition their bones. In Tibet, monks will ceremonially break the bones of the dead in the mountains for vultures and other wildlife to devour


There are countless ways to mourn, and all forms are valid. Learning about the different forms of mourning can help us reframe the way we process and handle grief. 

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