Another Tradition: Mourning for Money


In addition to professional body watchers, there also is a long tradition of professional grievers--from ancient Greeks to George Bush.

Among the earliest prototypes were wailing women placed in Roman and Greek funeral processions. Their role was to appease departed spirits upset over insufficient displays of sorrow, according to “The History of American Funeral Directing,” by Robert W. Habenstein and William M. Lamers.

Modern mourners include blind sheiks from Cairo--hired to weep at services for rich Muslims--and paid wailers at elaborate funerals in Italy, Indonesia, Ghana and Korea.


In the United States, the closest thing to a hired griever might be George Bush, who attended so many head-of-state funerals as vice president that columnists began referring to him as a “professional mourner.”

Actually, paid weepers did enjoy a measure of popularity here as late as the 1950s and ‘60s, primarily in ethnic enclaves. Elderly Chinese men, for example, were hired to burn incense and offer food to the dead, says Glenn Wong of Wah Wing Sang Mortuary in Los Angeles. Another mortician, Ron Roy of Woods Glendale Mortuary, recalls a group of professional wailers employed at some Latino funerals.

In recent years, the practice seems to have disappeared, industry spokesmen say. Another source, however, reports that an occasional funeral home still hires mourners--unbeknown to survivors--to cry at and liven up services.

Stories are also told of Hollywood agents recruiting mourners for celebrity funerals, but veteran morticians question the tales: “You don’t have to worry about hiring people,” says Paul Hulquist, retired president of Pierce Brothers Mortuaries. “You have to worry about keeping them away.”