By Debra Beilke
Toloki is the main character in South African writer Zakes Mda’s first novel, Ways of Dying. Toloki comes from a small village, but lives in Johannesburg. He goes to a lot of funerals. This is not because he knows so many people who have died, but because he is a Professional Mourner. He is hired by friends or family members of the deceased to mourn ostentatiously at their loved one’s funeral.
Mda writes, ‘Normally when he is invited to mourn by the owners of a corpse, he sits very conspicuously on the mound that will ultimately fill the grave. . . . and shares his sorrow with the world. The appreciative family of the deceased pays him any amount it can. One day he would like to have a fixed rate of fees for different levels of mourning, as in other professions. Doctors have different fees for different illnesses. Lawyers charge fees which vary according to the gravity of the case. And certainly these professionals don’t accept just any amount the client feels like giving them. But for the time being he will accept anything he is given, because the people are not yet used to the concept of a Professional Mourner. It is a fairly new concept, and he is still the only practitioner. He would be willing to train other people though, so that when he dies the tradition will continue. Then he will live in the books of history as the founder of a noble profession’ (15).
Just as other professionals perform better on some days than on others, so too does Toloki. When he goes all out, he makes ‘moaning sounds of agony that were so harrowing that they affected all those who were in earshot, filling their eyes with tears. When the Nurse spoke, he excelled himself by punctuating each painful segment of her speech with an excruciating groan that sent the relatives into a frenzy of wailing’ (15).
I have been known to send people into a frenzy of wailing myself – by teaching grammar – so I wanted to learn more about this profession. Was this profession purely a product of Zakes Mda’s imagination? I did some research to answer that question. (By ‘research’, of course, I mean ‘typing the phrase “professional mourner” into Google’.)
I learned that Professional Mourning is a practice dating back thousands of years in Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures, as well as many other parts of the world. Professional mourners are called ‘moirologists’. They are mentioned in the Bible and early works of literature.
While the practice of moirology may not be as well-known as it once was, it still exists today. For example, in Essex, England there is a service called ‘Rent a Mourner’. They claim on their website that, ‘Rent a mourner can supply professional, discreet people to attend funerals and wakes. If you simply need to increase visitor numbers or introduce new faces, then we can help.’ The price of this service is about 45 pounds per mourner for a two-hour period. If you are interested in their service, check out their website.
Lest you American readers feel left out, fret not. We in the United States have our own moirologists from which to choose. For example, the Golden Gate Funeral Home in Dallas provides professional mourners. This video clip shows examples of people auditioning for this job. Clearly, not everybody is cut out for the job; it takes talent.
It looks like Toloki has some competition. May the best wailer win.
Debra Beilke has a Ph.D. in English and teaches at Concordia University-St. Paul (in Minnesota, in the U.S.) She has recently started her own blog, Booking It: Debra’s Excellent Adventures in Reading and Travel.
Image: Zakes Mda, from Penguin Books Live, labelled for reuse.