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‘Mourners for hire’ are a sign of our troubled times

The breakdown of family and community life is behind dwindling numbers at funerals

By on Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Cardinal Angelo Scola celebrates the funeral mass for Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini

Cardinal Angelo Scola celebrates the funeral mass for Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini

Sometimes you come across odd little stories in the papers that tell you something about the state of our society. Here is one such from yesterday’s Telegraph.

Yes, that’s right. You can now rent a mourner at funerals to swell the congregation if that is what you feel you need.

It is not such a strange idea. According to the article there are bands of professional mourners in China even today, and at the time of Our Lord the custom was well established. You may remember that when Jesus went to raise the daughter of Jairus from the dead, the very first thing He did was to expel the professional mourners from the house (see Mark: 5: 1-43). St Matthew (8:23) makes a reference to flute-players, who must have been a part of these professional mourning bands.

Professional mourners were also a common feature in Victorian England, provided one could afford them. They were employed by undertakers to accompany the coffin, and were meant to look solemn, and called ‘mutes’. If memory serves, Oliver Twist was briefly a mute when he was apprenticed to an undertaker, and thought suitable for the role because of his melancholy-looking face.

But behind all this is something rather sad; if people are hiring mourners these days, or pseudo-mourners as it might be better to call them, is this not a sign of familial and societal breakdown? Once upon a time, everyone who died could be assured of a good turn out at their funeral. Their relatives would be there, which could be up to fifty or sixty people, and, especially in working class communities, all the neighbours would be there. If we are now forced to pay people to come to funerals, this may well be a sign that family ties are not what they once where, and neither are community ties.

Indeed, I cannot really see how anyone could deny that this is the case. I know quite a lot of people of my age who have never been to a funeral. I may have said this before, but it is really important to go to funerals. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy. Quite apart from being a meritorious act, it is also community-building, and it also shows our solidarity with those who mourn. It is a great comfort to the bereaved. So, if you possibly can go, please do go.

In parishes, where a funeral Mass will often take place at the time of the normal daily Mass, it is always good to see parishioners present. This is one reason, I feel, that the alternatives to a funeral Mass, either a service in church without a Mass, or a direct to crematorium arrangement, are hardly as desirable, theological considerations aside.

What is really deplorable is when the lapsed children of a devout Catholic arrange a funeral for the deceased outside the Church altogether. This does happen, and everyone needs to make their wishes known in advance, though, it has to be said, there is no way of ensuring that these wishes will be carried out.

Our Lord, like all who die, had a funeral – but only of sorts. He was buried in a hurry, as the sun was setting, and placed in a rich man’s tomb, wrapped in a linen cloth, but without the usual rites of His people. The women intended to come back after the Sabbath was over, and so they did, but by that time their spices were redundant. It is this knowledge, that the tomb is only a temporary resting place, that suffuses every Christian funeral, however sad, with hope.