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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.

  • Ora Pro Nobis

    I agree with everything you say,

    Without sounding flippant there is nothing like going to a funeral of a Catholic who you believe ‘might just have made it to the kingdom’ (if you know what I mean). Where there is a solid Catholic family who are all in receipt of this knowledge this is when the day becomes more of a celebration of a life well spent.

    I remember a priest at Vita et Pax in Cockfosters saying there is no such thing as a eulogy that can be written for a Requiem Mass because, if we are Catholic, the eulogy should be being written throughout our lives.

    Ironically in the Catholic Church there is no need to buy in guests because we seem to have this little known anomaly of older retired Catholic ladies who seem to attend the funerals of those they do not know to pray for them. Thank goodness for that.

  • Jonathan West

    I agree that the dead person’s wishes should be respected if at all possible. My father died a couple of years ago. He was a lay reader in the Church of England, and although I am atheist it was obviously the right thing to do to have a full C of E funeral in his local parish church. My mother-in-law was Catholic and so when she died last year, a Catholic funeral mass was held in her local church.

    The fact that I do not believe did not prevent me from taking part in the services – I prepared the order of service booklets for both and gave the eulogy for my father. (In both cases the work preparing the funerals was shared out between several family members.) It was also not the time or place to emphasise differences of belief, so I simply remained quiet for those aspects of the service that I could not in conscience participate in, such as the reciting of the Creed or taking communion.

    I won’t comment on the theological aspects of funerals – as an unbeliever I don’t recognise that they have any. But I do think that it is important to give the friends and family a chance to say a final goodbye to the deceased, and that is best done in surroundings that had a meaning to the departed. If it provides additional meaning and comfort – theological or otherwise – to friends or family, then so much the better.

  • David M

    If it has been done throughout history with the custom being well established ‘at the time of Our Lord’ and also during the Victorian age, then how can is this a sign of societal and familial breakdown? This clearly is not a modern day invention, and I find your links between the two to be rather tenuous.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Nice comment.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Well….. what can I say?

  • Benedict Carter

    It is certainly evidence of a fractured and atomised society.

    The desire to send off someone with no reference to their life being good nor evil (and the modern Catholic rite for the dead is VERY guilty in this regard) I regard as thoroughly pagan.

  • lewispbuckingham

    You are right Jonathan.Am in the same position,inverted, for my father, an agnostic.
    I always have been of the opinion that the funeral was really about supporting those who remain, rather than the one who has died.
    Without invoking the corrupt Pascal’s suggestion my attitude, as a Catholic, is to have a Mass said at some time for the repose of the soul of the deceased whatever their belief system.
    The Mass could be said ten years later.

  • James M

    “Once upon a time, everyone who died could be assured of a good turn out at their funeral.”

    “Everyone” ? Even those dying in the poorhouse ? Paupers ? Not everyone had a family (and I’m leaving those dying in prison or executed to one side).

    What IMO is wrong, is to emphasis sadness – because “Jesus Christ has abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel” (1 Timothy). What happened to the theological virtue of hope ? If someone makes a good death, ISTM bizarre to mourn – for that implies sorrow; but why be sorry someone has left this world and is at last beyond temptation ? What is there in death to be afraid of ? Or is Christ not its conqueror ? If He is not, we have every reason to mourn. But if death itself cannot separate us from the Love of God – & St. Paul is emphatic in Romans 8.31-39 that it cannot – what is there to be grieved by ?

    “38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

  • raymarshall

    The Irish in the 19th century invited keeners [wailers of laments for the dead] who were well known for their keens. They would show up at the wakes in the house of the deceased. The tears would really start to flow when a handful of keeners started their laments.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    In Catholic countries there were often pious guilds that made sure that paupers and condemned criminals were properly buried and had Masses offered for their souls. Just as nowadays there need never be a pauper’s funeral for any Catholic without a family or friends as the parish will always pay.

  • Rachel Boaler

    My mother died last year, and because she designed her own funeral, I was able to give her exactly what she wanted which made the grieving process and those lingering feelings of guilt, just that bit easier to cope with. But I agree, it is a very sad reflection of society that sometimes there are no mourners at all. A friend of mine, will pop into a church if there is something going on, whether it be joyous or sad so we need to more of that impromptu uninvited thing.

  • cestusdei

    I knew an inner city priest who buried any homeless or poor who died. He got them a grave at the cemetery, turned out parishioners, and had a full funeral Mass for them. The funeral directors cringed when he called because they knew it was going to cost them money.

    We certainly have hope, but we do mourn the separation from our loved ones. Don’t you feel pain if one of your children says he is going to be gone for the next 50 years? Even Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, so was he wrong?

  • Jonathan West

    If at a later date you decide it would be comforting to you to have a mass for the repose of his soul, then I see no reason why you shouldn’t. It’s not quite the same as imposing your beliefs on him and his friends in the funeral service itself.

    I remember my father for his music. Among his many talents he was a keen amateur clarinet player. So when I hear clarinet music, I think of him.

  • Pope Zicola

    Professional mourners …

    …OK …

    It doesn’t necessarily take National Geographic or the proof of Alan Whicker and Michael Palin’s respective passports to explore the fact that different cultures in the world have had gold-standard, sliced-onion-eye’d mardy-faces at the send-offs of people they couldn’t give a flying carrot-cake about … for centuries!

    …but we are forgetting something here – there is a recession on! It’s an opportunity to make money…. just like those who attempt to wash your windscreen when the lights are on red and expect to be paid their due, whether you want them to or not! An enterprise, nonetheless!

    A neighbour has died – ker-chiiiing! I’ll remember to scan future death notices in the local newspaper and parish bulletins, iron my black weeds for the occasion … and remember to claim my mantilla/ top hat on the Tax Return.

    Simples, as the wise meerkat would say!

    Writing as someone who has been bereft of friends and close relatives in the past decade to the Sweet Ole Bye-n-Bye, thinking back, it would have been bearable – if not, preferable – to have had tagalongs at the Requiem Mass, the subsequent burial/cremation and the buffet than those blood-relatives (with the exception of a miniscule number) who did not bother their designer-clobber-clad behinds to pay a visit to the dearly departed whilst they were alive to enjoy their dry wit and great company, even in the midst of their suffering!

    ‘glad that’s out of my system!

    As long as there are respectable, sensitive undertakers, a Roman Catholic priest to celebrate the Requiem Mass and people to deposit my mortal remains….

    …as for mourners, don’t bother claiming expenses… and I’m not leaving you anything in my will! My false eye collection just about saw me through to the bitter end so don’t hold your breath either!

  • Ronk

    “I know quite a lot of people of my age who have never been to a funeral.”

    Really? I find this amazing. Even among the totally anti-religious, it is considered very bad manners not to attend the funeral of a relative, friend, colleague/workmate, or even the parent of a friend/workmate.

    I always attend them because I feel I have a duty to do so, even though I find it very depressing to attend the secularised funerals which most people have, which are basically an endless repetition of “X was a great guy, and now nothing remains but our memories of him”.

  • RidersOnTheStorm

    Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.

    - Matthew 25:40