Professional Mourning a Dying Art

Professional mourning is a ‘God-bless’ calling.  It’s acknowledged several times in the Bible, for instance in Jeremiah 9: 17–18:  “Thus says the Lord of hosts,   ‘Consider and call for the mourning women, that they may come; And send for the wailing women, that they may come! Let them make haste and take up a wailing for us,That our eyes may shed tears and our eyelids flow with water.’” The compassionate ritual of mourning on demand has been performed for centuries all across the world. It flourished in Ancient Egypt; and in China the theatrical practice was established in the 8th century. 

Dr Kingsley ‘Ragashanti’ Stewart,  sociologist and talk show host on The Bridge 99FM, noted in a June 2020 post on Instagram, that “Jamaica has a long tradition of professional criers/mourners: people who are paid just to cry at funerals.Those retaining the services can customize the nature of the crying they’re buying. For example, it can be loud or quiet; anecdotal stories of the deceased can be performed in the crying; references can be made to the relatives of the deceased, etc.” Professional mourning is one of  the many cultural practices Africans brought to Jamaica. And it’s alive on the continent, if not all that well. 

In March 2020, Deutsche Welle (DW),  Germany’s international broadcaster, aired a programme on professional mourning in Africa.  It was for the series The 77 percent, named for its primary audience.  Seventy-seven per cent of Africans on the continent are under 35. Abena, a professional mourner from Ghana, explained how she works: “Often, when we go to funerals and I  see bodies lay in state, we quickly think about our past and relations we have also lost.  This triggers our pain and the urge to cry.  We don’t fake it. But we really show pain for the family that has lost a loved one.” 

A professional mourner from Kenya, whose name I just couldn’t catch, was amusingly practical about her options:  “With how the government is working, there is no job.  First of all, when you think about the fact that you don’t have work, you start crying automatically. . . . You study a lot, you do everything by the book but there is no work.”  Personal pain easily becomes communal grief.  But many under 35s are quite sceptical about professional mourning.  They see it as emotional exploitation.  If it’s left up to them, the business will die out.

KINGSON 11

In Jamaica, Dalkeith ‘Kingson 11’ Wright is a professional mourner dramatically keeping the tradition alive.  He related his story to me: “From mi eye deh a knee mi use to go funeral with elder mourners.  Mama Daera, Mama Maatet and Mama Tilla. Dem don’t have to know is who dead.  As long as is a funeral, dem ready.  Dat was sopn dem did love an enjoy. Dat was fi dem sport.  Me was very inquisitive as a lickle yute so mi did love stay round di elders an question dem.  Mama Daera, Mama Maatet and Mama Tilla would a go to di bar across from my house, before di funeral dem, fi get charge up.  So whenever dem a go funeral, mi would ask dem if mi can come wid dem an dem nah tell mi no.  So dat is where it all started.  Mi would just sit down and watch dem crying.  And sometime me start cry too. Mi just get emotional. Inna dem time deh, dem never use to get pay.  It was just something dem love an enjoy.  All three of dem are deceased now.”

KINGSON 11

I asked Kingson 11 how he grew from emotional amateur to professional mourner: “Is when one of mi fren by the name of Bobby died. That was the first funeral where mi ever sing.  ‘I Am Only a Pilgrim and Stranger.’  And the reception was very good.  That was 2006.  And from there, people start request me to sing at their loved one’s funeral.  It was mostly people dat mi know who would ask me. And mi never use to really charge dem.  But most of the time, mi find miself a cry at di funeral dem.  Well, from there, mi find people from all over start call mi to perform at funeral for them.  So bout 2017–2018, mi just tell miself seh dis is a job.  An mi start charge an mi lay out di price fi di package: 3000 sing; 5000 sing an bawl; 7000 sing, bawl an roll; an fi use crow bar fi dig mi offa di coffin, dat a 10,000.  An dat a just town price.”  The ‘country’ rates are higher. 

The pandemic has negatively impacted Kingson 11’s profession:  “From the middle of last year to the third month of this year, business was really slow.  But it kinda pick up lickle now.  Through di pandemic pon di people dem, mi don’t raise mi price.” Kingson 11 is also a recording artiste and has released two tunes on the Sipo Records label. ‘Call Me’ is dub poetry and  ‘Pretty Girl Dem a Ask Fi Mi’ is a dancehall tune.  Kingson 11 made a cameo appearance in the music video for Don Mafia’s hit ‘Big Setup’, which questions the alleged death of demonic Pastor Smith.   Kingson 11 offers undeniable proof that Smith is alive.  The pastor hasn’t called to book the professional mourner.  Many of us believe in duppies who ‘dream’ the living. So Kingson 11’s humorous tagline, ‘From yu dead, call me,’ is an excellent marketing tool.

Kingson 11 raised a philosophical issue in our conversation:  “Mi a Rasta an some Rasta seh dem nuh deal with death.  But everyone have dem purpose an dem work fi do pon earth.  Well me just simply a do my own.”   It is not only women who are called to wail for a living; and for the dead and their relatives. Professional mourning is an equal opportunity occupation.  I imagine that the Lord of hosts would agree.

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