I'm Paid To Mourn At Funerals (And It's A Growing Industry)
A lot of you reading this are not going to believe this job is a real thing. But professional mourners -- people paid to attend funerals and pretend to be friends and family of the deceased -- are not only real, but common. Or they are in places like China; it's only just now starting to take off in Western countries. And we don't mean that they kind of stand by the graveside to fill out the crowd -- they assume fake identities and fool the rest of the mourners into thinking they're one of the bereaved.
We spoke with Owen Vaughan, a professional mourner in London, to find out what it's like to have a job that honestly seems too ridiculous to be true. He says...
We Have To Do A Full Character Study In Advance
People like me get hired to play the part of mourners at funerals and wakes for any number of reasons. Maybe the family is worried about embarrassingly low attendance, or they want to make their deceased parent seem more important (or at least, popular). The only thing sadder than a funeral is a funeral that nobody shows up to, so the decision is generally coming from a good place.
Still, I am an actor playing a part. My job is to suspend the disbelief of the other people in the room. And because so many different kinds of people die (all of them, in fact), I need to take on a number of different characters. That's where it gets tricky. My background story needs to be effective and convincing, while simultaneously including valid reasons I would never have seen anybody at this funeral before. The family is often very helpful with this, but I have to do a lot of the study on my own. One time, I needed to learn some archery, because I was supposed to arrive as a deceased archery teacher's former protege, and there was a chance I'd actually have to fire off arrows.
Remember, socializing is a key part of mourning. We have to mingle with the crowd and play the part; that's why we're there. Most actors don't have a lot of experience interacting with their audience and improvising in character. Still, if you do enough character study, you end up knowing more about the deceased than some people who were truly close to them. I once sat next to an acquaintance of the deceased, in character as a former co-worker. I brought up a couple of funny stories and somehow slipped the deceased's middle name. This guy had known him pretty well, but had no clue what his middle name was.
And if that alone doesn't make it sound like a Daniel-Day-Lewis-level acting job, there's the part where we have to pretend to be emotionally devastated ...
You Have To Trigger Sadness On Demand
Naturally, since I don't know the deceased, it can be hard to work up too many tears about them. Some professional mourners I know can cry on cue like a toddler at Toys "R" Us, but most of us keep a supply of tools to help us jerk out some tears on command. For example, if we know the person's occupation, we try to find the saddest or most depressing movie involving that profession and use that as a baseline.
Or I'll think about my own dad or my grandparents passing away to get the tears started or to help hit the tone of voice that only comes from a genuine loss. My go-to is rewatching Schindler's List beforehand. Remembering Liam Neeson's speech at the end is enough to get me going on a moment's notice. If I ever reach the point where I can't get emotional at the rescue of over a thousand Jews from Hitler's grasp, that's probably the point where I'll need a therapist.
Female mourners I know will often use Titanic. A few of the women I know track their menstrual cycles to know how much effort they're going to have to put into a good cry. Don't get me wrong -- us guys can still get their cry on. It's just that it's already harder for us as men because we're psychologically conditioned not to. Thanks, societal gender norms.
Real Mourners Do Get Suspicious
I fully understand that getting paid to attend the funeral of a total stranger sounds like the plot of a forgettable Seinfeld episode. Yes, explaining this to people upsets them a lot of the time, and I can understand that. If you're not familiar with the practice, the whole thing sounds creepy and off-putting. If we get caught by the friends and family at the service, things can turn awkward fast.
Usually, it's the spouse or a child of the deceased who hired a bunch of strangers to come to the funeral, so they've got to be on patrol to back us up. ("You don't remember dad's crazy cousin Gunther? They used to be inseparable! Stop being so suspicious, Mom! Please?") I've only been caught once, but I was lucky. When I was confronted and forced to confess why I was there, their response was simply, "Aunt Eugenie would do something like this."
Other times, people we successfully convince that we knew the deceased will still get suspicious of us, but for the wrong reasons. This advance research we do can come off as phony if it's not done right. Relaying a bunch of factoids about the deceased can wind up sounding like a 14-year-old's book report on a novel they skimmed the night before. This makes people think -- not that we're professionals, but that we're con artists there to muscle in on the will. I know from colleagues that nothing makes people flip out like thinking you're trying to con them out of their inheritance. And it's not like you can answer with the truth. Think about it. Which sounds more like a lie: That we're opportunistic strangers running a scam for cash, or that we're professional actors hired to help fill out the crowd?
You Need A Crash Course In How Different Groups -- And Religions -- Mourn
Most of the funerals I've gone to have been Christian, but I've also attend ones for Jewish, Muslim, and even Hindu and Buddhist folks. Most of the time, we need to pretend that we're of the same faith as the deceased so that we'll fit in at whichever church, synagogue, or mosque we're going to arrive at, and that can be interesting.
For one thing, there's avoiding unintentional rudeness. The noise level is something I've had to pay a surprising amount of attention to -- some religions can have startlingly loud funerals, while others expect silent weeping. The Buddhist funeral I attended went from remembrances straight into cremation, and the tonal shifts of crying, silence, and prayers was quick and irregular.
But then there's the matter of knowing the rituals. I mentioned earlier that paid mourners are much more common and accepted in parts of Asia, and since London is very cosmopolitan, we are getting sent to funerals for an ever-increasing variety of faiths. If my character claims to be a guy "from church" or something, you better believe I'll need to know how a ceremony goes. If I kneel at the wrong time or don't seem to know what to do next, someone might question what exactly my deal is.
At a Conservative Jewish funeral I attended, I was chastised for not placing a rock on the grave -- something which in retrospect I should've picked up from Schindler's List. I tried to defuse the situation by saying that my rabbi was much more casual about that tradition, but this only led to more and more questions about my identity. Finally, the son who had hired me stepped in to say that I was a Reform Jew, which was much more of a relief than I could have ever expected.
Families Are Very Specific -- And Demanding -- About Your Performance
Though the family members who hire us are usually very accommodating, in other cases, there are some odd mixed emotions. One time I was hired by the son of a recently deceased woman who made sure we knew how much he hated the people in my profession. He had hired us because he was out of options -- his mother had wanted a ton of mourners, and after rounding up everyone she could possibly have known, he still needed more bodies. I know how to act around funerals, but he gave me so many restrictions that it was hard to be much of anything.
I was warned not to give any condolences to his siblings (who didn't know he was hiring us), not to eat at the reception, to stay only in a certain area, and to basically sit and look sad for two hours. He effectively hired extroverted actors to play socially-stunted outcasts for the duration of the funeral and reception, and we simply had to do it.
In other cases, the family members who hire us suddenly turn into Stanley Kubrick, giving us endless notes on our performance. By far my worst funeral (one in which I'd already refused to pretend to be a Naval officer, complete with uniform) was being run by a relative who kept coming to us during the bloody funeral to tell us what to do. He'd whisper "cry harder" or "moan louder," which are things that nobody wants to hear at a funeral (or in any other setting, if you think about it). It finally got so bad that it sounded fake, and a fellow mourner cried so hard that her eyelids swelled to the point where she couldn't physically see to drive to the reception.
Yes, It Really Can Help
Some of you are still firmly of the opinion that this is a sleazy business. After all, what we're doing involves lying right to people's faces, at a time when they're at their most vulnerable. But remember the part earlier about how when you hire us, you get the full mourner package -- including mingling with the crowd and helping people talk through their grief. That is, after all, what funerals and wakes are for. People have been gathering to do this for as long as there have been people. Share stories, cry, get closure. I help people do that. It's why I took the job.
And we're really good at it -- not only because of the sheer amount of practice (hundreds of ceremonies and thousands of conversations with mourners) but also because our heads aren't clouded by grief. I've done my research, so I can remind them of the good the deceased brought to the world. I can be a lot better to talk to than some distant relative who only showed up out of obligation; making people feel better is literally my job.
I remember one girl who had lost her grandmother. They were really close, and nobody other than her parents attempted to comfort her. When everyone at our table at the wake had stood up except the two of us, I spoke to her. I've done this enough to know that you don't tell children at a funeral that "Everything is going to be alright" or anything like that; movie cliches never work. Get on their level. Remember fun stories, talk about the good times they had with the deceased. When her parents came back, they were impressed and wanted to know how I'd gotten her to start talking again. I then learned that the girl hadn't said anything in a few days, and that was her way of grieving. I told them what I'd said and left the table.
So yes, it is a very, very strange job. Yes, you're pretending to be someone else to fudge the crowd size at what should be a solemn, sacred event. But every once in a while, you get to be the mysterious stranger who can help alleviate some pain before disappearing into the crowd.
Evan V. Symon is the interview-finder for the Personal Experience Team at Cracked. If you have an awesome job or experience, hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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