I’m a little ashamed to admit that, in the days when I used to be sent by the newsroom to report on big ceremonials, I once gatecrashed the funeral of Lew Grade.
Security was tight at the exequies of the great TV mogul, and as I drew near to the crematorium in my black coat, I doubted I could bluff my way in. But as I approached the invitation-checkers, an odd thing happened. An icy gust of wind scythed against my face (it was mid-December) and a salty tear sprang from my eye and coursed down my cheek. The bouncer looked at my stricken face and evident lachrymosity, marked me down as a sentimental family retainer, and let me through.
I bring up this 15-year-old memory because I’ve just discovered that I could have had an alternative career as a professional mourner. The ability to cry at someone else’s funeral has, it seems, become a lucrative revenue stream. Companies like Rent-a-Mourner, in Braintree, Essex, are paying “professional mourners” £45 an hour to weep through a funeral service. And they don’t stop at weeping. They’re given the details of the dead person’s life until they’re able to mingle with the rest of the congregation. A largely unlamented stiff can appear to warrant lots of sincere and noisy weeping.
The idea, of course, isn’t original. My Irish forbears on the Atlantic coast used routinely to sign up platoons of witchy ladies to attend the funerals of strangers and wail over the body in its open coffin. They were known as “keeners” (from the Irish word caoine for “wail”) and they’d rend the air with cries of, “Oh, he is gone from me, gone from me, and not another bright day will dawn in my lifetime…” for 20 minutes while the shattered widow would comfort herself, away from the racket, with a Jameson in the kitchen. Dickens’s Oliver Twist, you’ll remember, got a job for a while as a tragic-faced professional funeral appendage (though he stayed mostly silent). And the tradition is popular across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It’s even on the rise in China.
It’s intriguing to think of Essex men and women being signed up to weep at the graveyards of Chinese or Libyan people and pretend to have known the deceased “professionally or socially”. But it suggests we’ve become an increasingly slippery society, with our “friends” who aren’t friends, our authors who sign people to write their books, our spouses who are encouraged to take our speeding points. A culture of shameless delegation is beginning to steal over us.
In the Guides groove
There’s been a boom in recruitment to the Girl Guides. Chief Guide Gill Slocombe says it reflects “a growing demand among girls and young women for a space of their own. There’s never been a greater need for a space where girls can share their thoughts and feelings with other girls without feeling they are being judged, pigeonholed or laughed at.” Isn’t that amazing? Within living memory, the fastest way to get pigeonholed or laughed at by the cynical minxes of Eighth or Ninth grade was to join the Guides. Now they’ve become edgy, feminist, potential-fulfilling, ass-kicking. And that stuff about finding “a place of their own” has a familiar ring. Has Brown Owl turned into Virginia Woolf?