From one culture to another, the organisation of funerals and funeral ceremonies are full of paradoxes and curiosities. One of the biggest curiosities of funerals with people from the west of the Ivory Coast are the professional tear shedders: Women who offer their services of crying during funeral ceremonies.
By Selay Marius Kouassi
Tears are money
Whereas we often say that time is money, for professional mourners, the term “tears are money” is perhaps a better fit. Clearly shedding tears for others is also a way to earn money.
Indeed it’s a common practice for more and more families in mourning to solicit professional mourners, or for friends who want to show their support to families in mourning by sending mourners to participate in funerals in order to create a more sorrowful atmosphere. This offering is referred to as the “support of tears” to a bereaved family during funerals.
Passion for the job
With the goal of obtaining bank notes, mourners are there during the act of putting the corpse in the coffin, during the transfer of human remains as well as at the burial. They have no relation to the family or the deceased but during the funerals they cry wholeheartedly. The will also mime if the sadness caused by the departure of the dead succeeds in arousing tears and moans from the parents of the deceased and the people who have come to pay their respects.
"When they don’t manage to show their tears in public, they push their performance to the extreme. Sometimes they pull out their hair, scratch their face, hit their head against the wall,” describes Kouman Martial, an attendant at a funeral chamber in the area.
“Even if they are paid for this job, you have to have the passion for it!” adds Martial, who is very often an eyewitness at the performance of mourners which takes places in an enclosure of the funeral chamber where he works.
Mourners on stage
In Barouhio, a village in the Gagnoa region, the mourners - around a dozen of them, wearing headscarves and dressed in roughly stitched red and black jackets, with uncombed hair and bodies washed with white clay; present themselves at the last wake of that part of the village.
The leader of the group sets the tempo and her colleagues immediately place themselves at her side. The blended tears and cries become more and more lively. A series of acrobats start performing and somersaulting. It is a scenario learnt by heart - almost staged. But the scene is surreal and the crowd cannot contain their emotions for long. Tears start to flow everywhere.
The mourners are illiterate but they are an organised structure. One of them, Marguerite Yohou explains:
"At the beginning we hang around the surrounds of the morgue, waiting to hire ourselves uniquely for crying over bodies. We buy the official newspaper of the Republic and read the obituary column to our children who were at school. They dig up information about the funerals of wealthy men and women and we contact their families to offer them our services. However, as time goes by, we acquire a certain notoriety and from now on people interested by our services contact us directly.”
A jealously guarded job
"Professional mourners can be scheduled for several families. That works well for us”, confirms Léonard Gnahoré who recognizes having hired her mourning services for an amount of between 230 and 305 euros.”
If you ask Marguerite about her fee and how much she earns along with her colleagues for one performance at a funeral and she will tell you in a diplomatic way: “We cannot say how it works. Its death, it’s sad! But we earn a living with what we do.”
Neither Marguerite Yohou, nor the other mourners want to say anything about the subject of payment. Clearly, they want to protect their business and avoid arousing the interest of other people looking for work. Which suggests their business is profitable.