"There's an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear ... which is very interesting. He would make a delightful mute, my love." Oliver Twist

By the age of seven, possibly earlier, I had learned what to do when someone came by the funeral home unexpectedly. I quickly slipped off my father’s lap, wiped the smile off of my face and excused myself with the most somber expression imaginable. Death was not funny or playful, and those who suffered were to be paid the utmost respect. Nor was death to be a curiosity. That was asking too much – nothing could hamper my curiosity.

From the top of the stairs, my unseen perch, my classroom, I observed a steady stream of people as they came to mourn and pay their respects. They spoke in low voices, sometimes weeping or wailing. They smelled of lavender water, Evening in Paris, hairspray, cigars and cigarettes.

By the time I was twelve, just about everyone who lived in our town had darkened our front door several times. It would have been the shock of my young life to learn that in ancient cultures it was deemed a worthy profession to be paid to mourn. There was even a fancy name for such a person: moirologist.

Years later I visited the Tomb of Ramose, Tomb number 55 in the Valley of the Kings, Luxor where I beheld the exquisite painting of the young king’s death scene. It depicts the ancient ritual of hiring professional mourners to follow the dead to their graves. It was predominately women who were charged with mourning and these were painted in the pale cluster you see below.

They would be expected to wail and pat dirt on their heads, a gesture of distress, as also shown in these terracotta statues.

Perhaps the most interesting contributions to proxy mourners are those of the Chinese and Taiwanese, called ‘professional wailers’.

Studies have shown that wailers most often are laid-off workers or those in low paying jobs wishing to supplement their incomes. They weep, sing mournful songs, and crawl during the funeral.

Wailing is considered a performing profession. One wailer was frightened that she would not be able to cry in her first performance, but when the day arrived she thought about how frightened she was of dead people and wept hysterically during the funeral.

For his book, The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up, author Liao Yiwu interviewed twenty seven people from the margins of Chinese society. One of these was a professional mourner paid to wail at funerals.

“I entered the mourning profession at the age of twelve. My teacher forced me to practice the basic suona (reed instrument) tunes, as well as to learn how to wail and chant. Having a solid foundation in the basics enables a performer to improvise with ease, and to produce an earth-shattering effect. Our wailing sounds more authentic than that of the children or relatives of the deceased.

Most people who have lost their family members burst into tears and begin wailing upon seeing the body of the deceased. But their wailing doesn't last. Soon they are overcome with grief. When grief reaches into their hearts, they either suffer from shock or pass out. But for us, once we get into the mood, we control our emotions and improvise with great ease. We can wail as long as is requested. If it's a grand funeral and the money is good, we do lots of improvisation to please the host.”

"How long can you wail? What was your record?" Asks Liao Yiwu.

“Two days and two nights...Voices are our capital and we know how to protect them...Frankly speaking, the hired mourners are the ones who can stick to the very end.”

Sometimes wailers receive gratuities. After the ceremony the bereaved may physically lift up the wailer and give them a bouquet that contains money, or, in a different area of China, the custom is to place red envelopes at the side of the wailer while the funeral is in progress. The amount varies. In China the profession is becoming so competitive that wailers are reluctant to take on apprentices these days.

I think my father would have been fascinated to learn how differently people mourn and pay respects to the deceased and their families… Perhaps I should have presented him with a monthly invoice.


There was only one after-death experience offered in our small patch of Southern earth and that was to be buried in it. The first time I heard the word ‘cremation’ and asked my father what in the world it was, I could not believe that this disposal by fire actually existed. There was no crematorium in our town and with the custom of burial firmly in place, no one would ever dream of choosing this route. Of course that’s all changed now, and although I’m told the nearest crematorium is miles away, it has fast become a choice of many.

I’ve learned of another burial practice that I don’t think has a hope of catching on in the Western world, not that it should or could. For thousands of years the Tibetans have practiced sky burial. It is simply a means of disposing the deceased by leaving the remains exposed to the elements and the birds of prey, which are considered sacred to Tibetans. The practice is called jhator, which means “giving alms to the birds”. Sky burial evolved as a practical solution to the problem caused by grounds in Tibet being too hard and rocky to dig a grave and in which the scarcity of timber made it difficult to perform cremations.

To a Westerner the ritual is quite grotesque, and the risk of offending is great, so I’ll not relay the procedure in detail here. When a Tibetan person dies, monks come to the home and pray for three days. The body is left untouched and at this initial stage, the family consider it inappropriate to display grief or sadness. After this period, the body is wrapped in a white cloth and moved to the site.

The ritual is performed on a specified sky burial site, a large flat rock located on higher ground than its surrounds. Monks trained specifically for this use tools designated for the ritual. Family members are near, but usually do not witness. Should you find yourself in Tibet and happen upon a sky burial in progress you should never photograph the procedures or even stop and watch unless you’re invited. It’s considered extremely disrespectful and rude.

The government of China, which has occupied Tibet since the 1960’s, prohibited sky burials until the 1980’s. They consider the practice barbaric, but probably realized it is the most efficient, fuel saving funerary practice for the region and thus allowed the burials once again.

Four of the most remote and revered sky burial sites lie at the foot of what is known by four religions, Hinduism, Bön, Buddhism and Jainism, as the axis of the world – the majestic Mount Kailash.

Part of the Tibetan Himalayas, located in western Tibet, Mount Kailash is considered so sacred that there are no recorded attempts to climb it and even setting foot on its slopes is considered a sin. It’s claimed that any attempts to do so have resulted in death. In other words, it is off limits to climbers.

Pilgrims have made their way to Kailash for thousands of years, and in the early days they walked for months to reach the foot where they then walked the kora, the 32-mile circuit around the foot of the mountain.

The location is so remote and inhospitable that even today the journey to the foot of Kailash is only slightly easier. Every Tibetan aspires to one day walk the kora to wash away a lifetime of sins. There are pilgrims who perform prostrations around the entire mountain. It takes four weeks when they follow this demanding regime.

Along the way, in a painful climb into ever thinning air, Grachon Ngagye Dorsa is one of four sky burial places around Kailash.

Sky burial site at Mount Kailash

Here pilgrims will pause to simulate their own death. They may spill a drop of their blood, leave a tooth or strand of their hair, or tear a piece of clothing to leave on the site. They lie as if dead on the rock to be reborn to a higher life in their next rebirth.

Tibetans believe that life has completely left the body immediately after death. They consider jhator an act of generosity on the part of the deceased and treat it as important instruction on the impermanence of life.