A Day in the Life of a Professional Mourner

A dance company reenacts a funeral right based on professional mourners in Italy. Flickr photo by Dave Bledsoe

A dance company reenacts a funeral right based on professional mourners in Italy. Flickr photo by Dave Bledsoe

The author was a professional mourner living in Palestine in the first century A.D./C.E.

No one aspires to become a mourner. Even I entered the profession not by choice, but rather out of necessity, for my husband died and left me with such meager wealth that I would have been without bread in a few weeks, but for the kindness of friends. For a time, I accepted that kindness, but I soon found my sense of shame too great to allow for such dependence.

I had often seen the mourners following the funeral trains, their black outer garments torn in an outward display of grief, their voices raised in a kind of rhythmic wailing, their faces red with tears. I had observed them entering the homes of the bereaved to sit with them and provide them whatever small comfort was required. After seven days, they seemed to vanish, only to appear again when another member of the village made his way to Abraham’s bosom.

I approached my new profession with much trepidation. The idea of being constantly surrounded by death was unappealing to me. I could not fathom how I would maintain the continual state of heightened emotions or how I could force my eyes to spring forth with a river of tears. Yet, in time, I found it just as natural as breathing. Both the body and the spirit must be made to obey the demands of the moment, and so they do for me each time I set out in my dark apparel.

I have now been a mourner for five years. Most often I find myself in the service of those whose own relatives are too preoccupied to trouble themselves with the long period of grieving, but who nonetheless possess enough money to pay for others to take their place. On other occasions, the deceased is already surrounded by all of his or her relatives, but their life was of such perceived importance as to require an additional showing of communal grief. Still others simply feel that we mourners are better comfort in their darkest hour than their own flesh and blood.

At first, I worked in my native village of Emmaus, but I soon found business too slow to provide the income that I required to feed, clothe, and provide shelter for myself. That was when I made the decision to move to Jerusalem.

You can always be sure to find dead people in Jerusalem. The city itself has such a large population that not a week goes by without multiple important persons meeting their demise. What’s more, the pilgrimage seasons supply us with a steady stream of travelers, many of whom have faced great hardship on the road or made the trip expressly to seek out healing from the divine. Not a few of them never return home.

"Mourners from the Tomb of Philip the Bold", by Claus Sluter and Clause de Werve, circa 1410, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Dijon. Flickr photo by Steven Zucker

“Mourners from the Tomb of Philip the Bold” by Claus Sluter and Clause de Werve, circa 1410, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Dijon. Flickr photo by Steven Zucker

Finally, we have both the victims and perpetrators of violent actions. Our Roman overlords are swift to mete out justice, even if their form of justice is not very just. Last week, I mourned at the funeral of a young man who went out to fetch a pitcher of water for his mother after the sun had set, as she was apparently suffering from some illness. Everyone I spoke to assured me that he was the kindest boy a mother could hope for, and he was completely unarmed when he came across a small contingent of the night watch. No one knows exactly what happened next, but the end of the matter was that a sword was plunged into his body, and he was left to die in the street.

The neighbors heard the commotion, but were too afraid to leave their houses, so for the remainder of the night the body lay there for the stray dogs to lick his blood. Just before the rising of the sun, a group of the young man’s friends wrapped the body in a sheet and returned it to the home of his mother, where it was prepared for burial. That would have been the end of the old woman, had the community not rallied behind her. They were motivated by hatred of Roman oppression, while I believe she was simply consumed by her grief.

Nearly all mourners are women, and not without good reason. Not only is this a profession that is not believed to be suitable for men, but women are more naturally tempered for such business. A mourner must be able to sense the changing emotions of grief, to know when to speak and when to remain silent. We must sit with the bereaved and assure them of the beneficence of God. We must convince them that even though their husband, or their daughter, or their greatest friend has passed beyond the bounds of this world, life will go on as it always has.

Different bodies react to sadness in different ways. Some of my customers have no appetite for food, while others crave it more than usual, as if when they are eating they no longer have to ponder their despair. We work with the families and friends to make such arrangements as are necessary for food, drink, and anything else they may need. A mourner is not only a listening ear – she is also an angel of mercy sent to provide for those who grieve until they are capable of picking themselves up on their own power.

A few years ago, I was called to the home of a woman who had passed away that very day, leaving behind a single daughter. The woman’s brother had arrived at the house to find the daughter laying on top of her dead mother’s body, clinging to it and weeping, her words unintelligible. For the space of several hours, he implored her to let her mother go, but she refused to move. The two of them had lived by themselves in a rented room at the back of the house, completely dependent on one another, and now the daughter could not contemplate the possibility of life on her own. She seemed to believe that as long as she held the body, her mother was not truly dead.

That was when her uncle sent word to me to come to the house. When I arrived and viewed the scene, he told me, “This is a woman’s business. I cannot seem to talk any sense into her. You deal with this every day. Perhaps you will think of something that can calm her down.”

This is another incorrect assumption that the public seems to have about what we do. I am no miracle worker – I am flesh and blood. Nevertheless, I found myself pitying the daughter’s plight. I walked up to her and gently placed my arms around her, even as she still clung to the body. I began to sing into her ear a melody of consolation set down in the Psalms. With one of my hands, I caressed her hair. Gradually, I could feel her grip slacken and hear her intakes of breath slow. In time, she was finally able to let go of her mother and turned to embrace me as all assembled finally began to prepare the body for burial.

When one does work such as mine, it is impossible to give all of one’s self to each person. The scale of grief is too much for any one human heart to bear. Early on, I learned how to separate myself emotionally from what I beheld, even if I appeared to all who were present to be in a deeper abyss of grief than any of the rest.

What do you need to hear? I will tell it to you. Many family members want me to tell them that they will be able to converse with their loved one again at the end of time. There is a divide among our people on this point. Some say that there will be a great resurrection, while others insist that death is the end. Myself, I choose not to get involved in such debates, but simply repeat to each man or woman whatever will bring them the greatest comfort.

'Danse Macabre 15' print, Hans Holbein the Younger, published 1538

“Danse Macabre 15” print by Hans Holbein the Younger, published in 1538. The “dance of death” was a popular subject for medieval artists.

However, if you were to ask me in private for my own opinion of the matter, I will tell you what I know for sure: there is nothing on the other side of death. To believe otherwise is to put one’s faith in something simply because you want it to be true, but who has ever seen a person returned from the dead? Certainly, we have the stories of the ancient prophets, but where are the prophets now? They lie in their tombs in the Kidron Valley, where not even Ezekiel could bring their bones to life. Death is the ultimate fact of life. If I have learned anything from my experience as a mourner, it is surely that unalterable truth.

In my time on this earth, I have seen the reality of death. Neither God nor nature reaches out a helping hand to mankind. Our lives are short and painful. Wherever we look, we see the signs of death, which comes for all of us as surely as the rising of the sun. It is the final enemy – the one we cannot defeat.

Nevertheless, I have a job to do. This week is a rather unique one for me. I seldom venture out of the city for work, and much less for customers incapable of paying, but this time I am making an exception against my better judgment. A mutual friend alerted me to the situation of a family a couple miles outside the walls, a pair of sisters still fairly young who lived with their older brother. Since the death of their parents, he was the one whom they relied on for provision.

Three weeks ago, he was taken ill with a fever and forced to remain in bed. Despite all that his sisters did for him, he continued to grow worse until a few days ago, when he finally passed from this world. Such a sad tale I could find on practically any street corner of Jerusalem, but this family was apparently highly respected in their village, and the friend I mentioned was somehow able to persuade me to bring some of my fellow mourners and sit with them through the ritual week.

For the past few days, I have been constantly at their side. The older one I have to convince to remain still and allow us to take care of the housework. Perhaps she thinks, like so many others, that in cooking and cleaning she can take back some degree of control. Her younger sister makes no attempt to be a heroine, but gives herself over to weeping day and night. Both of them are of the resurrection party, that is, they believe that their brother will be brought back to life on judgment day. I tolerate their belief, but I do not share it. My willingness to work for them for free is an act of pity rather than a reaction to their piety.

From time to time, I have heard them mention their friendship with one of the many traveling rabbis that pass through here every day of the year. This one seems to have quite a devoted following and is purported to be able to heal. I have witnessed few genuine healings in my years and even fewer genuine healers, but were I in their position I think that I too would have called for the rabbi to come when my only brother became ill. Unfortunately, he ended up being too caught up with the works of God to spare a few minutes for his dying friend.

Every morning for the past week, the older sister has gone to wait just outside the village, staring at the road as if by power of will she could summon the healer. Day after day, she returns disappointed, but stoops to comfort her sister: “Perhaps tomorrow will be the day.” At first, they hoped he would bring healing for their brother’s body. Now, they simply hope he will bring some healing for their spirits.

The tombs of Bnei Hezir and Zechariah in the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem. Photo by Wikipedia user Oren Rozen

The tombs of Bnei Hezir and Zechariah in the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem. Photo by Wikipedia user Oren Rozen

The sisters want to think the best of the rabbi, of course. They believe that it is for some higher purpose that he stays away. If you ask me, there is no higher purpose than doing a good deed for a friend when his life hangs in the balance. What could be more urgent than death? I suspect that the good teacher was more worried about falling afoul of the local authorities, as he apparently did last time he was in the area.

I can now see the sun peering through the window, which means that the sisters will soon awaken and my tasks will begin again. I can write no more for now, but I shall return later to finish my tale.

This morning began as any other. The elder sister set out for the town gate. I insisted that she bring water with her to drink while she is standing in the hot sun. Those who grieve tend to forget about these little necessities of life, so it is my task to look after them. The younger sister was taken by one of her sudden fits and ran out to the tomb with all of us struggling to keep up. This seems to be a regular pattern of hers: throwing herself on the rocky ground and weeping before the tomb. Perhaps she thinks that her brother will somehow hear her. We try our best to join in her wailing, but it is becoming exhausting.

We managed to convince her to return to the house and take some food. “Your brother would not wish for you to go hungry,” I said. “Here, take some bread to nourish yourself. I will pour some wine – it may help you to relax.”

She sat in that manner for only a few moments before her sister entered the room unexpectedly. “Perhaps she has thought better of waiting around all day for someone who was unlikely to turn up,” one of my fellow mourners whispered.

She said something into her younger sister’s ear that none of us could hear, but the effect was obvious. Immediately, the younger sister abandoned her eating and raced out of the house once again.

“What have you said to her? You know we just returned from a visit to the tomb already,” I asked the elder sister, thinking that she must have said something that caused the other one to be hit by a new wave of distress. Several of the other ladies were already rushing out after her.

“The rabbi has finally arrived,” she replied, turning to leave without giving me a second glance.

“Finally, some news of interest,” I thought. “I must follow and watch this man get what is coming to him.”

Inside Lazarus' reputed tomb, Flickr Marion Doss

Inside the reputed tomb of Lazarus. Flickr photo by Marion Doss

I exited the house to see a group of men approaching. Mary (for that was the younger sister’s name) ran up to one of them and fell at his feet with tears flowing down her cheeks. Even Martha (that was the older one) could no longer keep her eyes from ushering forth a torrent. For once, I did not feel at all hypocritical in allowing myself to cry as well. Their grief was palpable.

“Shalom, my daughter,” the teacher said, and he stooped to embrace her. This was rather odd behavior for a rabbi, and several of the other men standing there seemed to think so as well by the looks on their faces.

When she finally caught her breath, Mary looked the rabbi squarely in the eye and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

I half expected him to give some excuse, but instead he allowed his gaze to pass to each one of us women, and he could see the pain on every face. He turned back to Mary and simply asked, “Where have you laid him?”

“Lord, come and see. The tomb is this way,” Martha answered, and a few of the others seemed to echo it. “Come and see! Come and see!”

As we made the short walk, I moved to support Mary, who was still crying. Martha walked ahead with the teacher and his disciples, while the rest of the mourners made a train behind us, their wailing voices filling the hills with a chorus of sorrow. “No good can come of this,” I thought to myself.

At one point, I could see the rabbi’s face and noticed that he too was weeping. I had never seen a religious man act that way before: they we normally stoic except when the situation required an act of theatrics. “See how he loved him!” my friend Veronica whispered to me. “Surely his grief is sincere. If there was something he could have done, I’m sure he would have.”

“Veronica, your good heart does you credit, but we must not absolve this man so easily. Since arriving in Bethany, we have heard of nothing but his great acts. Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?”

We had finally arrived at the tomb. It was of the typical sort, being a natural cave with a large rock placed in front of it to keep out the animals and grave robbers, a less expensive option for those who could not afford to have a new tomb cut according to a specific design. Mary moved to join her sister at the teacher’s side, giving my shoulder a much needed rest. Then he said something which surprised all of us.

“Remove the stone.”

Have you ever heard a person of authority say something which everyone knows to be idiotic but which no one is brave enough to contradict? Such was the moment in which we all stood. It was Martha who finally broke the silence and said what we all were thinking.

“Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.”

“Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” he replied.

After a moment of consideration, Martha nodded, and several of the men standing there went to roll back the stone as the teacher commanded.

“This is insane,” another of the mourners said to me. “He is going to cause excessive grief to the sisters, not to mention an assault on our noses, just so that he can get close to the body, no doubt to perform some ridiculous ritual. It is not right to make contact with a dead body. Moses forbids it!”

“At this point, we can only stand and wait,” I answered, moving to cover my nose with my hand.

After much grunting and straining, the stone was finally pulled back and even the hand over my nose was little help in keeping out the smell of death. Only the teacher seemed to be unaffected. He looked to the sky and raised up his hands, uttering some kind of prayer which I was unable to hear properly since he was facing in the opposite direction. He then lowered his arms and and turned toward the tomb, his voice speaking words which were unmistakable to all of us.

“Lazarus, come forth!”

"The Raising of Lazarus" by Duccio, circa 1310-11. Wikipedia photo by the Kimbell Art Museum.

“The Raising of Lazarus” by Duccio, circa 1310-11. Wikipedia photo by the Kimbell Art Museum.

Up to this point, I had considered the teacher to be a good man. Yes, he had failed to make it to the bedside of his dying friend, but the degree of his grief proved that he cared deeply for Lazarus. However, my opinion had now changed decidedly: the man was clearly out of his mind.

We all looked at the tomb intently. I cannot think of why, since none of us really expected Lazarus to walk out. But when someone draws your attention to something, it is what you do – you look. You look because you cannot help it.

I am in no way exaggerating when I tell you that what happened next has changed my life. A man, bound completely in linen, shuffled his way out of the tomb, his legs barely able to move as they were tightly wrapped. Several gasps went up from the crowd. Many started yelling out praises to God. Yet, all I could do was stand there like stone, my eyes transfixed on the man as his sisters ran to pull the bandages off his face and then started kissing that face repeatedly.

I closed my eyes for a moment, thinking that perhaps I was witnessing an illusion, but when I reopened them the scene was the same. Even as the sisters helped their brother down, several of those present were racing up to touch him and feel for themselves this miraculous event. Lazarus was clearly tired, but the smile on his face was broad. When he arrived before the rabbi, he fell to his knees and praised him repeatedly.

“How can this be?” I thought. “I saw this man’s dead body laid out on a table. I watched them apply the spices and wrap it cloth. I saw it deposited in that grave. I have come with Mary every day to this place and seen that the stone has not been disturbed. How can it be?” I was forced to conclude that this man really had raised Lazarus from the dead. The ramifications of such a truth were hitting me at an alarming pace.

I joined in the celebrations as we all walked back to the house, Lazarus and his sisters leading us all in a song of thanksgiving. As the curious villagers came out of their homes, there were many new looks of shock as they cried out, “Lazarus! It is Lazarus come back from the dead!”

By the time we reached the house, there were so many people that they could not all fit inside. The women who had remained behind to prepare the meal were a bit overwhelmed when they saw all of the unexpected guests, but when they grasped the cause of the celebration, they too were filled with joy.

In the midst of all that commotion, I was surprised to feel a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around to see the teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, wishing to speak with me.

“Agatha, you have done well in caring for these dear friends of mine during their time of grief.”

My first thought was, “How does he know my name?”, but I quickly realized the absurdity of being surprised by such a small thing when not even death could get in this man’s way.

“You are most kind, teacher, but I know that you have done far more for them than I ever could.”

“Agatha,” he said again, and the look from his eyes was piercing. “There is tension in your heart. Why do you not believe?”

I struggled to come up with a sufficient answer. Finally, I spoke.

“I know what I have seen, and I know that it is true. Yet, I am afraid. My own husband was taken from me and never returned. Jerusalem is a place of violence. You have brought one man back to life, but can you do that for the entire world?”

“I am the resurrection and the life,” he said. “The one who believes in me will live even if she dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” With that, he turned and sat down next to Lazarus, breaking the bread and passing it to all of those who were squeezed around the table.

I still did not know the exact significance of this day, but one thing I did know: my life would never be the same.

"Resuscitation of Lazarus" by János Vaszary, circa 1912. Wikipedia photo by the Hungarian National Gallery

“Resuscitation of Lazarus” by János Vaszary, circa 1912. Wikipedia photo by the Hungarian National Gallery

Agatha continued to work as a professional mourner in Jerusalem for the next few months, but made regular visits back to the town of Bethany to visit Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Jesus of Nazareth came and stayed with them, and Agatha was able to listen to and benefit from his teachings, though she continued to feel that he often spoke in riddles.

During the feast of Passover that year, the rabbi made another trip to Jerusalem, an action that all concerned were sure would lead to his arrest, and that is exactly what happened. He was charged with blasphemy by the Jewish authorities and insurrection by the Romans. The sentence was execution by crucifixion, and Agatha was there with many of her fellow mourners to weep for him as he walked to his death. Her friend Veronica offered the teacher a cloth to wipe the blood from his eyes, while Agatha attempted unsuccessfully to give him a drink of water.

After Jesus of Nazareth had died, Agatha and Veronica offered their services free of charge to the rabbi’s mother, Mary, and assisted in preparing the body for burial. They accompanied several female disciples to the tomb a couple days later to continue the mourning rituals. To their great surprise, the tomb was both open and empty. What Agatha saw that day caused her to believe, and she devoted herself to the new movement.

When Agatha’s second husband, a devoted disciple of Christ, died, her grief was somewhat different than it had been the first time, although it was still a great loss. Even as she advanced into her late years of life, she had great faith that death would be defeated. Having read the few available written accounts of the life of Christ, she was disappointed that the story of Lazarus’ resurrection had not been included. She appealed to John, one of Jesus’ closest disciples and a leader of the movement, and the last remaining one of the twelve, to write a new account that would include many of the stories left out by the other authors. He finally agreed and penned the story of Lazarus as we know it today. Agatha died a mostly contented woman, though just uneasy enough to be anxious for heaven.

Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, Wikipedia user Djampa

The “Garden Tomb” in Jerusalem, one of the suggested sites of Christ’s burial, and certainly a good example of an ancient rock tomb. Photo by Wikipedia user Djampa

“And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” ~ Revelation 21:4 NASB

All biblical quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation

If you are interested in reading about Jewish mourning rituals, many of which likely existed during the time of Christ, check out this page on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiva_(Judaism)