You’re attending a funeral in a remote village in Southern Italy. The coffin has been laid in the open tomb, under the harsh sun of the Mediterranean, but the mourners’ attention is directed elsewhere. They gather, still and silent, to watch a group of women dancing and crying their laments to the sky. Their show is not a charming one—they move as if drunk, rocking back and forth, waving their arms and beating their chests. Some kneel by the coffin, beating it with their open palms, or caressing it with white handkerchiefs, stark against their black robes and shawls. All of them sing ancient nenie, asking old deities to bless the soul of the departed and ease their passing.
You just witnessed a group of Italian professional mourners in action. The name evokes a tacky image—a person paid to express grief, or cry at a funeral, despite not having ties to the departed. Someone may even find the notion of a professional mourner offensive, but these figures were an integral part of Italian funerary rites, and their role was not merely aesthetic. They were not there to put on a show. They were the embodiment of collective grief, and with their chants and body language they ensured the souls of the dead would travel safely to the underworld.
Professional mourners were commonplace in Italy, my country, and have thrived even in the modern age; there are records of professional mourners being employed in the 1970s and 1980s. They were particularly popular in Southern Italy, where they took various names in different regions. In Apulia, we can find the chiangimuerti or rèpute, women who entered the house of the departed to scream their grief and sing their nenie, calling for Thanatos or Charon to ease the passing of the departed soul. In Basilicata, the professional mourners were akin to movie stars, and a symbol of status as well—the best mourners were also the most expensive. The lament of that region—called naccarata or travaglio—was to be performed in a precise way, and there was no room for errors. It was not a spontaneous expression of grief—it was akin to a sacred ritual.
Professional mourners could be found in other parts of Italy as well. In Sardinia’s traditions, the women entrusted with the role were called atitadoras, and their laments were sweeter than those of Southern Italy, focused on remembering the good qualities of the departed rather than cursing God for having taken them. In Northern Italy, instead of women, it was children who bore the task of expressing grief and mourning the dead. They were often orphans from religious institutions, instructed by their caretakers to walk behind the coffin during the funeral procession and wail.
Professional mourners were a widespread tradition not only in Italy, but in the entirety of the Mediterranean. The figure of the professional mourner has roots going as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans.
In Ancient Rome, professional mourners were called praeficae, and would walk in front of the coffin during the funeral procession, wearing black with their hair loose, chanting odes about the departed and expressing their grief—much like Italian professional mourners. The tie between the modern professional mourners and the ancient pagan world is not merely aesthetic. As with many Italian traditions, and as demonstrated by the invocation to ancient deities, the Italian professional mourners’ ritual has also an apotropaic function: to keep the soul of the departed from coming back, and to exorcise the fear of death that was so present both in ancient Roman society and in rural Italy.
We Italians are extremely superstitious people. Even in this modern day and age, we wear amulets against the Evil Eye, and keep icons of the saints hanging from the rearview mirrors of our cars for protection. We have a complicated relationship with death. We are obsessed with ghosts, and fear the souls of the departed lingering in the world of the living. So, when someone dies, we keep the windows open and cover the mirrors in our house, so that their spirit will not become trapped. We light candles to show them the way, and we don’t cry at funerals, because tradition has it that our tears may weigh heavy on the departed’s clothes, preventing them from reaching the otherworld. Thus, our grief is not expressed by silent tears, but by body language and chants and lament. The professional mourners never shed a tear throughout the chanting and dancing of their ritual.
Just as the apotropaic function of the professional mourners’ ritual was prominent, so was its social function. Their show of grief was a way to express and elaborate upon emotions too complex and strong to be addressed in a composed way. Often, people would join the professional mourners in their lament. The professional mourners offered a way for people to confront the pain of losing a loved one and let it all out without losing their dignity.
I have experienced terrible grief in my life, and I have felt on my skin the pressure society puts on grieving. Our Western society, which has long since been conformed to an Anglo-Saxon Puritan point of view, often sees grieving as an intimate act, something that is to be done in private, something almost shameful. A grieving widow is meant to appear gracious at her spouse’s funeral. Crying should be done in silence, a single tear – no wailing, that is reserved for children and elders, those who have yet to learn how to control their emotions, or forgot in age how to act properly. People, it seems, are as scared of mourning as they are of death.
Italian professional mourners offer a different perspective. Their grieving is a loud act, performed in front of as many people as possible, who are not simple spectators but take part in what is—through the chants, through the dances—an expression of collective grief. Not everyone is comfortable grieving publicly, but perhaps there is freedom in knowing that you won’t be judged if you do. Knowing that when pain becomes too much to bear, and the loss weighs too heavy on one’s heart, you can pull at your hair and curse God. Like forcing venom out of a wound, so that it can begin to heal.
Francesca Tacchi is a fantasy writer based in Italy. Xir non-fiction works are featured on Strange Horizons; and xir novella, Let the Mountains Be my Grave, is scheduled for publication in Spring 2022 with Neon Hemlock Press. Despite working in STEM, xe’s a huge history nerd and share xir passion by writing educational threads on twitter at @jackdaw_writes, amidst shitposting and cat pics.