Authors: SUNSHINE O'DONNELL
For my family
A secret is an outside that is inside,
a secretion is an inside that is outside.
—Mark C. Taylor, Tears
In 1999, a seventeen-year-old girl from suburban Philadelphia was the last person in the United States to be arrested for being paid to cry at funerals. The officers who charged her never knew her real name. In all of the reports available, she is referred to only as
It wasn’t until Mirabelle’s arrest was published in newspapers that local residents understood that this little-known and dying art, called
, had managed to survive as an underground profession in some parts of North America. For thousands of years, wealthy families around the world have paid Wailers, Weeping Maids, and Wailing Women to perform at burials, a tradition still employed by contemporary funeral directors when there are too few mourners in attendance during burials, or when surviving relatives feel the need to have someone else “translate their grief” for them.
The controversial training techniques used to coach young would-be Wailers (emotional abuse, abandonment, the forced fondling of corpses) have been grounds for twenty-six states to pass legislation banning professional mourning, though most of these laws had never been enforced until Mirabelle’s performances were featured in a local newspaper article in 1987. The strictest of these prohibitions was passed in Mirabelle’s home state of Pennsylvania before the turn of the century. Today, there are fewer than ten apprenticing professional mourners still working in America, many living in states where new Wailing prohibitions are being strongly enforced by police.
According to legend, Mirabelle’s gift for crying on cue came to her when she was six years old, working a Bucks County funeral with her mother
and aunt in 1985. Between 1985 and 1999, funeral directors throughout the tri-state area hired Mirabelle and her late mother hundreds of times through contracts with set fees. Mirabelle quickly became known throughout the East Coast’s death industry as the most successful professional mourner of her generation, a title rivaled only by the fame of her own mother. By the time she was arrested in 1999, Mirabelle had worked thousands of high-end funerals, including several celebrity interments, and was estimated to be worth roughly half a million dollars.
Today, Mirabelle is in her twenties, although—as there is no legal documentation of her birth, life, or education—there is no way to confirm her actual age. Mirabelle continues to refuse to speak to the press and does not allow photographs. Those who have seen her in person as an adult report that she is still quite small, barely five feet tall, with a chalk white complexion, waist-length black hair, and a narrow, child-like build.
Because it is forbidden for a Wailer to reveal details of her apprenticeship, career, or ancestral history, under pain of exclusion and the disgrace of her bloodline, no one has encountered a complete first-hand account as of yet. Luckily, a few dozen historical fragments related to wailing have been discovered, some including trade secrets that have been passed down from mother to daughter for more than six thousand years.
he little girl and the old man who paid for her are standing beneath the deep green grave canopy when he asks her this. It’s the same question she is asked by most people, along with a battery of other questions she will never be allowed to answer.
Is it true your mother tortured you to teach you how to cry? Is it true you worship goddesses and never went to school? Do you know that it’s illegal? How much money do you make?
The little girl does not answer any of the man’s questions. They stand on opposite sides of the casket, waiting for its slow drop to end so that the little girl can begin. While they wait, the little girl picks at the edges of her handkerchief and watches the sleek brown coffin that is dropping, the shrinking gap between the casket and the hole, while her mother stands behind the real mourners, counting the money and turning away.
On top of the canopy, big drops of rain fall like a sky-full of beads shaken out of a sheet. The little girl listens to them burst against the taut canvas tent and knows that the rain wouldn’t taste like tears, it would taste like metal and freshly dug dirt. She imagines this taste, wishes she could sit in the playroom at home and watch the silvery buds cling to the storm windows as they grow and loosen their grip, melt into each other and desperately roll. They still call it
, even though she is now a star without much time to play. Instead of toys, the small room is crammed
with pieces of furniture that need to be fixed: a cracked plastic sewing table, her Aunt Ayin’s mirror, exhausted-looking cardboard boxes. A heavy cream curtain, its edges scalloped with rust-colored stains, hangs against one wall to hide the hot-water heater.
“Come a bit closer for me,” says the old man, gently. “A bit closer to the grave.”
Is the young minister still talking? The little girl can’t tell, can’t hear much but the sound of her stiff black lace rustling against itself, the rain, the sound of her heart in her ears. She knows what she’s supposed to do and how to do it. She’s been training at it for years. It’s what she does best, better than anyone, better even than her own mother. At least that’s what the widows say:
A professional, a lady, a legend, a star
. She tries to be sad but she doesn’t feel sad now. What she feels inside is the ghost-self growing, curled at the edges, gray and unstable as burnt paper. A scorched wisp.
She moves closer to the grave.
I am stupid
, she remembers.
I am worthless, I am disgusting
. The grass by her feet is fake and bright green, fringed with frail shards of gnarled brown leaves. Of all the months, the girl likes the smell of October best, even better when wet, she loves to watch her feet walk through the leaves and their just-before-dying smell. In her townhouse development, the October air carries smells the way cloth does, it touches her and is gone, a flash of dead leaves, fabric softener from the dryer vents, rain, exhaust fumes, fire. Today the wet chill doesn’t cling to her, though the leaves are wet and cling to her shiny black shoes like little drowned men. By November the smell will be gone. It will get dark and cold and it will stay dark and cold for a very long time.
She can feel the old man staring. She knows what she looks like, the white face, the famous black dress, and she feels dulled by a veil of dust. When she was younger the newspapers had called her
, but this was because of an old Wailers’ trick, putting a thin girl in a thick dress too large and long for her frame. Now she feels as if she is wearing a flesh suit instead of a body. Behind the long hair, the little girl’s face looks scared.
“Don’t be scared,” the old man says and, with some difficulty, he walks closer to where she is and stands behind her, clamping his hands
down onto the shoulders of her dress. His fingers shake as he leans forward, whispering into the little girl’s hair.
What does he whisper? At first she can’t tell, the rain is beating its glass fists against the tent. She closes her eyes and pretends she’s under her secret salt tree with leaves like thin tongues of glass. The old man’s fingers press and squeeze. She thinks he says,
Look at yourself, aren’t you lovely?
She keeps trying but the tears won’t come, she only sees white, white on white, something she can barely see the shape of, like a reflection caught in a puddle of milk. She doesn’t want to leave the salt tree but it is too late, the man’s whispers reach her even there, his not-white sounds, his wordless noises navigating toward her through the salt wasps and dry flowers.
What does he whisper?
. A hot breath, damp and loose.
. A wet smoke.
If you don’t cry for me I will turn your mother in
She opens her eyes and looks at her hands and sees the color gray. The little girl feels his fingers squeeze, his breath get thick, his dank gray whisper. The ghost inside her is whisper thin. The old man doesn’t know her name. He whispers, gently, into her hair,
THE OBSCENE ARTS:
MATERIALS TOWARDS A HISTORY OF WAILING WOMEN
and Other Professional Mourners
TRAINING THE NOVICE.—
D. METHODS OF ABUSE.
On The Importance of Self-Loathing
Used properly, the silent repetition of humiliating comments about oneself is often the most practical method a novice can implement in order to arouse sudden weeping. For instance, the traditional prompts
I am stupid, I am worthless, I am disgusting
, have been indispensable for generations of professional mourners who would otherwise have found themselves dry at graveside and thus unable to perform for their wage. Be warned that this technique must be handled with great skill and delicacy, as it can be dangerously mismanaged by the naïve and may result in suicide or the permanent disordering of the brains.
On this point should be mentioned the value of a mother’s role in the fabrication, penetration, and reinforcement of such statements which, although seemingly painful to absorb, will ultimately serve the novice once they are remembered at appropriate times (e.g. at gravesides or while procuring contracts). Some suggestions include disturbing comments concerning the girl’s intelligence, talent, worth, and virtue. It has been proven
unwise, however, to berate a novice about her appearance, as a girl’s confidence about her ability to charm will play a critical role in the acquisition of new clients throughout her life.
If, by the time the novice has completed her apprenticeship, she is still unable to discern between her true feelings of self-worth and the poor esteem she must draw upon while coaxing tears from her eyes, she will eventually find herself unhinged and perpetually weeping without cause. To avoid this most appalling condition, a mother must determine whether her daughter is of an especially weak or inconsolable constitution before beginning a regimen of verbal assaults. However, if it becomes clear that the novice will be unable to perform without abuse, by all means employ whatever practices are necessary. Although not ideal, it is, after all, more profitable to have a daughter who weeps all of the time than one who must be abandoned because she cannot weep at all.