Crying on Funerals; how people display emotion & the professional wailers

    It was once said on Something Positive that our sorrow at the death of a loved one comes more from of selfishness than empathy.  People are sad that they can no longer spend time with that person rather than sad that the person is actually dead.  Another interesting point is Durkheim's argument that we are naturally social creatures constantly conflicting with social desires and expectations.  This lead me to the thought of how emotions on funerals is quite possibly as social as it is personal.

    According to the images and perceptions of funerals the event itself is a sad affair where people will express their depression and sorry in a variety or ways, from silent starring to emotional crying.  However the truth is that people are quite 'normal' on funerals.  Sure, there is sorrow but the event as a whole is generally more like a gathering of family and friends than a sad emotional event.  Of course there are exceptions, some people do cry, others are so emotional they can barely stand.  What I have found is this degree of emotional display differs with culture, age and gender.  Thus I will be looking at the degree to which certain people display negative emotion (such as crying) on funerals.

    Firstly we should look at age.  From what I have seen the amount of crying or display of emotion differs quite considerably with age, and until a certain point (towards adolescence) is nots influenced by gender or culture.  Very young children, those under the age of five or so, were very unlikely to cry.  Instead they were more concerned with eating, going outside, playing and other such needs and desires.  This changed when children were eight to twelve, as at this age they were surprisingly very likely to cry and be more upset than most adults.  Yet once they got much older than twelve to thirteen they become more dependant on the social situation.  As in if the adults were crying  then they were liable to cry, and if the adults were not crying they would not be likely to either.  The influence of gender is not apparent until into, or after, puberty.  Thus boys and girls cry and exhibit emotions to the same degree until 'men' or 'women'.

    Now lets discuss my observation.  I find the whole concept interesting, that the display of emotion on funerals varies with age, but not gender nor culture until a certain age.  The young children who do not cry or show any emotion could have several reasons for this.  One is that children simply do not understand 'others' fully.  By this I mean that those under a certain age only think of themselves and struggle with empathising with others.  If one asks a child how many siblings they have then they might say "one brother", however ask them bow many siblings their brother has and they might have trouble answering.  They cannot see things from others perspectives and as such one cannot really expect them to be sad that something (or someone) they struggle with understanding exists or empathising with is dead.  So on the funeral you will see young children quite understandably more concerned with going outside to play rather than sit inside listening to a long service ignoring the social conventions and expectations around them.  Yet the exact opposite appears to be true when older children, especially around eight to ten years old.  They will almost certainly cry, and not just a couple of tears, they will have red eyes, blocked noses and be like a little waterfall of sorrow.  As with the younger children they to ignore social conventions and expectations, generally crying no matter what.  There could be several reasons for this display of emotion, the one I believe is that this is a prime age where they can fully understand others as well as death and yet have not developed the mental tools to deal with the coming together of the two ideas.  Simply the fact that people exist and can be empathised with creates a serious upset once children realise that these people die.  They feel sorry for the person, bad that they are dead and never to return.  Despite knowing and understanding this they are still too young and inexperienced to have developed the tools to deal with this coming together of concepts.  This is partially due to the fact that adults are so hesitant to talk with children about death.  Many strange questions were asked by children on funerals, they would ask about what the hearse was, what was in the coffin, where the dead go (it was interesting that they had to go somewhere, they could not just cease to be), what all the candles were for, what is in the hole (asking about the grave), why there were flowers, where the coffin went at the crematorium and so on.  What was most interesting is that adults were hesitant to explain anything much, avoiding details and often resorting to making things up.  A few adults explained that the hearse would drive the deceased "up to heaven" even when they were not religious.  When asked about the coffin some explained that the deceased was "asleep in the box".  Either way the adults would always answer questions about the deceased in present tense and never that they were dead.  They were just "asleep in the box" or "on his way to heaven".  When questioned they always explained to me that they were hesitant to discuss death with children as it was "inappropriate for them, their too young and wont understand".  Adults thought it was likely to "damage" or even "upset" them as one childcare worker once said to me.  He was convinced that explaining anything to do with death to children would have a fundamental negative impact on them, going so far as to say it would be "scarring them" to do so.  When I asked him when he would recommend explaining to people about death he replied "when they are old enough to understand it".  He would not have told them anything about death until they had all but developed their own understanding anyway.  Yet death is a fact of life, and what was interesting was that the children were quite comfortable with the questions and answers it was the adults who were uncomfortable by talking about the process of death.  I have serious doubts that the children would be damaged in anyway by explaining death to them.  In fact avoiding the topic leaves them without tools to deal with it later.  Thus in the ages shortly before puberty they are old enough to understand death but not taught about it or how to deal with it.

    When children are about twelve to thirteen they are much more dependant on the society in forming their emotional response.  Here they have gained tools to deal with death, but more importantly they are focusing on the group rather than themselves, they are becoming an active member of society.  This is also the time where gender starts to have its influence.  Boys become less likely to exhibit emotions, and when they do they are often not as strongly displayed as girls.  I just find it so strange that it is basically not until puberty that society has an influence on how children display emotion.  It raises all sorts of questions, such as whether emotions are socially dependant or influenced, what the role society actively has on our thoughts and so on.  But for now I do not have time nor room to expand upon, or answer, these questions.

    Adults are more predictable and follow preconceived connections when it comes to exhibiting emotions. Women are obviously much more likely to cry or show how sad they are.  While men do cry occasionally they never display their emotions as strongly as women.  Adults are also much more dependent on culture and the situation than children.  If their culture dictates they should cry (as some do) then they will.  And those that do not are looked at strangely and judged.  I remember one woman saying how it was customary to cry on funerals in her culture.  Crying, especially amongst women, indicated how strongly they felt about the deceased.  However at her grandfathers funeral, a person who she loved strongly, she did not cry.  Instead she told me how she had been too upset to cry.  She did notice how this gained her strange and quite judgemental looks from other family members.  they expected her to cry and her not doing so was the same as saying she did not care about her grandfather.  Another example is of a guy I once saw on a funeral.  Obviously distraught at the loss of the deceased he was crying away, not loudly, just sobbing to himself.  However the other mourners were looking at him like he was acting slightly inappropriately and strangely.  I do not know if there was more to the story, like whether or not he was known for being over the top or inappropriate but he was being judged as such.  It does however fit with the social convention that men do not, and should not, cry.  Here we see that crying and displaying emotions are strongly dictated by society.

    Displays of emotions on funerals are also very cultural, in fact all behaviour on funerals is very cultural.  Certain cultures will behave a certain way on the funeral.  The traditional white Australian Catholic funerals were a sober affair, people might be upset but it was much more a gathering of friends and family to them.  Everyone knew their place and stood in it quietly, knowing when and where to move.  They did not crowd around in big groups having to push each other to get anywhere.  Mourners were rarely extreme in their actions or behaviour and most often actually quite happy.  however they were very 'traditional' and tense in that everyone had to play their assigned roles just right.  They were also impersonal, mainly with the service itself which rarely focused on the decease instead glorifying the priest and the deceased commitment to faith.  Non-religious funerals on the other hand were less predictable, people were a lot generally more relaxed, not caring much for assigned roles for family, friends or even the staff.  They were more likely to display emotion and focused the service primarily on the deceased.  Now we come to the ethnic services and the "professional wailers" as they are called (who are always women).  They have to display emotion, they will cry uncontrollably, barely able to stand and then suddenly be fine, on their way for a coffee at the wake.  They go in and out of 'crying fits', all together at certain almost predesignated times or situations.  It is absolutely fascinating, and some who do not understand would look at it as though they were faking their upset in an attempt to garnish attention.  Yet this is not the case, they are not faking at all.  It is just their culture which dictates when and how they should display emotions, almost uncontrollably in one situation but then not in the next.  they are not switching "in and out of character" as someone once said, they are just following their cultural teachings.  Mourners on ethnic funerals will also be more involved, or at least appear to be involved.  They crowd around everything and get in the way, even around the coffin or graveside.  They will sometimes want to do things the undertakers should do, such as moving the grave cover, moving flowers about and so on.  In the end they mean no harm and just operate to ways unexpected by Australian traditions.

    The display of emotions on funerals varies quite considerably with different groups.  Children do not cry or get emotionally invested in the event until they are older.  Here they will cry and be emotional regardless of social influences such as culture or gender.  Once they grow up older children and adults are very much socially bound in their display of emotions.  For example gender has an influence, restricting men from displaying 'too much' emotion.  There are also cultural conventions on when one should cry and how this display of emotion actually shows how much one felt about the deceased (particularly with women).



  1. Anonymous21/8/14 10:05

    I nearly cried at Uncle Billy's funeral.

  2. Great article. My dog's about to be put down, he has cancer and is 9. I was crying and was kind of curious as to why, so here I am. It's interesting how, when and why people will show emotions. Also the difference between a person dying and say an animal, that being a pet or something unrelated. It also makes a lot of sense that it's a selfish motivation that makes us sad for not being able to spend time with them anymore, like the removal of a great joy in our lives, which in turn causes pain.


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