This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.
Growing up, I'd heard about professional mourners – people who attended strangers' funerals to cry loudly and sings sad songs. They're known as "wailers", who I'd always pictured as old ladies in headscarves, wearing all black and yowling by a corpse. Accurately, it turns out, because that's exactly what they are.
When I heard recently that the practice was dying out, I wanted to find the few remaining wailers still trying to keep the ritual alive.
I contacted some of Romania's most prominent historians, but most of them told me the tradition had disappeared in their area; that they didn't know of any active groups of wailers left. Luckily, I eventually reached Gabriela Herța – a primary school teacher in the tiny village of Romuli, in the far north of the country – who told me I wasn't chasing ghosts: that there are a few wailers left in Romania, and that they were happy to share their stories.
The snow is heavy as I arrive in Romuli. I park on the main road, then climb a hill toward the only visible point in the distance – an old turquoise cottage that looks like something straight out of a fairytale.
Gavrilă Catrina, Ana Heidel and Anica Bulz greet me on the threshold of the house with a collective "God bless!" and a glass of blueberry brandy that instantly makes my cheeks flush. They knock theirs back with ease. At Herța's request the women have dressed up in local traditional outfits: white shirts, plainly embroidered with black thread.
Their job is pretty simple: the wailers attend every local funeral, without an invitation from the family or any money for their services. They cry and sing mournful songs, often written specifically for the person who has died.
The women whip out their trusted manual: "100 verses for the dead – Funeral songs for young girls, children, women, and men", a book published in 1930 that the women use as inspiration for their lyrics. Often, the wailers will meet up before the funeral and prepare specific verses for the person they're mourning. They take things out, add them in, improvise a little, but the final product is largely based on this 80-year-old book that's been passed down generations.
I ask them if they're up for singing one their funeral songs. They turn to each other, agree on a verse and clear their throats.
The women are aware that the tradition is dying out, and have accepted that they just might be Romania's last crop of professional mourners.
"Young people don't want to sing for the dead," says Bulz, who, at 60, is the youngest of the three wailers. "It's as if they're ashamed of doing it." Bulz can't remember how old she was when she first started wailing, but says she's always enjoyed doing it.
At 79 years old, Ana Heidel is the oldest and funniest member of the group.
"I mean, what? You think you can get rid of us?" she asks. "Be it rain or snow, we'll come sing for you when you're dead. We served in the Patriotic Guards [a voluntary paramilitary group created under Ceaușescu’s communist regime to resist foreign interference in the country]. You think we're afraid of anything? We can shoot machine guns!"
Chatting to these women, death becomes less something to be feared, and more a mundane part of life. But that doesn't tell the full story: wailing does take a toll on them. Catrina says she often dreams about the person she's mourned for days after the funeral. The same goes for Anica, who recently lost her sister and is finding wailing particularly hard at the moment.
Heidel doesn't dream about the dead like the others, but they all say that funerals involving people who died young, or where the families are completely devastated by grief, are incredibly hard. Still, they see the tradition, and their role in it, as a fundamental part of the community. It brings people together, they say, by showing the bereaving family that they are not alone, and that their grief is shared across the village.
Corina Bejinariu is the manager of the Art and History Museum in Zalău, a town in northern Romania. She studied funeral rites as part of her PhD and explained to me that most people keep their pain to themselves, and that this often makes things words. The wailers can be effective if they are able to successfully normalise public displays of grieving, allowing "the mourning process to unfold".
"Nowadays, we have lost the will to mourn publicly," Bejinariu tells me. "Death has become increasingly taboo, crying has turned into a sign of weakness in a society that privileges strong individuals."
According to Bejinariu, young people aren't the only ones to blame for the fact that wailing isn't as popular as it used to be: "In an effort to become the only authority on death, the Church has tried to do away with what they believe is a pagan ritual, inconsistent with Christian teachings."
It's fairly clear that the Orthodox Church in Romuli is not a big fan of the wailers. The village priest, Father Nicolae Târgoveț, has made considerable efforts to stop this "un-Christian" practice, as well as other traditional rituals. When he arrived in Romuli four years ago, he says, he was shocked by a lot of the practices in the village.
"People were burying their dead with an actual cross at their feet," he remembers. "I thought the gravediggers had gotten drunk." The villagers told him the dead would need the cross on Judgment Day, to prop themselves up and rise again. "I couldn't believe the explanation," said Father Târgovet. "It took me about two years to convince them that it made no sense. So wailing isn't the only tradition I've had to push back on."
Târgoveț argues that wailing goes against Orthodox tradition because funerals are meant to encourage hope in the face of death by reminding people that their loved ones will be resurrected in the afterlife.
"During the sermon, I try to give people hope, and a belief that death is not the end of the road," he says. "And what do [the wailers] do? They come in and cry with these dramatic lyrics that do nothing but trouble the grieving family even more. Honestly, it's a whole, nonsensical theatre performance."
Târgoveț goes on to add that he has tried to appeal to the wailers many times, because, deep down, he knows they are women of faith. But they never listen, he claims.
"Is that what the priest said?" asks Anica Bulz, surprised. "He'll come around. Imagine not singing to our dead just because that's what the priest wants!"