The Life and Death of a Professional Mourner

The Life and Death of a Professional Mourner

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Zara Jones
Essex, England

Today was exhausting; I’m absolutely knackered. I had back-to-back auditions, with some bites of an apple in between. I could eat anything right now. Usually, when I’m working a funeral, I try not to eat the food that’s laid out — but sometimes the Key lime pie looks good. I resist.

My agent sends me these strange gigs sometimes, like to be a mourner at someone’s funeral. Companies like Rent-a-Mourner send actors to grieve at funerals and wakes in the U.K. At first, I was a bit displeased — I didn’t want to sink to that level. I mean, I don’t want to trick anyone, especially if they’re already in such a bad state. But after thinking about it for some time, I can’t say that I wasn’t intrigued. And I couldn’t truly say no either. I was in a dry spell at the time; I hadn’t gotten any callbacks or bookings for a while. As a starving artist, if you will, you take whatever comes along. I think it pays 40 pounds, or 50, or 60, for a few hours. If you’re going to cry anyways, that’s easy money.

I’ve done all sorts of acting work — commercials in London, musicals in Hampshire, C-list roles. I graduated from an acting school in London, got great head shots. Some people think it’s foul to fake a cry at a funeral. But I think our birth is very spectacular, in every sense of the word, and leaving the world is much less exciting. Why can’t our death be filled with just as much drama? I’m a thespian, and it’s simply a part of the job. I want to be professional, always. I wear a black dress, or a black blouse and a skirt that’s ankle-length. The key is to be modest. What you wear and how you act matters — the companies, they prep you on all of this.

They give us everything we need to know. I went to one poor man’s funeral and they told me what he did for work, all his friends, his hobbies, how many grandkids, etc. It’s just like having a stage persona. I was amazed at how many people pay for these services — they just want their mother or father to be loved, for the room to be filled. I’m not doing this full time or anything, but it’s one of the more fascinating gigs I’ve done.

Me, I don’t want a funeral. Personally, I want to be cremated and be done with it. Funerals are more expensive than people realize, thousands and thousands of pounds for one depressing day. At funerals, I don’t wail, I don’t sob dramatically. It’s much more subtle than that. You have to keep your composure, be proper, professional. Quietly mourn the dead. Don’t draw attention to yourself — that would be the worst thing to do at a wake. At the end of the day, it’s not about you. It’s about the man or the woman lying in the coffin — and the loved ones who are truly grieving.