Taiwan's most famous professional mourner
- 26 February 2013
- From the section Magazine
Crying on command isn't easy, but Liu Jun-Lin is hired to do it every day, at funerals for people she never knew. She's Taiwan's best-known professional mourner - a time-honoured tradition in her country that may be dying out.
Crying for a living is controversial, seen by some as the commercialisation of grief, but mourners like Liu say their profession has a long history in Taiwan, where according to tradition the deceased needs a big, loud send-off to cross smoothly into the afterlife.
"When a loved one dies, you grieve so much that when it finally comes time for the funeral, you don't have any tears left," says Liu.
"How are you going to suddenly switch your mood to show all that sorrow?"
Liu is there to help strike the right tone.
In earlier times, daughters often left home to work in other cities, and transport was limited, she explains. If someone in the family died, they often couldn't make it home in time for the funeral, so the family would hire what's known as a "filial daughter" to lead the family in mourning.
Traditional Taiwanese funerals are elaborate, combining sombre mourning with louder, up-tempo entertainment to fire up grieving spirits.
For the entertainment portion, 30-year-old Liu and her Filial Daughters Band wear bright costumes, and perform almost-acrobatic dance numbers. They do the splits, back-bends, and somersaults. Her brother, A Ji, plays along on traditional stringed instruments.
Later, Liu will change into a white hood and robe, and crawl to the coffin on her hands and knees. There, in time to her brother's organ playing, she performs her signature wail.
Her sounds are long and drawn out, somewhere between crying and singing. At home, she demonstrates a typical wail for me. "My dear father, your daughter misses you so much!" she cries. "Please, please come back!"
I ask Liu how she manages to manufacture tears at will. But she insists all her crying is real. "Every funeral you go to, you have to feel this family is your own family, so you have to put your own feelings in it," she says. "When I see so many people grieving, I get even sadder."
With her long eyelashes, dimples, and sing-song voice, Liu seems much younger than her 30 years. At home, she wears an orange jogging suit and sparkly nail polish. I'd sooner believe she was a nursery school teacher than a professional in the grief business.
Funeral director Lin Zhenzhang, who has worked alongside Liu for years, says that's a big part of her appeal.
"Traditionally, we think of this as a job for women a generation older," he says. "But Jun-Lin is so young and beautiful. That contrast makes people very curious."
Liu's grandmother and mother were both professional mourners.
As a young child, she would play outside the funeral homes while her mother worked. At home, she mimicked her mother and older sister as they rehearsed.
"I'd grab any object and pretend it was a microphone," she says. "Then I'd pretend there was a coffin and crawl to it."
Both of Liu's parents died when she was young, leaving her grandmother with three children to bring up, and a heavy burden of debt. So the grandmother pulled Liu and her older brother into the family trade. Liu was just 11 years old.
She had to get up before dawn each morning to rehearse, and often had to miss school for work. When she did go to class, other children would make fun of her job and the strange costumes she wore.
"They'd say, that's so weird, so ugly, you look so stupid!" she says. "I felt really inferior and thought other kids didn't like me."
Performing wasn't much easier. Stigmas around death make many people look down on mourners.
"Sometimes before we'd start the performance, the grieving family would be very sour when they talked to us," says Liu. "But after we performed, they'd cry and say thank you, thank you, thank you!"
That's when Liu realised the real purpose of her job. "This work can really help people release their anger, or help them say the things they're afraid to say out loud," she says. "For people who are afraid to cry, it helps too, because everyone cries together."
Mentored by her grandmother, a tiny woman in wire-framed glasses and a tight perm, Liu trained rigorously as a performer, and developed the shrewd business skills that have lifted her family from poverty to prosperity. Liu and her siblings each have their own house, and their company charges up to $600 (£380) for a performance.
But it's a business in decline, says Lin Zhenzhang, as the economic downturn and simpler modern tastes turn people away from lavish traditional funerals,
"The tradition of professional mourners is going to slowly be eliminated," he says. "So people like Jun-Lin are going to have to find a way to reinvent their profession, or find new sources of revenue."
This hasn't escaped Liu. That's why she has recruited some 20 female assistants. They're young, good-looking women in black and white uniforms, who help funeral directors with embalming and memorial services, and they've brought Liu a lot of attention.
"There was no-one else doing this in northern Taiwan, and it ended up being more successful than I'd thought," says Liu. "Within this industry, I know I need to find niches that no-one else is exploring."
No matter what, Liu says, she won't ever leave the family trade.
"This is something my grandmother struggled to build up from the ground," she says.
"I have to teach others what she taught me, and carry on her tradition."