Singing for the Dead, a Woman Finds Her Purpose



Every year or so, a version of the same article will come across my social media feeds, having gone freshly viral among a cohort of Westerners still unfamiliar with the “odd job” of professional wailers, usually from China, who are paid to cry at funerals. The pieces explain that this is a common custom with ancient roots, and the ensuing commentary is usually gobsmacked or overly admiring: how strange, how clever for a community to help one another express grief; how weird that there are people who can’t cry naturally.

While I’ve never personally witnessed a funeral crier, my family comes from the parts of China that still employ this and other local traditions that have endured even as their young people have moved abroad. For example, my American husband finds it confusing that I don’t know the given names of my extended family members despite my closeness to them; he can’t understand why a 36-year-old woman still refers to her friends’ parents as “Soft Tofu” or “M.I.T. Grandpa.”

Observed through a Western lens, this preference for pet names and terms of kinship can seem juvenile, even disrespectful. But for Chinese people with roots in small villages, this is simply the way life is, and has been. The lack of given names is just one of the cultural dissonances that Wenyan Lu employs throughout her debut novel, “The Funeral Cryer,” named for an anonymous, impoverished woman in contemporary rural China whose job has caused her to be ostracized (a component of this tradition that most viral articles fail to mention).

As with every pivotal decision she makes throughout the book, no one forces her to take this job tainted with “the stink of the dead.” Instead, a series of circumstances pushes her forward with stoic inevitability: Her work in a married-couple comedy duo becomes obsolete in the age of smartphones; her husband’s pride prevents him from raising pigs or chickens, or even grocery shopping; his laziness keeps him from finding work. She also knows that her voice is good, and that crying comes easily to her.

These events are neither categorically good nor bad, but each moment sees her losing more of her sense of possibility and self-worth. In describing each day and her observations of it, Lu’s prose is unromantic and unadorned, giving the chapters an ascetic, almost nightmarish quality where the protagonist retreads the same topics — her sagging breasts, what she’s cooking for dinner, her husband smoking in front of the television while calling her stupid — in endless rumination and ritual.

“Happiness wasn’t something we talked about in our village,” she says. “As long as we were not too unhappy, life was normal.” The monotony, inertia and loneliness that confine her life apply to everyone, but her amplified experience of these qualities as the area’s funeral crier ironically allows her flashes of remarkable insight into the intractability of daily existence.

The crier’s sole treat is her trips to the barbershop, the only amenity in the village. There, she has her hair styled before jobs and indulges in taking a little pride in her appearance. But more than that, she goes to bask in the presence of the barber, the only person who “never said that I brought him bad luck.”

Her budding friendship with him disrupts the ruinous sameness that has dulled her awareness, opening her up to new ideas that feel as fresh and rare as the bamboo shoots that grow in her favorite grove. Why can’t a woman in her 50s wear tight jeans? What can new curtains do for her mood? Is pleasure a luxury reserved only for those who’ve achieved something remarkable, or could it be “the simplest thing, like a dumpling with some delicious filling”?

The funeral crier’s observations are matter-of-fact and naïve, profound in their blankness. This may strike some readers as wry and self-deprecating, and the cultural dissonance as purposefully drawn out. But those more familiar with the dogma of rural China may recognize the smallness of thought, life, ambition and self-image as tragic, not humorous. Lu occasionally asks for this confusion by over-explaining what should be mundane Chinese concepts to a non-Chinese audience and leaving other more quixotic ones, such as the naming conventions, ambiguous.