Sad, moving – sometimes painfully comical
- Book: The Funeral Cryer
- Location: China
- Author: Wenyan Lu
The Funeral Cryer by Wenyan Lu is a sad, moving and sometimes painfully comical book. The unnamed funeral cryer is a social outcast due to her profession, which is the traditional role of leading the mourning at funerals. She is surrounded by death, which means that her fellow villagers shun her, believing she will bring them bad luck. With a useless, unemployed and critical husband, she has little option but to continue her work. She is a victim of coercive control, but the worm is about to turn…
The book is a fascinating insight into contemporary village life in rural Northeast China. Villagers find themselves caught between the old traditions and the prospect of modern reform. The funeral cryer’s generation keep to the traditional roles of men and women, meaning that they aren’t poster girls for the women’s liberation movement. The funeral cryer herself agonises over replacing her ancient underwear but burning her bra isn’t foremost in her mind while making the decision.
There’s a strong feeling of inertia in the early part of the book, where it seems that the whole idea of plot has been forgotten. It soon becomes apparent that the lack of change is the whole point. It is well worth persevering, encouraged by the funeral cryer’s waspish comments and wry humour. As the story unfolds, we witness the funeral cryer gradually overcoming her self-doubt and taking steps to change her circumstances.
Death, which is a taboo subject in most cultures, including China, is main theme. For the funeral cryer, it has become part of her daily life and she is numb to it (mostly). There’s a paradox, in that her profession is to perform grief, but she holds all her emotions in check. She is greatly concerned about appearances and her embarrassment, social awkwardness and humiliation feature a lot. For example, she feels guilty that she wasn’t born in Shanghai, which would have allowed her daughter to have residency there, which is obviously outside her control and therefore ridiculous.
Her life is a contradiction. She never tells anyone what she wants, so she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t dare to look good in case people think badly of her, because married women shouldn’t look good, and yet looking good makes her feel good.
Although it is set in rural China, western women will recognise and empathise with the funeral cryer’s situation and her feelings. Anyone who has felt lonely, isolated from their family and community will identify with her. Anyone who has been put down unjustly will weep for her and admire her silent resilience.
The Funeral Cryer is a book that is memorable for all the right reasons. It is unusual, insightful and emotionally engaging but there’s just the right amount of optimism and humour. A definite “to read”.