Whatever Happened to Wailing?

Wailing: a long, loud high-pitched cry as of grief or pain.

It is my understanding that wailing at funerals used to be common among many cultures throughout the world.  It still occurs in some places, but seems to be an endangered tradition.  I think that is a shame.  I remember when I first learned about the custom, probably as a teenager, I thought it was very strange.  Now, with a little more life experience under my belt, I think it is beautiful.

Imagine with me for a moment the last funeral you attended…very quiet, right?  There likely was some crying, but most people these days are ashamed to cry and try to hide their grief even at a funeral.  Well-meaning friends and family, tell the bereaved things like: “He’s in a better place.”  Or “at least she went quickly.”  The goal seems to be to cheer the person and help them not cry.  I wonder though, is this cultural tradition of hiding our emotions healthy?

I have been thinking a lot lately about the New Testament story of Lazarus’ death.  When Jesus arrived he found Mary and Martha grieving, probably wailing.  He didn’t offer them platitudes.  Even though he knew that in a few moments he would raise Lazarus from the dead, he didn’t try to comfort them.  He felt their grief and wept with them.  I am so touched by that.  I think of wailing in much the same way–the bereaved joined by family and friends, sharing their pain together instead of hiding it and dealing with it alone.

Of course, I am not just thinking about funerals, but how we share one another’s grief at any time.  I would like to share something from The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens. They were discussing Job.

You will recall that Job was suffering some great difficulties, including an illness so severe and disfiguring, that when his friends came to help, they did not recognize him.  When they did realize who he was, they sat with him for seven days and nights without saying a word.  Of this Terryl and Fiona Givens say:

“For a full week Job’s friends do what genuine friends are called to do: their actions seem simple enough but they are sublimely great. They ‘suffer with’ they participate in Job’s anguish.  This human capacity to suffer at the anguish of a loved one is an imperfect shadow of the grief a perfect being feels when His creations put themselves beyond His healing embrace.”

There is so much in that short story and short quote that I love.  Job’s friends actions were “sublimely great” they didn’t try to solve his problems or cheer him up, they just sat with him and suffered with him.  Beautiful.  And then when the Givens make the comparison that God feels an even greater pain when we turn away from Him…does He grieve when I turn away from Him, not from sin, but from my anguish?  The Givens seem to be suggesting that He does.  I can’t think of more healing words.

I wish that in our culture we could put away the platitudes and the advice, and relearn the art of “suffering with”.  I even think, I wouldn’t mind if my friends wailed with me a bit.

Photo attribution: George Hodan



  1. I love the example of Job and his friends. Yes, we've lost that sensitivity and ability to just let each other FEEL what we're feeling. Sometimes that validation of that pain is all that is needed to begin healing.I will gladly wail with you anytime you need it.

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