"Call for the Wailing Women"
Making Space for Grief in the Season of Remembrance
By Christie Gilfeather
This season of the church year is weighty. From All saints and All Souls to remembrance Sunday, we spend a great deal of time reflecting on the realities of death and suffering.
As well as being weighty, it is also an unusual time, because these are things which are usually given little space in Britain today. Whereas other global contexts are rich in ways to honour a lost loved one and acknowledge grief, those of us who find ourselves in predominantly white and middle class spaces are suffering from something which we might refer to as "death poverty".
We are poor in ritual and poor in language when it comes to thinking about death and engaging with those who are grieving.
We are poor in ritual and poor in language when it comes to thinking about death and engaging with those who are grieving. But this does not need to be the case – our scriptures are full of tools to help us engage with mourning and to meet those who are grieving in the midst of their pain.
In Jeremiah 9:17, the voice of God says "call for the mourning women to come, send for the skilled women". Who are these women and what role do they serve? And more than that, what do they have to teach us about the role of the Church in public grief?
In the ancient world, mourning was a communal activity. The mourning women of Jeremiah 9 would have gathered together in the event of a death in order to lead the people around them in mourning. They would sing songs, or "dirges" (v 18), and cry aloud in mourning over the dead.
In doing so, they enabled others to process their own grief, providing a space in which they could join their voices together in a unified expression of mourning. These women served a deeply significant role in society as recognised facilitators of mourning.
We might think of them as something akin to a ‘guild’ of mourners, which is supported by the way in which the text calls them ‘wise’. Like groups of professional mourners, there also existed groups of professional wise women in ancient Israel. We see them in texts like 2 Samuel 14 in which the Wise Woman of Tekoa councils David to bring about reconciliation between his sons. Like the mourning women, the wise women were skilled in rhetoric and able to provide for the needs of those around them. The common nature of the two groups shows us that there is a deep wisdom in mourning.
The Church is better placed than any other institution to facilitate communal grief.
The Church is better placed than any other institution to facilitate communal grief. In our death-poor world, there are many who would prefer to ignore death and avoid the mess inherent in grieving our losses. But we cannot afford to live like this – especially in light of the scale of death brought about by the pandemic. Can the Church take its cues from the wailing women of Jeremiah, and be wise enough to facilitate grief?
Perhaps we won’t sing dirges over our congregations, but we can make a conscious effort to take forward the themes of remembrance that have informed our worship in this season, and make space for grief throughout the year. With initiatives like Grave Talk and the emergence of Death Cafes in towns and cities across the nation, there has never been more ways to engage. The church can learn a great deal from these kinds of projects but it also important that we make the most of our own traditions, and especially our scriptures, to guide us in our offering of hope and care to the world around us.
About the author
Christie Gilfeather is a Ridley ordinand and PhD student at the University of Cambridge researching the figure of the widow.
Every other week she pens something about texts that have appeared in the Church of England lectionary, to help in your reading and interpreting of the Hebrew Bible. She shares insights from biblical studies in a straightforward way, highlighting particular things of interest along the way.
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