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Hu Xinglian wails in grief at the funeral of a man she's never met. The show also included a comedy skit and belly dancing.

Tang Ming/The Globe and Mail

The woman in flowing white robes collapses at the foot of Gong Wenhua's coffin, wailing her grief. "Father, you gave me life. You supported the family with little income. You loved your family and your daughter so much," she shouts between body-shaking sobs.

Then she lurches forward, crawling along a tattered red carpet toward the makeshift shrine at the end of the funeral tent. As she approaches the dead man, her voice rises to a heartbroken wail. "Merciless God took you away! I was not an obedient enough daughter. In the next life please let me be your daughter again. It is so painful that you are leaving us!"

Despite her angst, the woman in white isn't a grieving relative or distraught friend of Mr. Gong, an unemployed cook who died recently at the age of 47 from liver cancer. In fact, Hu Xinglian didn't even know the dead man's name until a few hours before she was singing his praises and screaming her anger at the sky.

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Ms. Hu, who goes by the stage name of Dingding Mao, is the doyenne of the funeral criers of Chongqing, a small but rapidly growing industry of professional mourners who specialize in making sure a loved one's funeral is an unforgettable affair.

After speaking on behalf of Mr. Gong's daughter, Ms. Hu later takes on the persona of his younger sister, Gong Wenxue, and bawls her eyes out while reading out a letter she wrote to her dead brother. "Please go peacefully," Ms. Hu sobs as Ms. Gong quietly watches from a few metres away, dabbing gently at her own eyes. "Your daughter is my daughter. I will treat her well."

When the crying is over, Ms. Hu and her six-person troupe - the Chongqing Star River Band - quickly move to pick up the mood. First one of her male entourage croons a couple of some seemingly out-of-place pop songs about love, and then a young woman in Tibetan traditional clothing performs a prayer dance. But it's all just to buy some time for Ms. Hu to change into green fatigues and a drawn-on mustache for a slapstick one-woman show about Japanese soldiers in the Second World War mispronouncing Chinese names. Quickly, the sniffles in the funeral tent are replaced by howls of laughter.

The rest of the show drifts even further away from its sombre beginnings. The second hour of the funeral kicks off with a busty female member of the Star River Band performing a Middle Eastern belly dance, her raised arms repeatedly smacking into a bare light bulb hanging from the top of the tent. Most eyes are on the young woman's gyrating midriff; only a few still occasionally drift to the coffin behind her and the photograph of a meekly smiling Mr. Gong hung over it.

It's like an Irish wake held at a circus. Though Ms. Hu says she's aware of similar performances being done in other parts of China and as far away as India and Singapore, most of her rivals are in the Yangtze River-straddling metropolis of Chongqing and surrounding Sichuan province, a region known almost as much for its fun-loving people as its fiery food.

"This is the culture of Chongqing," explains Yang Daokai, keyboardist and backup singer in the Star River Band. "The dancing and singing helps those who are still living to get over their feelings of depression and sadness. Some people, they don't know how to let out their feelings. Our performance guides them a little bit into their emotions."

Ms. Hu says she started the funeral-criers-for-hire industry almost by accident 18 years ago. She was then working days as a sales clerk in a department store and nights in a restaurant, her dream of becoming a professional singer seemingly crushed when a singing company rejected her as too short, at just over five feet, to earn a living on stage.

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So when a colleague at the department store asked her years later whether she would sing at a funeral for the meagre sum of 20 yuan, she jumped at the chance and poured her trapped artist's soul into the performance. The next day, the phone rang with an offer for her to sing at another funeral.

Funeral singing was only a source of side income until 2003, when Ms. Hu was laid off from the department store. Divorced, and needing to find a new way to provide for her son and aging mother, she called up some of the other performers she had encountered at funerals and cobbled together the Star River Band. They expanded their repertoire to include skits and dancing, and Ms. Hu took on her stage name, which means "dragonfly" in the local dialect of Chinese.

"I chose Dingding Mao because a dragonfly flies here and there, between villages. I'll go anywhere people call me to sing," she explained in an interview at the gaudily furnished three-room apartment she shares with two dogs and her 29-year-old son, who is pursuing a more conventional musical career.

Ms. Hu says she has played at the funerals of the mother of one of Chongqing's top Communist Party officials - which, she groans, was a three-day affair that drained her of every tear - and the mother of a local underworld boss. But most of the funerals at which she performs are for people like Mr. Gong, ordinary, working-class Chinese whose families decided to give them a big sendoff.

She and her troupe almost never know who the dead person is until they arrive at the location. Monday evening, she spent a scant 30 minutes sitting with Ms. Gong's immediate family, trying to glean enough about the dead man to give her something to grieve with.

"Did he have any achievements?" she asks Mr. Gong's relatives as they gather around a plastic table an hour before the funeral is set to begin.

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"Nothing great," his sister replies.

"Was he an honest man?" Ms. Hu prods.

Her family agrees that he was, and Ms. Hu starts scribbling notes.

Everything that follows has a price. A red Duo-Tang folder that Ms. Hu carries to each funeral explains her brand of crying for the deceased costs 300 yuan, or about $45, for each person whose grief she screams out. A "heartfelt story" costs 100 yuan. Almost anything else - Ms. Hu says she's satisfied requests for everything from lingerie shows to acrobats - also can be arranged.

Most nights, the real money is made after the funeral, when Star River Band takes requests at 20 yuan per song. By the time the mourning, singing and dancing for Mr. Gong is over, much of the working-class suburb in which he lived his final months has come into the streets to see what the hubbub is about.

The requests for songs come from excited children, who imitate the performers' dance steps, and stout, old ladies perched on stools, as well as teenage boys watching the sometimes risqué show through tears in the tarp behind the coffin. The music and dancing carry on nearly four hours after the funeral began.

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"He would have liked this," Gong Wenxue, the dead man's sister, says. "Because when he was alive, he liked to have fun."

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