The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die

Ashenberg, Katherine

When her daughter's fiance died suddenly, Katherine Ashenburg was surprised to see how, amid the expected ceremonies of modern mourning, her daughter intuitively re-created the traditional rituals of grief, even those of which she was entirely ignorant. Intrigued, Ashenburg began to explore the rich and endlessly inventive choreographies different cultures have devised to mark a universal and deeply felt condition. Her travels and researches explored familiar customs like the Jewish ritual of sitting shiva and Mexico's Day of the Dead and, further afield, introduced her to Hindu funeral pyres, the "merry wakes" of Newfoundland, and other unexpected customs. She also journeyed back in time to uncover the changing face of mourning from the Roman era to the present, paying particular attention to the hair bracelets, deathbed portraits, and elaborate rites of those mourners par excellence, the Victorians. Contemporary North American culture favors a way of mourning that is private and virtually invisible. But, as Ashenburg reveals, the grieving customs of the past were so integrated into daily life that ultimately they gave rise to public parks, department stores, and ready-to-wear clothing. Our keepsakes, prescribed bereavement garb, cemeteries, mourning etiquette, and ways of commiserating -- from wakes to Internet support groups -- remain clues to a society's most elemental beliefs and keys to personal consolation. One of the prices we pay for human attachment is that we grieve when a loved one dies, and every society has found ways to support and contain the mourner's grief. The Mourner's Dance uncovers the psychological wisdom embedded in these customs ancient and new, and the value of ritual in restoring selves, and communities, unraveled by loss. It is about how, in the wake of death, we go on living. Read More Show Less Editorial Reviews Publishers Weekly When her daughter's fianc died suddenly in early 1998, Canadian journalist Ashenburg was forced to confront contemporary Western culture's ambivalence about mourning-especially for the death of a young person. Lacking the rites and rituals that more traditional societies offer, we mourn as best we can; even so, we act in ways that bear close similarities to mourning rites across times and cultures. Into her loving and intimate account of her own family's grief, Ashenburg weaves descriptions of mourning rituals from a broad range of traditions. She explores postmortem treatment of the body; wakes, funeral ceremonies and prayers; burial and cremation; gender roles; and such customs as condolence letters and mourning clothes. Ashenburg's approach is thematic and selective: from reburial of bones in rural Greece to suttee (widow-burning) in India; from the tearing of clothes in Jewish culture to Scarlett O'Hara defiantly dancing in her widow's weeds in Gone with the Wind. Rich in such detail, the book overlookds other relevant subjects: it touches on collective mourning in England for British royalty, for example, but doesn't consider the ways in which entire societies have grieved for victims of the Shoah, the gulag or those in a mass grave. But though its treatment of anthropological themes may be selective, the book eloquently makes the point that mourning is a necessary and transformative experience. Because mourning is both personal and communal, it demands greater societal attention. (Sept. 18) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information. From the Publisher "The buoyant narrative is moving, exotic, outrageous... a potent, intensely human brew." -The Globe and Mail "A fascinating, intelligent, and (dare I say) witty account of one of our most basic and least understood needs: to come to terms with the end of a life that we loved." -Alberto Manguel "It's likely that for years to come, the recently bereaved will feel enormous gratitude to Katherine Ashenburg and her breathtakingly beautiful, staggeringly researched book."

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