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

Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 2002 / Vintage, 2010

One of the prices we pay for human attachment is that we mourn when a loved one dies. Every society has devised poignant ways to express and support the mourner’s grief, from Irish wakes to the wearing of special clothes to Internet mourning scrapbooks and chat groups. Inspired by the homemade customs her daughter invented when her fiancé died, Katherine Ashenburg’s The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die looks at the rich choreography of mourning rituals and practices through the ages and around the world. It asks, how do we mourn in the modern world, when so many of the customs that made up the mourner’s dance have disappeared?

One of’s Best 25 Books for 2002, one of the Globe and Mail‘s Best 100 Books of 2002 (an international list), finalist for the $15,000 Pearson Nonfiction Prize 2003, and finalist for the $20,000 Trillium Award (best book published in Ontario), 2003.

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Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York. Photo: Frank Gillespie

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Prologue to The Mourner’s Dance

During the Christmas holidays of 1997, my two daughters and I went on a long-planned trip to Vietnam. Hannah, my younger daughter, had just become engaged and she wore a bright sapphire-and-diamond ring. Talk of the wedding and Hannah’s future threaded in and around our travels. Fingering Vietnamese silk in tiny shops, we imagined her dress. We planned menus and counted guests. I remember joking in Hue, as we walked through the splendid tomb garden of a Vietnamese king, that this would be a fine spot for a wedding reception.

In early January Hannah returned to medical school in Vancouver and her sister Sybil went back to her job in Hong Kong. I stayed in Asia for an additional week. Returning to my hotel one furiously wet night in Shanghai, I found an urgent message from Hannah. Scott, her fiancé, had been in a car accident in Seattle. He had spinal chord damage; if he ever regained consciousness, he would be a quadriplegic. When I arrived at the Hong Kong airport the next morning, on my way to Seattle, Sybil met me with the news that Scott was going to die.

Like many Westerners at the turn of the 21st century, my family and I had not had much to do with death. In their twenties, my daughters had four living grandparents. Hannah had been to only two funerals in her life. My grandparents, aunts and uncles had been buried after long lives, with minimal formality. This was our first experience with sudden death at a young age.

Scott died on January 10, about an hour after I reached the hospital. He never regained consciousness. His funeral was held three days later, in the beautiful modern embrace of the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University, the place where Scott and Hannah had wanted to be married. In many ways, the funeral was a harrowing parody of what would have been their wedding. Hannah was almost always surrounded by Sybil and her three college roommates, who would have been her bridesmaids. More than 200 friends and family crowded the chapel. Hannah’s ring sparkled on the lectern as she reminisced about Scott and their six years together. Scott’s mother spoke too, and his brother Stephan, who was to be his best man. Afterward, there was a luncheon for everyone at a restaurant, with an open microphone. Dozens of young people walked up to tell funny stories about Scott. It was dreadful, and ineffably comforting.

Once the funeral was over and family and friends dispersed, I assumed that custom and ceremony had had their day. Now we would be left to mourn in the modern way – utterly privately and spontaneously, in an unscheduled and mostly unmarked grief, unconstrained by repetition or expectation. This seemed so obvious that it never occurred to me to think of it as a deprivation. But I reckoned without Hannah.

I used to tease Hannah by telling her that when it came to much of Western civilization, she was an intelligent stranger. What I meant was that she preferred playing the piano or talking with friends to reading. A student of music and science, she had little interest in history. She had finished very few Victorian novels. And yet, as I talked to her every day in the weeks after Scott’s death, something began to impress itself on me. All by herself, as if instinctively, she was designing practices that more traditional cultures had institutionalized as part of their mourning process. Some of her handmade customs involved Scott’s belongings or mementoes of him. Others involved carving out times and places in which to remember Scott in a particular, recurring way. Just as older societies paid close attention to the mourner’s retreat from society, Hannah wrote the rules for her own balance of seclusion and company.

In the midst of sadness and worry for her, I wondered about the source of her observances. Other than a few time-honoured holiday customs, we are not especially rich in ritual as a family. True, Hannah’s childhood had included the modernized and somewhat diluted ceremonies of the Catholic Church, but she seemed to have left that part of her life without much lingering connection.

Traditional mourning customs almost always involve a timeline, a date when the widow moves from black to grey clothes, when Kaddish no longer needs to be said daily, when a party may be attended. Hannah too had at least one date in her mind. A month or so after Scott’s death, I had a dream that she moved her engagement ring from her left hand to her right. Telling her about the dream, I finished almost apologetically, “I guess that was a bit premature.” She said immediately, “I’m thinking about September 6th.” Their wedding had been scheduled for September 5th. She had already decided to wear her ring on her left hand for the full period of her engagement, then move it. I remember thinking that the Victorians, those expert mourners about whom Hannah knew almost nothing, would approve of this girl.

About the same time, I had dinner and spent the night with three friends in the country. We had already talked long and well about the events of the last month, and I was feeling no particular wish to discuss them again. We were relaxed and companionable. After dinner, our hosts put plaintive Irish music on the CD player and the other guest, warmhearted and slightly tipsy, began to cry. I was suddenly, uncharacteristically, furious. How dare she give herself to self-indulgent tears over the plight of unknown Irishmen who had died 150 years ago, when Scott had died four weeks ago that day? When the host prepared to put on another melancholy CD, I announced that I was going for a walk in the village. I knew that I was being unfair, that the weeper had proved her deeply sympathetic friendship time and time again, that my friends were simply not in mourning, and there was no reason they should be. But that evening showed me that, for the time being, I was on a different track.

A hundred years ago in a similar situation, I would have been at home, wearing black crepe and dull jet jewelry, receiving only a few close friends who would have asked about my daughter in hushed tones. I didn’t really want to repeat a Victorian mourner’s seclusion, but now I understood the point of a temporary separation from a world that could not possibly care about our loss in the same way.

Just as I saw the point of Hannah’s practices. Not everyone did. A few male friends looked dubious and the word “morbid” was probably broached. But I saw a young woman surrounded by friends and coping with the most difficult year of medical school, who looked surprisingly surefooted when it came to mourning. Once, when I uttered the usual platitude about time healing, she corrected me crisply, “Time doesn’t heal. Grieving heals.” I had no idea if that was true, or if Hannah would ever be happy again, but I clung to that formula.

At first, I was interested in how naturally Hannah’s homegrown practices had welled up in her, and how similar they were to age-old ways. More and more, as I thought about mourning customs, many of them made psychological sense to me. Others that made no immediate sense, or that repelled me, were nonetheless intriguing.

It seemed right that individual grief should be contained and supported by traditional practices and rituals, and by a community with shared attitudes about loss and recovery. But I also had questions. How did the customs comfort people? Did they comfort people? Why did women bear so much of the responsibility for mourning? What has happened now that so many customs are things of the past? Are contemporary support groups, Internet mourning sites and shelves of self-help books about grieving filling in for old practices?

A mixture of motives – curiosity, the desire to grasp what Hannah was going through, a hope of lightening or perhaps distancing my own sorrow, to name only the ones I understood – led me on a rich, improvised journey. It was a pilgrimage among the mourners, talking with them, reading about those in the past and in faraway places, travelling to Japan, Mexico and around North America to see the visible traces of grief: the days of the dead, the keepsakes, the ceremonies, the mourning clothes, the graveyards. Because it was Hannah’s practices that had piqued my interest, I started, not with the inner feelings of the bereaved, but with their actions – the mourner’s dance, as I came to think of it.

There is an powerful expression of grief in Margaret Alexiou’s book, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition. A mother whose child has died cries, “I will not tear my hair, nor will I rend my cloak, nor will I scratch my flesh with my nails, nor will I start up the dirge, nor will I call up the mourning women, nor will I shut myself in darkness that the air might lament with me, nor will I await the comforters, nor will I prepare the funeral bread. For such things belong to vulgar mothers, who are mothers only in the flesh.”

What lingers in my mind about that long-ago mother’s lament is how economically she sums up the components of “mourning” while insisting that she will have no part of it. The seclusion, the dirge, the visitors, the making and sharing of funeral food, even the rending of cloth and the tearing of hair – those same elements recur uncannily in so many cultures over so many years that they must have spoken to something in the human condition.

And yet most of the practices in the Greek mother’s list are now things of the past. The 20th century, in the West, saw the dismantling of most of our mourning customs, and for some decades it really seemed that mourning, in the sense of outward observances, had died. People still grieved, of course, but as privately and invisibly as possible. An ancient, ceremonious dance, with its own rhythm and momentum, looked to be extinct.

Now that judgment seems premature. Many old customs have vanished, but new ones appear, and traditional ones return in new guises. The outpouring of flowers, poems, teddy bears and homemade signs after such recent tragedies as the death of Princess Diana, the Oklahoma City bombing and the destruction of the World Trade Centre suggests that many people do want to mark loss publicly and emotionally. Ironically, it seems easier to do that when the dead are strangers, because we still have so many inhibitions about marking personal losses. But that too may be shifting.

In place of the one traditional way our forebears followed, now there is an array of choices for the mourner – bewildering for many, no doubt, and promising for others. When, in the absence of cultural cues, Hannah mourned Scott’s death, she choreographed her own steps. The mourner’s dance is changing, but it persists.

Praise for The Mourner’s Dance

“A wonderful book … to which I have referred numerous people. Please know that I very much appreciated your engaging writing style, and the beautiful way you outlined the diversity of paths undertaken after the loss of a loved one. You provide such a depth of information, while doing it in such a way that the reader is not even aware of being educated simultaneously in cultures, rituals, psychology, sociology, religion, and anthropology. You truly are a gifted writer and educator. Your book is a contribution to thanatology, for sure.” — Therese Rando, therapist, director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss, and author of How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies

“Such an elegant, deeply informative text. The Mourner’s Dance weaves rich scholarship through the homespun of family history, folk tradition, and manifest humanity. In a way that Jessica Mitford never could, Ashenburg understands the verities of good grief and good funerals and why, to deal with death, we must deal with our dead. Free of the warm-fuzzies, full of uncommon wisdom — here is a gift outright to anyone who reads and breathes.” — Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking

“A fascinating, intelligent, moving, and 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

“Kathering Ashenburg’s The Mourner’s Dance will not sink you into sadness. The buoyant narrative is moving, exotic, outrageous … A serenditpitous tour of anthropology, cultural history, psychology and personal reflection … It’s a pleasure to accompany Ashenburg.” — Keith Nickson, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“Compassionate and compelling, The Mourner’s Dance is a finely researched and beautifully expressed exploration of the many different paths that we take when we make the unavoidable journey through the territory of grief.” — Jane Urquhart

“Elegantly written … Death comes to everyone, and the survivors go on living. How we cope goes straight to the heart of being human. The Mourner’s Dance — learned, often moving and even consoling — is a superb survey.” — Brian Bethune, Maclean’s

“I found your book very graceful and fascinating.” — Caryn James, reporter, The New York Times

“An intricate tapestry that maps out the emotional landscape of grief. Whether [Ashenburg] is retelling a stark Buddhist parable or describing the hot scratchy horrors of the 19th-century black crape, The Mourner’s Dance is a richly informative and compassionate book.” — David Colterjohn, The Vancouver Sun

“The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die is actually a book very full of life. Beautifully written and surprisingly hard to put down, it takes a wide-ranging look at death customs, showing peculiarity, individuality and universality in human responses to the loss of someone. Although I enjoy a walk in a cemetery, I was surprised to find this book so compelling. Katherine Ashenburg caught my attention and held it … Ashenburg is one of the very skilled practitioners of the literary movement called “creative nonfiction” or “literary journalism.” — Maureen E. Daly, Catholic News Service