The Mourner's Dance
Katherine Ashenburg
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Buy *The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die* online

The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die
Katherine Ashenburg
North Point Press
336 pages
September 2004
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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This scholarly examination of mourning traditions through the ages was written by Katherine Ashenburg, a journalist and lecturer, who was moved to investigate the rituals of mourning after the death of her daughter’s fiancé. The Mourner’s Dance is scholarly without being heavy-handed, intellectual while comforting. Copy on the back of the book informs the reader that this is not meant to be a self-help book, and it is not. The text does offer a comprehensive look at mourning rituals, how they have changed over time, and how, in the modern, “enlightened” age of the twenty-first century, we have lost much of our ability to deal with death.

Ashenburg uses her family’s experience with the unexpected death of Scott, her daughter Hannah’s fiancé, weaving this story in and out of her larger study of rituals through the ages. She notes that in 1998, when Scott died, there were – and still are – no rituals or protocols for dealing with the death of one so young. Many modern-day mourners don’t have an extensive outlet for their grief as they would have had in earlier times. Funerals have become homogenized, bodies generally unseen by mourners and many times not even present in a coffin or urn at the funeral itself. Our ancestors would be astonished by how far removed modern society has become from death.

In her exploration of mourning, Ashenburg examines Jewish, Catholic and Protestant traditions, mourning etiquette, wakes and other customs. From the time when the deceased was laid out by family in the most formal room of the house, to the modern development of funeral parlors, to the culturally specific practice of widow burning (suttee), Ashenburg’s book details nearly every imaginable aspect of mourning through the ages.

Death was once very much a part of everyday life; families would frequently request death portraits, and eventually photographs of their deceased, often with living family members. The deceased was generally never alone from the time of death until the burial. In the late nineteenth century, traditions changed, and death became the mysterious thing it is today: the deceased is laid out at a funeral home, embalmed or cremated, and the death has become less “hands on” for the family. With the advent of funeral parlors came also the rise of large, pastoral cemeteries, where the dead were buried far away from the traditional village churchyard or family home.

This is an insightful book, well-written but not overly sentimental. Readers searching for a self-help message to assist them with their grief will not find it in these pages; nevertheless, The Mourner’s Dance is an excellent resource for anyone, recently bereaved or not, as a help to understand their own and society’s reactions to death through the ages. This book will perhaps guide the reader to a healthier understanding of the process of living and coping with death. While this is more scholarly than a self-help book, the reader will find in these pages encouragement to find one’s own rituals and remembrances to assist in coping with the aftermath of loss. The Mourner’s Dance helps the reader to better understand death so that they may better live life. It is a most worthy read.

© 2004 by Virginia Williams for

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