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About The Author

Katherine AshenburgKatherine Ashenburg

Katherine Ashenburg is a journalist, lecturer, and regular contributor to The New York Times. She lives in Toronto.

photo: Jenna Muirhead-Warren

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EXCERPT

1 THE BUSTLE IN A HOUSE

The Bustle in a House

The Morning after Death

Is solemnest of industries

Enacted upon Earth—

—Emily Dickinson

A person dies, let us say a man. Those watching at his deathbed try to control their grief until they are sure that he is dead. They know it is wrong to distract him while he is at the serious business of "giving up the ghost." Then the watchers begin to weep and lament. A close relative shuts his eyes and mouth and arranges his limbs.

Those entrusted with the task of preparing the body, usually the same sex as the dead, wash it carefully with warm water, sometimes with herbs and ointments, and dress it in his last outfit. Then, laid out on a table or bed or in a coffin, the dead man is displayed in bedroom, kitchen, or parlor, with lighted candles nearby, often with a bowl of water and a sprig from a particular plant. His feet point to the door of the room.

Friends and family gather to condole with the bereaved and to keep watch over the body, which must never be left alone. They may touch him, kiss him, or sprinkle holy water on him. They may cry or pray and remember the dead man quietly; they may drink and carouse; they may do all of the above. Finally, when the prescribed time has elapsed and all is in order, he is carried to a leave-taking ceremony, and the disposal of his body takes place.

This man, allowing for minor local modifications, might have lived in Greece in the third century B.C., in czarist Russia, in eighteenth-century France, in ancient Rome, in Renaissance Florence, or in nineteenth-century Sicily. He might have lived in the twentieth century in the Bara Islands in Madagascar, in the Central Caroline Islands in the Pacific, in Palestine, Newfoundland, Portugal, or Japan. Until very recently, there was a remarkable similarity about the things people in far-flung times and places did in the first hours and days after death.

Not only were the practices similar; they were so deeply ingrained that even the weakest members of a society knew what to do. John Galt’s novel Annals of the Parish is a closely observed account of rural Scotland in the eighteenth century. In it, the Reverend Mr. Balwhidder records the behavior of a feebleminded woman, Meg Gaffaw, when her mother dies. Begging a shroud from her neighbors and straightening the body "in a wonderful decent manner," Meg places a dish holding earth and salt on the corpse, symbols of mortality and immortality that were already considered old-fashioned in her time. When the minister calls, she solemnly presents him with the customary water and bread, and he reflects, "It was a consternation to everybody how the daft creature had learnt all the ceremonies."

When the same traditions crop up again and again, and when even a "daft creature had learnt all the ceremonies," it suggests there is something critical about this short period. It is a time of shock, even when the death has been long expected; a time of disorientation, even in familiar surroundings. It is an awful time, both in the modern sense of miserable and in the word’s original sense of awe-full. Modern usage has flattened words like "awful" and "dreadful" so that they mean simply very bad, but originally they referred to something that aroused awe and fear. That is how our ancestors saw the time between death and burial, as a particularly dangerous, particularly dreadful interval. More than anything, they dreaded the spirit of the dead person, because no matter how beloved the person had been, his or her spirit was now presumed to be angry, envious, and spiteful.

When someone close to us dies, it is usual to cry. We probably assume that this is a sorrowful reaction. We may observe certain customs—wearing dark clothes to the funeral, speaking only about the dead person’s good qualities, holding a wake, erecting a tombstone—believing we do so out of respect if not affection. Certainly I did. So it was disconcerting to discover that anthropologists see most of the traditions and rituals around death as born out of fear and self-protectiveness. We have rationalized and sentimentalized them since, but as the anthropologists tell it, they began as something more craven. The dark clothes hide the living from the malevolent spirit. Crying and speaking well of the dead persuade him that he is regretted. Holding a wake reassures him that he is not forgotten, perhaps even deludes him into thinking he is still living. The tombstone is an attempt to keep the spirit under the ground, where he can do less harm. So, symbolically, are the small stones Jews leave on tombstones when they visit a cemetery.

Because the spirit was thought to be especially irritable and dangerous until burial, the time immediately after death is most rich in these placating customs. Many cultures, from ancient and modern Greeks to twentieth-century Italians and Irish, stress the necessity of quiet before and immediately after death. They do not want to disturb the dying or, worse still, anger the ghost.

Once death was certain, a great noise, called the conclamatio mortis, or death shout, used to be made. Some peoples wailed and lamented, others tolled a bell, beat a gong, clapped a sistrum (the ancient Egyptians), struck copper dishes (the Romans), fired a gun (the Maoris, the Bara, Westerners at military funerals), or banged on a church door (Cluniac monks in medieval England). Depending on whom you asked, the conclamatio mortis was designed to ensure that death had truly taken place, or to salute the dead person, or to scare away evil spirits.

Many European and Middle Eastern peoples opened a window in the room where the person had died, not to air it out, as is sometimes said, but to allow the ghost to escape. Mirrors were and still are covered—not, as modern people say, because vanity is inappropriate at such a time, but because it was dangerous for the spirit to see its own reflection, or that of the living. Clocks were stopped at the minute of death and not restarted until after the burial, probably to pretend that the person was not dead until he was safely buried.

Until the midpoint of the twentieth century, ancient Irish superstitions lived on in many Newfoundland fishing villages, where the dead person’s bed was often turned down on the first night of the wake, with pipe and slippers placed nearby, "in case they might return." In Witless Bay, among other outports, it was the custom to overturn the chairs and candlesticks when cleaning the wake-room after the funeral, probably to confuse any returning spirits so that they would leave the premises.

Did people really weep and mark a death with various solemn gestures only in the hope of sparing themselves? That troubled me and seemed to discredit the sincerity of our most long-lived observances. But when I spoke with Anne Brener, an American therapist who writes and teaches about Jewish mourning rituals, she saw it from another perspective. She pointed out that fear and awe have several faces, not all of them self-regarding. The immensity of the fact of death calls, in her words, "for some way of marking a moment on the edge of the mystery." The more energetic the marking, the better, whether opening a window, overturning furniture, or preparing a body according to a prescribed ritual. "The words for ‘fear’ and ‘awe’ and ‘terrible’ are the same in Hebrew," she told me. "To see a custom as superstitious and self-protective is one thing; to see it as an acknowledgment of the awe and the mystery of death is another possibility." The mourner feels impelled to do something as a way of saying, "There are things happening here that I don’t understand."

Although Ecclesiastes distinguishes between a time to mourn and a time to dance, Brener helped me see that mourning itself can be a kind of dance, a series of actions—sometimes graceful, sometimes clumsy, sometimes closely patterned, sometimes improvised—in response to something that is almost beyond articulation. Does the dance have anything to do with sorrow? Assuming that the anthropologists are right and our ancestor donned black to hide from her husband’s ghost, this doesn’t necessarily mean she didn’t also miss her husband. Perhaps she even felt a connection between the bleakness of her garments and the bleakness of her life without him. Presumably you could mourn a person and fear his disgruntled spirit at the same time.

Let us grant that the Jew in ancient times begged pardon of the body before washing it (one of many apologies addressed to the dead body in cultures all over the world) and buried some of his favorite possessions with him (another widespread custom) at least partly to prevent the spirit being angry. But these are also ways of saying "I’m sorry if I failed you," "I hope you’re happy wherever you are," "I love you." Perhaps leaving a small stone on a tomb originally represented a hope that the spirit would stay buried; but today it works as a poignant sign that someone remembers the person buried there, that someone still visits his last resting place.

The fact is that we still practice some of these "primitive" customs and until recently practiced many more of them. Partly that is because death makes conservatives of us all, and it is hard—but not impossible, as the twentieth century demonstrated—to break from traditional death-ways. But beyond that, some customs have staying power and others do not. We no longer deck our dead in burial crowns, as the ancient Greeks did, because that tradition ceased to speak to us. But even though most of us no longer believe in the power of evil spirits, we still prepare dead bodies with care and make a solemn space and time between death and burial.

Apparently, these things still make some kind of sense. They are a way to dance around the unknowable profundity of death and to express—however haltingly—regret, sadness, respect, and confusion. In the case of a wake and funeral, they are also ways to find solace in company and to realign the community. The rituals that endure have what John Keats called negative capability, in that they are big enough and elastic enough to keep on being meaningful, even when the meaning changes.

When the water had come to a boil in the shining bronze, then they washed the body and anointed it softly with olive oil and stopped the gashes in his body with stored-up unguents and laid him on a bed, and shrouded him in a thin sheet from head to foot, and covered that over with a white mantle.

—Homer, The Iliad

There was reason to wash the body of Patroclus, who died in a bloody battle with Hector. But even when a clean person died gently in bed, Greek tradition demanded that the body be washed and anointed. So do the customs of many societies.

My friend Bernice Eisenstein remembers the silence that descended when her father, Ben, died in a Toronto hospital in 1991. In the quiet, behind the closed door, her mother and her aunt began to wash his body. Slowly and deliberately, they cleaned him with a washcloth, soap, and water. They clipped and cleaned his fingernails and toenails. It seemed to Bernice, watching, that they had not yet completely grasped that he was dead, and at the same time they knew this was the last thing they would ever do for him. Ben Eisenstein was a dapper man, and perhaps part of their thinking was that he should look his best before being handed over, finally, to the care of strangers. Perhaps they were reenacting something of the washing of the dead they had known as girls in Jewish Poland. Without fully understanding her reaction, Bernice felt proud that she was related to these women.

The washing in the hospital was followed by a much more serious ritual washing. Ben Eisenstein’s body was taken to a funeral home where members of the Jewish burial fellowship, the Chevra Kadisha, follow an elaborate, ancient protocol. It begins with a thorough cleansing of the body in a prescribed order, followed by a purification rite called taharah. The corpse is held upright while twenty-four quarts of water are poured over the head and body in a continuous stream; then it is dried and wrapped in a pure white linen shroud that has been sewn by women past menopause.

The connection between washing and endings was a familiar one for Arnold van Gennep. In 1909, in The Rites of Passage, the French folklorist and anthropologist pointed out how often separation rituals involved cleansing, anointing, and purification. It was van Gennep’s disarming but far-reaching idea that all of life’s important changes are marked with a similar structure. No matter whether the occasion is birth, puberty, marriage, ordination, or death, the passage begins with ceremonies of separation from the old condition, continues with a transitional state in which the person is suspended between two worlds, and concludes with rituals of incorporation into the new state.

Often these stages follow closely on one another or even overlap. When an adult died early in the twentieth century in Artas, a Muslim village south of Bethlehem, his body was washed on the door of his house, which had been removed and placed outside on four stones. The body, dead but not yet buried, resting on the divider between one’s own place and the outside world—it is a memorable image. Strictly speaking, the washing belongs to the rites of separation, while the door points to the next, transitional stage. Doors, thresholds, courtyards, vestibules, and passageways are all natural symbols for the movement from one state to another, and these intermediate spaces appear often in the ceremonies van Gennep called transitional or liminal (from limen, the Latin for threshold).

In most of Western society, the awkward passage between life and death is fairly brief, ending with the burial. The best-known transitional custom is the wake of some two or three days, where the community comes to say farewell to the unburied body. Because the spirit was once thought to float somewhere between life and death until burial, wakes frequently make use of betwixt-and-between spaces. In the Roman republic, the body was often laid out in the atrium, the main room of the Roman house but one that was also open to the sky. The Etruscans and the Dayak of Borneo held their wakes in the vestibule of their houses. In sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century Europe, after a period inside, the body was briefly exposed in the open doorway of the house, usually close to the time of the funeral.

Even when the physical space used is not particularly transitional, the feeling immediately after death is. When a friend’s niece was killed in a car accident in Idaho at the age of sixteen, her parents had her embalmed at the local funeral parlor, then brought her home to her own bedroom. Many people thought it was bizarre, and it was certainly unusual in North America in the 1990s. But it seemed that the girl’s parents needed her to spend one more night in her own bed, until they began to comprehend what had happened. Friends and family gathered in her bedroom, where her favorite music played. Her father stayed up all night with her, as he had stayed up all night during her birth.

In the case of difficult relationships, death apparently ends the possibility of resolution. But just as people often ask a corpse for forgiveness, they sometimes make one last, postmortem attempt at reconciliation. That too is a kind of transition. The dead body is no longer the other person in the relationship, but it still looks like that person. And it may "listen" better than the person could in life.

Helen Ryane describes her mother’s feelings toward her as "mostly indifferent." They had never been close, and Helen was convinced that her mother found her the least lovable of her five children. When Grace Eggie died in Saskatchewan in the early 1990s, Helen was in her mid-forties. She went to the funeral parlor early in the morning and asked for the coffin to be opened. Holding her mother’s hand, she spent some time alone with her, reminiscing, saying good-bye. Then, with the coffin still open, she wrote her a letter about their relationship, the hopes she’d had for it, the disappointments, the good and bad parts. She tucked the letter in at the side of the coffin, and it was buried with her mother.

Judaism, which shares so many mourning customs with Middle Eastern and European cultures, negotiates the interval between death and burial differently. The period is short, ideally no more than twenty-four hours. The brevity made sense in a hot climate, and their Mediterranean neighbors joined them in that. Where they, and many other cultures, parted company with the Jews was in the attitude to the body. The Jews liken the corpse to a broken Torah scroll. No longer useful, it is something to be treated respectfully but quickly entrusted to people outside the family—to the burial society for washing and to an official called a shomer who stays with it until burial. It is not dwelled upon by the family and is certainly not the object of a wake.

Jewish scholars and rabbis muster studies about the psychological harm caused by viewing the dead, embalming, and holding a wake. Cultures that do all these things could point to studies from equivalent sources indicating that such practices are consoling and healing. There is very little research conclusively demonstrating that one particular mourning practice produces a better outcome than another. The truth seems to be that as long as a culture supports the individual mourner in its particular traditions, whatever they are, the result is more likely to be good than bad.

But saying farewell to your dead is a healthy impulse. It confirms the death and concludes the relationship with a living person. Jews do spend some time with the body before the burial society takes over, and Lisa Newman expected to have that opportunity when her mother died. Ironically, because her mother, who was Orthodox, died on the Sabbath, she ended up spending much more time with the body than is usual in a Jewish bereavement. Not only did Lisa find these hours unexpectedly precious; they mollified a hurt that was more than thirty years old.

When Lisa was twenty-one, her father was taken to Toronto Western Hospital one Friday evening with chest pains. His wife did not accompany him because the Sabbath had begun and car travel was forbidden; she planned to walk to the hospital the next day. In the middle of the night, a doctor called to say that Lisa’s father had died.

What greeted Lisa and her mother in the hospital was unsatisfactory on every level. The doctor who talked with them didn’t know the dead man or them. No one seemed able to tell them whether he had died alone or in pain. They weren’t able to see the body. All they knew then, and all Lisa knows now, is that her father entered the hospital alive and died there of a massive heart attack. As with many cases when a family is unable to see the body after a sudden death, a residue of pain lingered around the circumstances of the death, in addition to the loss itself. For years it was hard for Lisa to look at a photograph of her father. She tried to see the hospital records without success. Coincidentally or not, she later worked as a social worker in Toronto Western for eleven years in the 1970s and 1980s, almost as if she were haunting the corridors, looking for the father who had gone there and never come back.

On a Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1999, Lisa Newman arrived back at Toronto Western "with all my baggage." Her ninety-four-year-old mother was brought there by ambulance, after she had choked and lost consciousness at home with Lisa. She was immediately pronounced dead in the emergency department. This time, things unfolded differently. The doctor explained thoroughly what had happened and assured Lisa there was nothing she could have done. The outcome was inevitable. When she asked if her daughters could see their grandmother, she was told, "Take as long as you like."

Excerpted from The Mourner’s Dance by Katherine Ashenburg.
Copyright 2002 by Katherine Ashenburg.
Published in 2004 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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