The Mourner's Dance What We Do When People Die

Katherine Ashenburg

North Point Press



Trade Paperback

336 Pages


Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
When her daughter's fiancé 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 that different cultures have devised to mark a universal and deeply felt plight. As documented here, her travels and research investigated 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. Ashenburg also journeyed back in time to uncover the changing face of mourning in Western cultures—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, as we know, 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. Thus The Mourner's Dance uncovers the cultural heft, social import, and psychological wisdom embedded in these customs both ancient and new. This study also explores the function and value of such rituals in restoring selves, and whole communities, that have been unraveled by loss.


Praise for The Mourner's Dance

"Katherine Ashenburg's The Mourner's Dance will not sink you into sadness. This buoyant narrative is moving, exotic, outrageous . . . A serendipitous tour of anthropology, cultural history, psychology and personal reflection . . . It's a pleasure to accompany Ashenburg."—Keith Nickson, The Toronto Globe and Mail

"Admirable . . . Readers will be struck by both the exotic and the mundane in this very human activity."—Psychology Today

"Fascinating . . . While The Mourner's Dance is not intended to be a self-help book, readers who have undergone the death of a loved one might find solace and wisdom in the collective human experience of loss it illuminates."—Donna Marchetti, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"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

"Compassionate and compelling, chThe 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."—Maclean's

"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 19th-century black crape, The Mourner's Dance is a richly informative and compassionate book."—The Vancouver Sun

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt


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

Read the full excerpt


  • Katherine Ashenburg

  • Katherine Ashenburg is a journalist, lecturer, and regular contributor to Toronto Life magazine and the New York Times travel section. She lives in Toronto.
  • Katherine Ashenburg Jenna Muirhead-Warren