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.