Rebecca’s #CBR4 Review #45: The Mourner’s Dance by Katherine Ashenburg
Death and mourning are experiences that are consistent across cultures; they happen to everyone, regardless of geography, ethnicity, class, and any other variation in experience you can imagine. While there are practices that are remarkably similar across cultures, there are also huge differences – some cultures wear white to indicate mourning, some black; some cultures use raucous wild parties to celebrate the dead, others find only solemn contemplation acceptable. The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die explores the traditions across history and finds a great deal of similarities, if not in practice, then in sentiment, of mourning practices.
One of the interesting things that Ashenburg documents is the use of mourning clothing, now in disfavor; we may look at mourning clothes as a ridiculous requirement of mourning, and perhaps it was, when widows and other close family members were required to were crepe, a rough and irritating material. But Ashenburg talks to those who long for the external marking of mourning that certain items of clothing used to indicate, so they can avoid being told by strangers to smile when they are experiencing deep pain.
Ashenburg grounds her book in the experience of her daughter, Hannah, who lost her fiance unexpectedly in her twenties. She compares Hannah’s experience to traditional methods of mourning than our less regimented modern Western society. Hannah gathered her friends close, shunning contact with others, as many mourners were given to do in centuries past; she switched her engagement ring from hand to hand on the date of their scheduled wedding, indicating a remembrance of their future wedding, echoing in sentiment the practice of holding a funeral with the deceased’s fiance in wedding dress; and Hannah would weekly gather to look at photo albums of her fiance, much as mourners would engage in rituals prescribed by society for a set amount of time. Hannah found these things intuitively, without the expectations of society to guide her.
As with another Cannonball book of Ashenburg’s, The Dirt on Clean, The Mourner’s Dance is meticulously researched and written, fascinating in its detail. It reflects an aspect of life that many may find boring, or at least less than scintillating. If you find the topic all interesting, the book will not disappoint.