The Mourner’s Dance: What we do When People Die

by Katherine Ashenburg
After my grandfather passed away last month, I was at a loss for ways to mourn. This book was recommended to me by a friend studying to be a funeral director — she read it for one of her classes.

It’s a stunning book. When Ashenburg’s daughter’s fiance died suddenly, the entire family was thrown into mourning. The daughter went through traditional mourning rituals almost instinctively, and Ashenburg set about researching the history of mourning.
It’s fascinating, really, and Ashenburg is a wonderful writer. She weaves the story of her daughter’s grief together with numerous stories and historical asides covering everything from tribal mourning in Africa to widow-burning in India to Queen Victoria’s extended mourning for her husband.
There’s also some beautiful retellings of stories about death, including the one about a woman who brought her dead child to a wise man (in one version, to the Buddha) asking him to resurrect the child. The wise man told her to bring him a handful of rice (or seeds, depending on the version) from a house that had never known death. The woman went from house to house in vain, and finally returned to bury her child and go on with her life when she realized that everyone knows death. It’s a universal constant.
And that, really, is what is so marvellously comforting about this book.
(Book 17 in 2005)

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