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The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die

by Katherine Ashenburg

Death becomes both of these authors as they attempt to address the taboos, denial, and rituals associated with this ancient and inescapable rite of passage. Katherine Ashenburg and Susan Gabori, both journalists, attempt to personalize a subject that usually, because of our fear of it, is dealt with in an impersonal manner. Freud once said, “A culture is defined by what it represses.” It is not until the inevitable happens that we are forced to address how obsessed we are with the fear of death.

Katherine Ashenburg was inspired to write The Mourner’s Dance after the sudden death of her daughter’s fiancé. She was struck by the way her daughter instinctually adopted certain ancient mourning practices: cloistering herself with friends, wearing the deceased’s clothing, and sifting through a bowl of his precious objects every morning. Ashenburg compares her daughter’s bereavement to other traditions in this holistic view of the entire grieving process – from the preparing of the body to the final destination.

The first chapter discusses customs around the washing and the laying out of the body. For example, who would have guessed that right up until the mid-20th century, Newfoundlanders would throw parties in which the corpse would be propped up on a couch and animated using fishing line tied to their limbs. Although written with wit, humour and warmth, Ashenburg’s subject matter can get quite gruesome at times. In “The Gender of Death” she describes the Buddhist practice of Sati, where a woman is expected to climb on top of her husband’s funeral pyre and burn to death along with him in the fire.

In other chapters Ashenburg gives us lavish and satisfactory descriptions of such items as braided jewellery made with the deceased’s hair and Victorian photographs in which corpses are posed with loved ones. She also includes an entertaining description of Hollywood’s famous Forest Lawn Cemetery, a place where statues straight out of Storybook Land are used to suppress and sweeten the visitor’s experience of death. The Mourner’s Dance is a welcome read for those of us living in a society whose normal reaction to prolonged mourning is a brisk “Get over it and get on with it!”

Susan Gabori used a tape recorder to initiate the writing of A Good Enough Life, a series of firsthand accounts of the final stages of dying. Comparing herself to “a miner going into the dark depths of the earth in search of treasure,” Gabori found what she wanted by interviewing 12 terminally ill people in Montreal. Gabori asked questions over a series of four interviews and later spliced the answers together into cohesive narratives.

It is doubtful that the dying’s side of the story has even been told so eloquently and painfully as it is in A Good Enough Life. One striking element shared by all 12 stories is the sense of victimization, the bitter recrimination that all of the participants hold towards lovers and families. It is sad to think that what most people will remember to their dying day is that one moment of criticism from a loved one: the cruel father who says “I will never support you,” or the mean lover who says “You smell like an ashtray.”

After putting down this collection of very sad tales, I concluded that most life-defining moments seem to be the negative experiences: betrayals, beatings, alcoholism, drug addiction, obsessions, and rejection. There are many stories here about co-dependancy, attending AA meetings, feeling out of control, and feeling confused about being a sinner. Few of the participants, with the exception of a nun named Sister Angela, actually directly question or address their relationship with God. In fact, the stories are shot through with a sense of abandonment and of being unfairly victimized by life. But perhaps this is all part of a different mourning process, that of mourning one’s own impending death.

Both of these books are brave excursions into rarely observed territory. Ashenburg’s book tells you everything you wanted to know about how we cope with the death of others. Gabori’s attempt at “sharing” the dying experience is definitely not for those who are easily depressed. Neither really falls into the category of “consolation literature,” but both should satisfy the imaginations of those curious about one of society’s last taboos.