Mourning in America

Author Katherine Ashenburg talks about how grieving changed dramatically after World War I -- and how it's changing again now

Katherine Ashenburg first became intrigued with the rituals surrounding death when her daughter's fiancé was killed in a car crash several years ago. Almost by instinct, her daughter began to mimic customs that stretched back centuries. In The Mourner's Dance (North Point Press, $24), which began selling in U.S. bookstores last month, the Toronto author explores the ways in which different cultures mark the loss of a loved one. Ashenburg recently met with BusinessWeek Associate Editor Diane Brady to talk about the landscape of human grief and how it's changing in the 21st century. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: How did your daughter's reaction to tragedy spur you to write a book?


I certainly expected Hannah to mourn, and even mourn for a long time. But what I never expected was to see her making up actions and stuff to cope with Scott's death. The 20th century way in the West is to mourn in our hearts. We're praised for doing well and almost acting as if nothing has happened -- going back to work and wearing red, or going to the movies and things like that.

When I saw Hannah, who has no interest in history, doing things that other cultures had institutionalized as part of their mourning, I thought there might be something more universal and more profound about these things.

Q: You have a background in this area?


I had been a Victorian specialist. I knew a century when people thought mourning was totally normal and at the center of life, as a matter of fact. Watching Hannah cut off bits of his hair and wear a piece of his clothing every day reminded me of that. She organized all of their pictures from six years together in a vast album, took it to Scott's favorite coffee shop in Vancouver every Sunday and sat there with a big green candle, holding open house for people who wanted to talk about Scott.

She had time lines for moving her engagement ring from her left hand to her right hand. She wouldn't socialize in groups of more than two or three. I later learned that that's a rule of Orthodox Judaism, that you're not allowed to be in large groups for a year after a serious death.

Q: How would you characterize where we are now in terms of how we deal with death as a society?


It seems that from 1920 to 1990, the pendulum had swung so far from the full-blown mourning of the 19th century that mourning became socially unacceptable. I think the pendulum is beginning to swing back. You saw a lot of expressive public mourning over the death of Princess Diana, the Oklahoma City bombings, and the World Trade Center. Strangers would get together and leave poems, flowers, and teddy bears. Something about 9/11, in particular, seems to be broadening our repertoire for how to deal with private grief.

Q: How has it broadened?


I see things like Internet mourning chat groups as a continuation of the village sewing circle. You see shelves of self-help books about mourning. And the subject is even seeping into popular culture. The HBO television series Six Feet Under is really interesting. I don't think, 10 years ago, it would have occurred to anyone to do a show set in an undertaker's parlor. I think mourning will out.

Q: What really resonated for you in terms of the rituals we go through when faced with death?


There's no need for a leave-taking ceremony or a funeral, but just about every culture in the world seem to have one. There's no need to wash a body. Why do it if you're going to burn it or put it in the ground? Yet so many cultures do it.

After World War I, the sheer volume of losses was overwhelming. By 1917, people in England stopped wearing black because every family was in mourning, and it was undermining morale. When the only child of Sir William Osler [a prominent Canadian-born physician] was killed in 1917, they just filled the boy's room with flowers. There was no ceremony.

When the war ended, people never wanted to see mourning clothes again. Plus, modernity was dawning in the sense of hope against childhood illnesses. There was a feeling like we've conquered death, which of course we haven't.

Q: But why did the dislike of mourning linger so long? There has been an entire generation since that never really experienced any form of war.


I think mourning became unmodern. I read etiquette books from the 1870s through the 1990s, and it was fascinating to trace the shift in attitudes. They begin with concern for the mourner, respect for the dead person, and a sense that society has to respect that.

Some time around 1920 to 1940, the mourner has become the person who makes others uncomfortable. The mourner shouldn't go to a dinner party -- not because it shows disrespect for the dead, but because it might make others awkward. That was in a Vogue etiquette book in 1948. Mourners were embarrassing then, in part because they were a lot less common [in 1948] than 50 years earlier, when there were no antibiotics and things like that.

Q: One thing that interests me is end-of-life care -- the way society treats death and the dying. Did that come up in your research?


The dying come in for the same kind of embarrassment. It has been very slow work to bring dying out of the closet and, by association, mourners out of the closet. There are a lot of things we take for granted, which were invented because of mourning.

Our city parks were invented because we had a new kind of cemetery in the 19th century that was beautiful, with rolling hills and places where people like to picnic. Then they thought, "We can have this without the graves."

Department stores -- I call them mourners' depots -- came into being because you had to get your stuff so quickly when someone died. They put them all together and called them mourning warehouses. Harrod's was one of the first ones. Mourning caused the invention of ready-to-wear clothing because you couldn't wait for tailors to make black dresses.

The word "living room" was invented because funeral directors wanted to convince people not to wake their dead at home. Bring them to our premises, and you can call that the "living" room.

Q: It's always good to bring in the baby boomers. This huge generation is getting older, thinking about death and certainly facing the death of their parents. Do you think that has prompted more interest in this subject?


I certainly found a lot more people sympathetic to the project in my generation than in my parents' generation. They're still modernists in the sense that they don't want go there. My father went to a funeral where there were lots of speeches and weeping. We might have found it poignant, but my father found it draining. It's not my parents' generation.

But I do think that we're just that much further away from the post-World War II people who thought they could fix everything. A lot of things are sneaking back in under the radar, like bereavement support groups. A lot of hospitals are even taking Polaroid pictures of stillborn babies now, to give parents mementos. That's very Victorian. People find it creepy but it helps people to mourn. We don't have enough props and rituals to help us through these hard times. We need more.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell