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The Mourner's Dance

What We Do When People Die

by Katherine Ashenburg

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death, grief, bereavement, personal memoirs, death & dying
list price: $24.00
also available: Paperback
category: Self-help
published: 2010
publisher: Knopf Canada
imprint: Vintage Canada
View Excerpt

There is no doubt that the death of a loved one has a profound - and unpredictable - effect on the lives of those left behind. Mourning is the price we pay for love. But how does anyone survive those first weeks, months, and even years after a death, and then eventually return to normal life?

When her daughter's fiancé died suddenly, Katherine Ashenburg found herself drawn into the world of mourning customs. Finding little comfort in the stripped-down North American approach, she sought solace, and shaped the core of this much-praised book, by exploring the rich traditions that have sustained mourners in cultures around the world and across centuries. Intertwining anecdotes from past and present with her own story, Ashenburg uncovers the wisdom and creativity embedded in mourning rituals and their value in rebuilding those unravelled by loss. Somehow, as Ashenburg so deftly reveals, we find strength and go on living.

With an afterword by the author.

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The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth –
– Emily Dickinson
A person dies, let us say a man. Those watching at his death-bed try to control their grief until they are sure that he isdead. They know it is wrong to distract him while he is at the serious business of “giving up the ghost.” Then the watchers begin to weep and lament. A close relative shuts his eyes and mouth and arranges his limbs.
Those entrusted with the task of preparing the body, usually the same sex as the dead, wash it carefully with warm water, sometimes with herbs and ointments, and dress it in his last outfit. Then, laid out on a table or bed or in a coffin, the dead man is displayed in bedroom, kitchen, or parlor, with lighted candles nearby, often with a bowl of water and a sprig from a particular plant. His feet point to the door of the room.
Friends and family gather to condole with the bereaved and to keep watch over the body, which must never be left alone. They may touch him, kiss him, or sprinkle holy water on him. They may cry or pray and remember the dead man quietly; they may drink and carouse; they may do all of the above. Finally, when the prescribed time has elapsed and all is in order, he is carried to a leave-taking ceremony, and the disposal of his body takes place.
This man, allowing for minor local modifications, might have lived in Greece in the 3rd century b.c., in czarist Russia, in 18th-century France, in ancient Rome, Renaissance Florence, or 19th-century Sicily. He might have lived in the 20th century in the Bara Islands in Madagascar, in the Central Caroline Islands in the Pacific, in Palestine, Newfoundland, Portugal, or Japan. Until very recently, there was a remarkable similarity about the things people in far-flung times and places did in the first hours and days after death.
Not only were the practices similar, they were so deeply ingrained that even the weakest members of a society knew what to do. John Galt’s novel Annals of the Parish is a closely observed account of rural Scotland in the 18th century. In it, the Reverend Mr. Balwhidder records the behavior of a feeble-minded woman, Meg Gaffaw, when her mother dies. Begging a shroud from her neighbors and straightening the body “in a wonderful decent manner,” Meg places a dish holding earth and salt on the corpse, symbols of mortality and immortality that were already considered old-fashioned in her time. When the minister calls, she solemnly presents him with the customary water and bread, and he reflects, “It was a consternation to everybody how the daft creature had learnt all the ceremonies.”
When the same traditions crop up again and again, and when even a “daft creature had learnt all the ceremonies,” it suggests there is something critical about this short period. It is a time of shock, even when the death has been long expected; a time of disorientation, even in familiar surroundings. It is an awful time, both in the modern sense of miserable and in the word’s original sense of awe-full. Modern usage has flattened words like awful and dreadful so that they mean simply very bad, but originally they referred to something that aroused awe and fear. That is how our ancestors saw the time between death and burial, as a particularly dangerous, particularly dreadful interval. More than anything, they dreaded the spirit of the dead person, because no matter how beloved the person had been, his or her spirit was now presumed to be angry, envious, and spiteful.
When someone close to us dies, it is usual to cry. We probably assume that this is a sorrowful reaction. We may observe certain customs – wearing dark clothes to the funeral, speaking only about the dead person’s good qualities, holding a wake, erecting a tombstone – believing we do so out of respect if not affection. Certainly, I did. So it was disconcerting to discover that anthropologists see most of the traditions and rituals around death as born out of fear and self-protectiveness. We have rationalized and sentimentalized them since, but as the anthropologists tell it, they began as something more craven. The dark clothes hide the living from the malevolent spirit. Crying and speaking well of the dead persuade him that he is regretted. Holding a wake reassures him that he is not forgotten, perhaps even deludes him into thinking he is still living. The tombstone is an attempt to keep the spirit under the ground, where he can do less harm. So, symbolically, are the small stones Jews leave on tombstones when they visit a cemetery.
Because the spirit was thought to be especially irritable and dangerous until burial, the time immediately after death is most rich in these placating customs. Many cultures, from ancient and modern Greeks to 20th-century Italians and Irish, stress the necessity of quiet before and immediately after death. They do not want to disturb the dying or, worse still, anger the ghost.
Once death was certain, a great noise, called the conclamatio mortis, or death shout, used to be made. Some peoples wailed and lamented, others tolled a bell, beat a gong, clapped a sistrum (ancient Egyptians), struck copper dishes (the Romans), fired a gun (the Maoris, the Bara, Westerners at military funerals), or banged on a church door (Cluniac monks in medieval England). Depending on whom you asked, the conclamatio mortis was designed to ensure that death had truly taken place, or to salute the dead person, or to scare away evil spirits.
Many European and Middle Eastern peoples opened a window in the room where the person had died, not to air it out, as is sometimes said, but to allow the ghost to escape. Mirrors were and still are covered – not, as modern people say, because vanity is inappropriate at such a time, but because it was dangerous for the spirit to see its own reflection, or that of the living. Clocks were stopped at the minute of death and not restarted until after the burial, probably to pretend that the person was not dead until he was safely buried.
Until the midpoint of the 20th century, ancient Irish superstitions lived on in many Newfoundland fishing villages, where the dead person’s bed was often turned down on the first night of the wake, with pipe and slippers placed nearby, “in case they might return.” In Witless Bay, among other outports, it was the custom to overturn the chairs and candlesticks when cleaning the wake-room after the funeral, probably to confuse any returning spirits so that they would leave the premises.
Did people really weep and mark a death with various solemn gestures only in the hope of sparing themselves? That troubled me and seemed to discredit the sincerity of our most long-lived observances. But when I spoke with Anne Brener, an American therapist who writes and teaches about Jewish mourning rituals, she saw it from another perspective. She pointed out that fear and awe have several faces, not all of them self-regarding. The immensity of the fact of death calls, in her words, “for some way of marking a moment on the edge of the mystery.” The more energetic the marking the better, whether opening a window, overturning furniture, or preparing a body according to a prescribed ritual. “The words for ‘fear’ and ‘awe’ and ‘terrible’ are the same in Hebrew,” she told me. “To see a custom as superstitious and self-protective is one thing; to see it as an acknowledgment of the awe and the mystery of death is another possibility.” The mourner feels impelled to do something, as a way of saying, “There are things happening here that I don’t understand.”
Although Ecclesiastes distinguishes between a time to mourn and a time to dance, Brener helped me see that mourning itself can be a kind of dance, a series of actions – sometimes graceful, sometimes clumsy, sometimes closely patterned, sometimes improvised – in response to something that is almost beyond articulation. Does the dance have anything to do with sorrow? Assuming that the anthropologists are right and our ancestor donned black to hide from her husband’s ghost, this doesn’t necessarily mean she didn’t also miss her husband. Perhaps she even felt a connection between the bleakness of her garments and the bleakness of her life without him. Presumably you could mourn a person and fear his disgruntled spirit at the same time.
Let us grant that the Jew in the ancient world begged pardon of the body before washing it (one of many apologies addressed to the dead body in cultures all over the world) and buried some of his favorite possessions with him (another widespread custom) at least partly to prevent the spirit being angry. But these are also ways of saying, “I’m sorry if I failed you,” “I hope you’re happy wherever you are,” “I love you.” Perhaps leaving a small stone on a tomb originally represented a hope that the spirit would stay buried; but today it works as a poignant sign that someone remembers the person buried there, that someone still visits his last resting place.
The fact is that we still practice some of these “primitive” customs and until recently practiced many more of them. Partly that is because death makes conservatives of us all, and it is hard – but not impossible, as the 20th century demonstrated – to break from traditional death-ways. But beyond that, some customs have staying power and others do not. We no longer deck our dead in burial crowns, as the ancient Greeks did, because that tradition ceased to speak to us. But, even though most of us no longer believe in the power of evil spirits, we still prepare dead bodies with care and make a solemn space and time between death and burial.
Apparently, these things still make some kind of sense. They are a way to dance around the unknowable profundity of death and to express – however haltingly – regret, sadness, respect, and confusion. In the case of a wake and funeral, they are also ways to find solace in company and to realign the community. The rituals that endure have what John Keats called negative capability, in that they are big enough and elastic enough to keep on being meaningful, even when the meaning changes.
When the water had come to a boil in the
shining bronze, then they washed the body and
anointed it softly with olive oil and stopped the
gashes in his body with stored-up unguents and
laid him on a bed, and shrouded him in a thin
sheet from head to foot, and covered that over
with a white mantle.
– Homer, The Iliad
There was reason to wash the body of Patroclus, who died in a bloody battle with Hector. But even when a clean person died gently in bed, Greek tradition demanded that the body be washed and anointed. So do the customs of many societies.
My friend Bernice Eisenstein remembers the silence that descended when her father, Ben, died in a Toronto hospital in 1991. In the quiet, behind the closed door, her mother and her aunt began to wash his body. Slowly and deliberately, they cleaned him with a washcloth, soap, and water. They clipped and cleaned his fingernails and toenails. It seemed to Bernice, watching, that they had not yet completely grasped that he was dead, and at the same time they knew this was the last thing they would ever do for him. Ben Eisenstein was a dapper man, and perhaps part of their thinking was that he should look his best before being handed over, finally, to the care of strangers. Perhaps they were re-enacting something of the washing of the dead they had known as girls in Jewish Poland. Without fully understanding it, Bernice felt proud that she was related to these women.
The washing in the hospital was followed by a much more serious ritual washing. Ben Eisenstein’s body was taken to a funeral home where members of the Jewish burial fellowship, the Chevra Kadisha, follow an elaborate, ancient protocol. It begins with a thorough cleansing of the body in a prescribed order, followed by a purification rite called taharah. The corpse is held upright while twenty-four quarts of water are poured over the head and body in a continuous stream; then it is dried and wrapped in a pure white linen shroud that has been sewn by women past menopause.
The connection between washing and endings was a familiar one for Arnold van Gennep. In 1909, in The Rites of Passage, the French folklorist and anthropologist pointed out how often separation rituals involved cleansing, anointing, and purification. It was van Gennep’s disarming but far-reaching idea that all of life’s important changes are marked with a similar structure. No matter whether the occasion is birth, puberty, marriage, ordination, or death, the passage begins with ceremonies of separation from the old condition, continues with a transitional state in which the person is suspended between two worlds, and concludes with rituals of incorporation into the new state.
Often these stages follow closely on one another or even overlap. When an adult died early in the 20th century in Artas, a Muslim village south of Bethlehem, his body was washed on the door of his house, which had been removed and placed outside on four stones. The body, dead but not yet buried, resting on the divider between one’s own place and the outside world – it is a memorable image. Strictly speaking, the washing belongs to the rites of separation, while the door points to the next, transitional stage. Doors, thresholds, courtyards, vestibules, and passageways are all natural symbols for the movement from one state to another, and these intermediate spaces appear often in the ceremonies van Gennep called transitional or liminal (from limen, the Latin for threshold).
In most of Western society, the awkward passage between life and death is fairly brief, ending with the burial. The best-known transitional custom is the wake of some two or three days, where the community comes to say farewell to the unburied body. Because the spirit was once thought to float somewhere between life and death until burial, wakes frequently make use of betwixt-and-between spaces. In the Roman republic, the body was often laid out in the atrium, the main room of the Roman house but one that was also open to the sky. The Etruscans and the Dayak of Borneo held their wakes in the vestibule of their houses. In 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century Europe, after a period inside, the body was briefly exposed in the open doorway of the house, usually close to the time of the funeral.
Even when the physical space used is not particularly transitional, the feeling immediately after death is. When a friend’s niece was killed in a car accident in Idaho at the age of sixteen, her parents had her embalmed at the local funeral parlor, then brought her home to her own bedroom. Many people thought it was bizarre, and it was certainly unusual in North America in the 1990s. But it seemed that the girl’s parents needed her to spend one more night in her own bed, until they began to comprehend what had happened. Friends and family gathered in her bedroom, where her favorite music played. Her father stayed up all night with her, as he had stayed up all night during her birth.
In the case of difficult relationships, death apparently ends the possibility of resolution. But just as people often ask a corpse for forgiveness, they sometimes make one last, postmortem attempt at reconciliation. That too is a kind of transition. The dead body is no longer the other person in the relationship, but it still looks like that person. And it may “listen” better than the person could in life.
Helen Ryane describes her mother’s feelings toward her as “mostly indifferent.” They had never been close, and Helen was convinced that her mother found her the least lovable of her five children. When Grace Eggie died in Saskatchewan in the early 1990s, Helen was in her mid-forties. She went to the funeral parlor early in the morning and asked for the coffin to be opened. Holding her mother’s hand, she spent some time alone with her, reminiscing, saying goodbye. Then, with the coffin still open, she wrote her a letter about their relationship, the hopes she had had for it, the disappointments, the good and bad parts. She tucked the letter in at the side of the coffin, and it was buried with her mother.
Judaism, which shares so many mourning customs with Middle Eastern and European cultures, negotiates the interval between death and burial differently. The period is short, ideally no more than twenty-four hours. The brevity made sense in a hot climate, and their Mediterranean neighbors joined them in that. Where they, and many other cultures, parted company with the Jews was in the attitude to the body. The Jews liken the corpse to a broken Torah scroll. No longer useful, it is something to be treated respectfully but quickly entrusted to people outside the family – to the burial society for washing and to an official called a shomer who stays with it until burial. It is not dwelled upon by the family and is certainly not the object of a wake.
Jewish scholars and rabbis muster studies about the psychological harm caused by viewing the dead, embalming, and holding a wake. Cultures that do all these things could point to studies from equivalent sources indicating that such practices are consoling and healing. There is very little research that conclusively demonstrates that one particular mourning practice produces a better outcome than another. The truth seems to be that as long as a culture supports the individual mourner in its particular traditions, whatever they are, the result is more likely to be good than bad.
But saying farewell to your dead is a healthy impulse. It confirms the death and concludes the relationship with a living person. Jews do spend some time with the body before the burial society takes over, and Lisa Newman expected to have that opportunity when her mother died. Ironically, because her mother, who was Orthodox, died on the Sabbath, she ended up spending much more time with the body than is usual in a Jewish bereavement. Not only did Lisa find these hours unexpectedly precious, they mollified a hurt that was more than thirty years old.
When Lisa was twenty-one, her father was taken to Toronto Western Hospital one Friday evening with chest pains. His wife did not accompany him because the Sabbath had begun and car travel was forbidden; she planned to walk to the hospital the next day. In the middle of the night, a doctor called to say that Lisa’s father had died.
What greeted Lisa and her mother in the hospital was unsatisfactory on every level. The doctor who talked with them didn’t know the dead man or them. No one seemed able to tell them whether he had died alone or in pain. They weren’t able to see the body. All they knew then and all Lisa knows now is that her father entered the hospital alive and died there of a massive heart attack. As with many cases when a family is unable to see the body after a sudden death, a residue of pain lingered around the circumstances of the death, in addition to the loss itself. For years it was hard for Lisa to look at a photograph of her father. She tried to see the hospital records without success. Coincidentally or not, she later worked as a social worker in Toronto Western for eleven years in the 1970s and 1980s, almost as if she were haunting the corridors, looking for the father who had gone there and never come back.
On a Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1999, Lisa Newman arrived back at Toronto Western “with all my baggage.” Her ninety-four-year-old mother was brought there by ambulance, after she had choked and lost consciousness at home with Lisa. She was immediately pronounced dead in the emergency department. This time, things unfolded differently. The doctor explained thoroughly what had happened and assured Lisa there was nothing she could have done. The outcome was inevitable. When she asked if her daughters could see their grandmother, she was told, “Take as long as you like.”
Because it was the Sabbath, the burial society and the Jewish funeral home could not take possession of the body until after sundown. Lisa did not want her mother to go to the hospital morgue, and since in Jewish tradition the body must never be left alone, she decided to stay with her until the Sabbath was over. The emergency department gave the family its trauma room, which could be closed off from the rest of the ward. Lisa and her two daughters watched over the body for about nine hours, in privacy and comfort.
Very quickly, Lisa realized that “there was no place else in the world I wanted to be.” It was peaceful, and even the interruptions were thoughtful. A nurse kept bobbing her head in. Would they like some coffee? No, thank you. Perhaps a cup of tea? Some ice water? No, thank you. The nurse looked at the thin old woman extended on the bare stretcher. Would they like a pillow for her head? Yes, they would. When the nurse had made her look more relaxed, she told Lisa, “She’s with the angels now.”
Lisa remembers, “I had a strong sense of my mother’s presence in the room. At first she was warm and I would reach out and touch her, the way you touch a pet that you’re fond of, when it’s there and sleeping beside you. I felt her comforting me, as if she were saying, ‘You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.’”
Lisa had not eaten, and her daughters brought her some food. She wonders why she didn’t feel strange about eating there (something strictly forbidden to the shomer who watches with the dead), but “I was hungry and it just made sense.” Her daughters were grateful to have this time with their grandmother, and they sat and talked: “I can’t even remember what we talked about, but it felt like a really holy time.”
As the day wore on, they phoned family from the room and made funeral arrangements, ordered cakes and percolators for the after-funeral reception. Lisa’s oldest friend visited. Gradually, as they watched, her mother changed. She grew colder, lost her characteristic expression. “Initially I felt her spirit there,” Lisa says, “and then, slowly, without my even noticing it, it left. By the end of the time, this was not my mother. This was the physical remains that had to be properly cared for. She was gone. And it felt so right, so peaceful. I was exhausted and it was sad, but it didn’t feel wrenching or painful.”
The hospital, which had complicated her loss when her father died, redeemed itself with the simple gift of time and space. All the family needed, as Lisa says, was that the hospital “let us be,” while a natural process happened. That night she told one of her daughters, “Toronto Western Hospital doesn’t owe me anything now.” When the burial society representative showed up late in the evening, Lisa was ready to let her father go, as well as her mother.
When I was young, goin’ to a wake was the most enjoyable thing of all.
– schoolteacher on the Southern Shore of Newfoundland, 1973
Angela Burke is eighty-three, a big-boned, vigorous woman who likes to sit on her porch in Brigus overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Her house is tall and plain, its clapboard a dark green popular in the outports of Newfoundland. The Burke family bought the house in the 1840s, and Angela Burke moved here in 1942, when she married her husband, Jim. Jim’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather were all named James. Until Angela, they had all married women named Ann and brought them to this house.
Now Angela Burke lives alone. The deaths and burials she knew in her first thirty years were almost medieval in their calculated simplicity. And even in her old age, although she scorns the “heathenish” modern ways she sees developing, death in her outport remains remarkably unpretentious and communal.
The first death she remembers well was that of her grandfather Patrick Lamb, who died at home in his sleep in 1930. One of the first things done when he was discovered was  to open a window in his bedroom, “to let the soul go out,” as Angela says. Because it lingered in the vicinity until the burial, people knew not to stand in doorways during the wake, in case the soul wanted to leave.
Patrick Lamb was washed, shaved, and laid out by male neighbors. If necessary, his eyes would have been closed with big Newfoundland pennies and his mouth would have been secured shut, either with a piece of cloth around his head or by propping a prayer book under his chin. He was dressed, as Catholics in Newfoundland were until the 1950s or ’60s, in a brown, Franciscan-style monastic habit. It was embroidered on the breast with a large, padded Sacred Heart, a drop of blood, a sword, and the letters I.H.S. They stood for In hoc signo, the Latin beginning of Constantine’s motto, “In this sign you will conquer,” but were believed all over Newfoundland to mean “I have suffered.” Men and women, rich and poor, were buried in this costume, and people kept their habits in readiness for years before they died.
(The habit was strictly reserved for the dead. But the story is told of Joany Power, an old woman who lived in Placentia Bay, who wore hers when her son was away, to save her neighbors the trouble of dressing her body in case she died. One day, wearing her habit, she was gathering firewood at the beach and so terrified some fishermen in a nearby boat that they never fished in that particular bay again.)
One of the first calls in an outport after a death was to the local shipbuilder or furniture maker, who would set to work making a plain pine box, covered with grey cloth for adults, white for children. In Brigus in 1930, the call went out to Mr. Farley, the furniture maker. But the coffin was not ready until the second day, and the body spent the first night on the sofa in the parlor, or wake-room, as it was called in this part of Newfoundland. Throughout North America, the seldom-used, best room in the house was reserved so consistently for waking the dead that when funeral parlors began to offer that function, at the beginning of the 20th century, a new name was devised for the room. To distinguish it from its associations with the dead, it became the “living room.”
The typical Newfoundland wake lasted two nights and three days. The wake-room was prepared by covering the pictures and mirrors with white cloths; the sofa on which the body was laid was also shrouded. Virtually all the adults in the outport, dressed in good clothes, entered by the front door, which was used only for ceremonial occasions. After greeting the family with the traditional Irish condolence, “Sorry for your trouble,” the visitor went to the dead person. It was widely believed that if you kissed him or touched his forehead, he would not return in your dreams. The custom of saying something nice about the person was also believed to prevent his return.
On a special table close to the body, two candles in brass candlesticks were kept perpetually burning. “That was a job in itself,” according to Angela Burke, and a bereaved family would usually buy two pounds of candles for the wake. In Brigus, the brass candlesticks belonged to a Mrs. Hearn, who always lent them out. On the same table, if the dead was a man, lay a pile of snuff and an array of cheap clay pipes, called “God be merciful” pipes because with each intake of breath, you were supposed to say, “God be merciful to Patrick Lamb.”
Visitors moved back and forth from the hushed, candlelit wake-room to the kitchen, the social heart of the Newfoundland house. There the neighbors had brought food – “That was the first thing you did when you heard someone died, you made a boiler of soup or some fresh rolls,” Angela says – and the talk was more relaxed, recalling the good qualities of the dead as well as other topics.
Angela Burke’s son Tom, now a lawyer in St. John’s, remembers the wake of his great-aunt Phine (short for Josephine), a pious woman known for sewing dozens of brown habits for other people’s wakes. Phine’s women friends were perhaps not quite as devout as she was, and the boy Tom Burke watched them toss back bathtub gin in the kitchen before repairing to the wake-room for one of the three rosaries prayed around the body through the night, at 10 p.m., at 2 a.m., and just before breakfast. The rosary said, they returned to the kitchen for more gin.
It was the all-night wake that distinguished Newfoundland Catholic deaths from those of their Anglican and United Church neighbors. The neighbors’ food – ham, rolls, shorebirds, baked beans, fish cakes, sweets – would be served at at least three “lunches” or “scoffs” during the night. Angela recalls the surprise of going to a Protestant wake in nearby Burnt Head at what she considered a normal evening hour, “and they’d gone to bed!” Various reasons are given for the Catholics’ all-night wake: the body could never be left alone; the candles needed attending; the rosaries needed saying. But mainly, Angela admits, “I think they probably stayed up for a party.”
Once the immediate family retired, around midnight, the party or the “time,” as Newfoundlanders call any social gathering, could begin. It might be as decorous as ghost stories and affectionate rhymes made up about the dead person or as outrageous as tying fishing line to various parts of the corpse to make it nod, wave, or rise in its coffin. The more extreme shenanigans, almost always carried out by intoxicated men and closely patterned on Irish precedents, had a long history in Newfoundland. In the 1850s, a supervisor for an English firm went to an outport wake. He reported:
Poor Paddy [the corpse] was often appealed to, to say if any of the present party had wronged him, and what for. Sometimes the corpse would be taken up, and, in drunken madness, embraced by one of his friends; then another would come up and dispute the right; then a scuffle would ensue, and the dead body would be thrust first in this corner, and then in that, but oftener would be laid flat in the middle of the floor. A little of this wake went a long way, and I speedily left the party, and walked home in the moonlight.
Twentieth-century corpses had their faces blackened with soot and their feet pressed to make the head rise. They had ice cream cones fixed in their hands or hot potatoes lobbed at them, and they were propped up to fall into a newcomer’s arms when he opened the wake-room door. Games were played in which the penalty was kissing the corpse or biting the corpse’s toes. Not all practical jokes involved the corpse; it was also common to smear soot on the faces of visitors who fell asleep, to put pepper in callers’ tea, and to seat mourners in pans of water.
Pranks of this kind generally took place only at the wake of an old person. A young person’s or child’s wake was a much sadder, more solemn affair. In addition to the other diversions, the death of an elderly person promised a few not-terribly-well-chaperoned late nights and an opportunity for courting. It was said that the gain in population nine months after a wake more than made up for one death, an exaggeration but a telling one. An outport resident rationalized the goings-on: “The nights were long, the family was in bed, so I guess everything was done; there was tricks and riddles and begar there was even some lovin’ done.”
“Merry wakes,” as they were called, are receding into the mists of legend. Ken Broughton followed his father as the funeral director in Brigus. The elder Broughton, who died in 1971, was sometimes summoned to a Catholic home wake to repair the damage done to the corpse by an exuberant party the night before, but this has never happened in his son’s tenure. While maintaining the ecumenical balance necessary in his business, Ken Broughton, who is a Protestant, believes that Catholics accept the loss of a loved one more easily than do Protestants. Hence their wakes and post-funeral feasts, which Protestants find baffling if not disrespectful. When I asked Newfoundland Catholics if they thought they accommodated death more readily, I always got a jocular variation of “Of course we do! It’s because we know we’re going to heaven!”
A wake full of practical jokes is, to modern sensibilities, disturbing. How could you use a corpse as a prop in a drunken party? How could you go to bed, leaving the body of your father or your aunt to be possibly played with and manipulated? The standard answer given by the folklorists who study the merry wake is that it is a vestige of the old belief in the malign spirit. Faced with a ghost who envied the living, your best strategy was to act as if he were still alive – give him a hand of cards, a glass of rum, an ice cream cone; enlist him in tricking the timid newcomer. Above all, make him part of the party.
Rollicking, boisterous wakes had been scandalizing the respectable throughout Europe at least since the 4th century, and the clergy had been railing against them from the start. Scandinavians were notorious for their unruly vigils until the Protestant Reformation, when they were effectively sobered by Lutheran pastors. The European merry wake lived longest in Ireland, where it remained in vigorous health until the end of the 19th century. It lasted even longer in Newfoundland, until the clergy and conventional opinion finally triumphed around the midpoint of the 20th century. It was a battle between ancient folk practice and the authorities, and the fun of defiance no doubt aided the merry wake’s persistence. But, as the Newfoundland folklorist Peter Narvaez argues eloquently, antiauthoritarianism and the fear of the spirit probably counted for less in 19th-and 20th-century Newfoundland than the sheer, body-centered pleasure afforded by the traditional wake.
Licence – in the form of smoking, drinking, eating, ridicule, practical jokes, bawdy behavior – trumped mourning at these vigils. The living kept riotous company with the dead in a way that can look, depending on your vantage point, callous or heartbroken. Evasive in that it avoids the reality of the loss, subversive in that it flaunts bad behavior, such a wake may try, hopelessly, to assert the vitality of the dead. But even more than that, it asserts the vitality of the wakers.
It is a thought that makes people uncomfortable, but death can make those left behind feel piercingly, singularly alive in a way that nothing else can. Caterers will tell you that people eat much more at a funeral than at a wedding. Jokes at a wake or after a funeral can seem disproportionately funny. And grief can mutate seamlessly into fierce energy. At a traditional 18th-century Highland wake, the widow or widower, often with tears streaming, would lead a dance around the body. It began solemnly and became more and more aggressive, more frenetic, until in one case the floor shook so that the body fell from the bed into the crowd. Once again, licence triumphed over mourning, the demands of the living took precedence over the dead.
The Irish folklorist Sean O’Suilleabhain tells the story of a peaceful wake and funeral in Leinster. Immediately after the burial, the son shouted, “This is a sad day, when my father is put into the clay, and not even one blow struck at his funeral!” In tribute to his father’s memory, he proceeded to strike the man next to him. A scuffle broke out in the graveyard, more fights ensued, and the dead man’s son went home well pleased. The physicality, the ferocity, the insistence that the dead are best celebrated by a demonstration of animal spirits are close kin to the “tricks and fun” that animated a Newfoundland wake.
Aside from the pranks, the communal and volunteer quality of a pre-1950 Newfoundland wake is notable. In a small outport, a death diminished everyone, and all hands came together to support the family. The goods and services a modern city dweller pays for at the time of death came from neighbors, and the only expense was the wood for the coffin. Its making was free, as was the laying out, the food for the wake and funeral reception, and the digging of the grave. (A man in Patrick’s Cove in Placentia Bay remembered that once a fellow had offered to pay for the digging of a grave, and “it was a number of years before they came to understand and forgive what they termed his ‘ignorance.’ ”) The layers-out and the gravediggers would be given a bit of rum for their trouble. Angela Burke remembers the death of a man named Bill Finn, when her own squeamish husband and another neighbor were drafted to lay him out. Once they began drinking the customary rum, they forgot their qualms, and by the time they had finished, “it was just like a wedding.”
The homelike aspect of the traditional wake is what Angela misses most. Since Ken Broughton opened the first funeral parlor in the three-hundred-year history of Brigus in the 1970s, home wakes have gradually become uncommon. (There was no need for a commercial funeral parlor in his father’s day, since people were waked in their own front rooms.) Angela scorns the vast, “heathenish” coffins on sale at the funeral parlor (“With lights inside!”) and the very idea of taking your dead to a business establishment. In fairness to Ken Broughton, it must be said that his funeral parlor is about as modest and neighborly as a business could be. All the arrangements are made at the kitchen table at the back of the building. Visiting hours can stretch from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. without a break if the family wishes, and most people in Brigus do. Broughton’s lunchroom has replaced the kitchen in a home wake. He provides tea and coffee, and the neighbors still contribute the food.
Even so, it was not good enough for Angela Burke. When her husband died in 1980, he was laid out in the parlor where his sisters and parents and all his forebears since the 1840s had been waked. The Burkes had not discussed his wake, since he died unexpectedly of a stroke at sixty-six. But, although some people thought it was foolish, his widow never considered doing otherwise. When she is asked why she chose a home wake, this articulate woman is briefly speechless. It is as if you asked her why she stood up before walking. Finally she says, “I thought, well, why take him out? There was no need . . . Why be all night at Ken Broughton’s? They might as well have buried him! . . . I can’t see why, if you’ve got to leave him at night, why you don’t bury him.” She adds that when death stays at home, so to speak, it’s less frightening. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren fear death and dead people because they have become rare, but in the past “you knew what death was. People knew they were going to die, and it didn’t come as any surprise.”
For Angela Burke, it seemed only natural that her husband should move from his own house to his parish church to the Brigus graveyard. But she departed from tradition in one important way, declaring that there would be no alcohol at the wake. Her five sons, three daughters, and extended family had gathered from around the world, but she did not want a party. Perhaps she had vivid enough memories of the old merry wakes to want to ensure that one did not take place. Yes, his mother’s order was unusual, Tom Burke admits, but “she ruled.”
Donna Burke, Tom’s wife, has seen both her parents waked at home in the 1990s. Ken Broughton embalmed them in his funeral parlor, another innovation he introduced to Brigus in the 1970s that is now standard. Then he returned them to their apartment in their son’s house. Donna remembers their wakes as informal family occasions where there were no “hours of visitation.” If the spirit moved you, you could pad downstairs in the middle of the night for a visit with the dead. Initially awed grandchildren quickly accepted that Nanny and Grandfather Hayes had come home to be in their bed one last time. Told that it wouldn’t feel like Nanny when they asked if they could touch her, the younger children gently tried to bend her fingers. Watching the children play outside, Donna saw them taking turns imitating the corpse, while the others would approach and make the sign of the cross. They were “playing wake.”
“What it showed me was that children will incorporate whatever is around,” she says. “They will make it part of their life. Of course, the older kids were sad and upset, but seeing your loved ones in their own environment, not in some cold place that is only about death, is a comfort . . . The death is really and truly part of the living that continues, and it all falls within the same house.” Even the cat, a favorite of Nanny Hayes, took it in stride. Coming down one morning, the family found her sleeping on Nanny’s still, cold chest.
Will Angela Burke be waked in her tall green house? Once again, it is so taken for granted that her children have not even discussed it. Although the brown habit was, in her opinion, “a good thing,” none is lying in readiness for her. She has forbidden her family to deck her in gold jewelry, another innovation she considers pagan. But she did ask one of her sons to bring her a black shawl on his last visit home from Australia. She plans to wear it over a plain white blouse, in her coffin, in her own parlor.
The “Bustle in a House / The Morning after Death” that Emily Dickinson describes is indeed solemn, but it remains a bustle. It often struck me that Scott’s parents, Marilyn and D’Arcy Roche, were organizing, in about two days and in grievous circumstances, ceremonies and gatherings only a little less complicated than the wedding we had been looking forward to planning over the next nine months. To compound their difficulties, they lived in California, and Seattle was not their city.
On Sunday morning, about eighteen hours after their son died, I went with the Roches to shop for a funeral. Looking at a few churches and a school chapel, balancing available times, ambience, parking, and flexibility when it came to music choice and the number of eulogies allowed in each case, Scott’s parents maintained a focus that was more than impressive. I felt sure that, in their situation, I would have taken the first church, however inadequate. They did not. The music was important: Scott loved singing, and he and his mother often shared new discoveries in vocal music. So were the eulogies: the traditional Catholic funeral allows for only one, and Marilyn, Hannah, and Scott’s brother Stephan all wanted to speak.
After the tour of funeral sites, we went to a friend’s house, and the Roches and their four living sons sat down with lists of more than fifty incoming relatives, times of arrival, places for them to stay. A restaurant for a lunch after the funeral had to be chosen. Tasks were assigned. Sons and parents got busy on cellphones. On Monday, a church was selected, the priest consulted, readings and music chosen. Marilyn went shopping with her daughters-in-law to buy clothes for the funeral. She also bought a present for Hannah, something that Scott had been threatening for years to give her – a pair of black velvet slacks.
Monday evening the Roches gave a buffet dinner in Scott’s house, with Thai food from his favorite carryout restaurant, for the family and friends who had convened in Seattle by then. After the funeral, having experienced their attentiveness and generosity in marking a tragic time, I told them I wished more than ever that we could have designed a joyous one together.
Hannah, in contrast with Scott’s parents, spent the days before the funeral refusing to leave my sister’s house in Everett, just outside Seattle. There she simply sat on the couch, so entwined with her three college roommates that they sometimes looked like a hydra-headed beast, two dark-haired, one red-haired, and one light brown.
She had been very different while Scott was in the hospital, going almost without sleep for forty-eight hours. There she ushered visitors in and out of his room, fielded telephone calls, talked with the medical staff about his care almost like the doctor she would be. She and her roommates, who had flown in from New York, Washington, and San Francisco, spent the last night of Scott’s life with him in his hospital room. He had been reading Kipling’s Kim, saying he was going to read all the books he had been assigned in college but left unread, and the book was found in the car after the accident. Although he was unconscious, Hannah read it to him in his hospital room. She sang his favorite songs to him, and every so often she would order her friends out of the room so she could spend some time alone with him.
The minute he died, she withdrew. Psychologists call it “recoil.” I noticed it first at Scott’s house, where we went after leaving the hospital, to pick up Hannah’s things. On the dining table was a photograph of Scott holding a colleague’s newborn baby. She picked it up, looked at it briefly, and said, “That’s sad.” I was shocked at the smallness and flatness of her voice. When Marilyn and D’Arcy invited us to go looking at churches, she stayed at my sister’s; I was sent in her stead. Nor would she meet with the priest to arrange the funeral, although she chose the music and discussed her preferences over the telephone. Apparently numb, she was very clear about what she would and would not do. When she talked, she talked only about Scott.
There is no judgment implied in this description of Scott’s parents’ and Hannah’s responses. Both Marilyn and Hannah describe themselves as in shock in those first days. One turned to activity; the other to stasis.
Months later, I recognized Hannah in something I had been noticing in my reading about bereavement. Again and again I would come across descriptions or pictures in which a mourner sits stunned and unmoving. A miniature from the Flemish mid-15th-century Hours of Philip the Good is typical. It is a bedroom scene with a corpse being swathed in a winding sheet by two women. The casement window is open to allow the spirit to leave, the plain wooden coffin is ready. A woman, probably the widow, sits apart, resting her face on her hand, averting her gaze from both the body and the prayer book she holds. I began to think of this woman and others like her as the “immobilized widow,” although any close mourner could qualify.
Some cultures institutionalized the mourner’s inertia. In fishing villages on the east coast of Scotland, it was the custom for the widow to retreat immediately to her bed and receive visitors there. Middle-class European widows were confined in bedrooms hung with black cloth, and aristocratic widows received callers in special mourning beds, hung heavily with black and lent out to family members as the need arose. At the Burgundian court in 15th-century France, the widow of a knight was consigned to her bed for six weeks after her husband’s death.
The polar Inuit of a hundred years ago had the most strange and evocative custom I encountered along these lines. For five days after her husband’s death, the widow sat by his body, never standing and never lying down, with her husband’s trousers upon her head. As sometimes happens with an apparently bizarre tradition, this one had an eerie rightness I found hard to articulate. In a culture where clothes were few and treasured, a man’s widow sat by his side, not moving, crowned with his trousers. Except for the trousers, it reminded me of Hannah on my sister’s couch.
Sometimes expectations coupled with necessity meant that the widow had to do all the arranging and then look helpless. Elizabeth Grant’s Memoirs of a Highland Lady describes one such woman, an elderly relative whose husband died in 1814. The vignette has all the elements of the good death, Scottish Highlands style: the body laid out on the bed in the best room, wearing a ruffled shirt and nightcap, with hands crossed over the breast. White sheets and napkins were everywhere, on the chests and tables, pinned over the pictures and cushions. Refreshments (wine and seedcake for visitors of the first rank, whiskey and cheese for the others) were dispensed by a relative who watched by the corpse. The widow sat in a spare bedroom, playing what Elizabeth Grant calls the “serious part” of the Highland widow: silent and motionless, she nodded or whispered, but only if an answer was absolutely necessary. The scene, as Grant observes tartly, was letter-perfect, for it was truly a scene. The widow had in fact been up since early morning, “streaking the corpse” (arranging the limbs), organizing the wake-room and her own room, seeing to all the food and drink. Her culture dictated that she look the part of the stunned mourner, while at the same time it demanded that all the customary arrangements be in place.
We’ll never know if the backstage bustle or the public pose of numbness suited that Highland widow better – or if both served some purpose. But that nameless woman has been a reminder to me, when I’m tempted to wax nostalgic about cultures with firm protocols for the distracted or confused mourner. Sometimes those rules must have been a welcome support and sometimes, when they clashed with the mourner’s temperament, an uncongenial burden.
Modern permissiveness when it comes to the mourner’s behavior can look like a deprivation one minute, a blessing the next. In the case of Hannah and Marilyn, in those first days, it was a blessing. It helped, too, that the cast of characters was large enough to allow those who wanted to bustle to bustle, and those for whom activity was impossible to sit apart. Marilyn’s nervous energy found a purpose in organizing Scott’s funeral. Hannah, on the other hand, needed time to retreat, to absorb the shock, to absent herself for a while before she could contemplate life without Scott.

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Contributor notes

KATHERINE ASHENBURG is the author of both books and many magazine and newspaper articles. She has written for The New York TimesThe Globe and Mail and Toronto Life, among other publications. Her books include The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People DieThe Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, which was published in twelve countries and six languages, and the novel Sofie & Cecilia. In former incarnations, she was a producer at CBC Radio and was The Globe and Mail's Arts and Books editor. In 2012, she won a Gold Medal at the National Magazine Awards for her article on old age.

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Editorial Review

"The buoyant narrative is moving, exotic, outrageous… a potent, intensely human brew." --The Globe and Mail

"A fascinating, intelligent, and (dare I say) witty account of one of our most basic and least understood needs: to come to terms with the end of a life that we loved." --Alberto Manguel

"It's likely that for years to come, the recently bereaved will feel enormous gratitude to Katherine Ashenburg and her breathtakingly beautiful, staggeringly researched book." --Amazon.ca

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