Ashenburg, Katherine

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Ashenburg, Katherine


Children: Hannah. Education: Doctorate.


Home—Toronto, Ontario, Canada. E-mail—[email protected].


Freelance writer and editor. Previously editor of Arts and Books at the Globe and Mail, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; radio producer at Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. (CBS); and faculty member at the University of British Columbia, Canada.


Fred Landon Award for best regional history, Ontario Historical Society, for Going to Town.


Going to Town: Architectural Walking Tours in Southern Ontario, photography by Brian A. Kilgore, Macfarlane Walter & Ross (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996.

The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die, Macfarlane Walter & Ross (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002, North Point Press (New York, NY), 2003.

The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, North Point Press (New York, NY), 2007, published in England as Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing, Profile Books (London, England), 2008.

Contributor of articles to periodicals, including the "Sunday Travel" section of the New York Times; columnist on design and architecture for Toronto Life magazine.


Katherine Ashenburg is a freelance writer and editor who has written numerous articles on subjects ranging from travel to mourning customs and architecture. Her debut book, Going to Town: Architectural Walking Tours in Southern Ontario, received the Ontario Historical Society's Fred Landon Award for best regional history. With three hundred photographs by Brian A. Kilgore and eleven maps, the guidebook provides walking tours of ten small Ontario communities that feature a variety of domestic and public architecture. The author includes a history of each town and describes tours that include jails, libraries, town halls, theaters, factories, and various homes. The author discusses architectural styles, building materials used, and various builders. Included in the book are an illustrated "Guide to Historical Styles" and a glossary of architectural terms.

Writing for the Curled Up with a Good Book Web site, Virginia Williams called Ashenburg's next book, The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die, "scholarly without being heavy-handed, intellectual while comforting." In her book, the author provides a history of mourning rituals in various cultures. "The idea for the book grew from the sudden death of her daughter's fiancé and watching the young woman unconsciously re-create traditional rituals of mourning," wrote Sharon Dickman for the University of Rochester Web site. In an interview for Business WeekOnline, the author noted about her daughter, Hannah: "What I never expected was to see her making up actions and stuff to cope with Scott's death." She observed: "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…. 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."

The author's experience with her daughter spurred her on to explore the various inventive rituals that cultures throughout history developed to deal with the pain of mourning. The author looks at Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant religious traditions of mourning over history. She also writes about the various cultural practices of mourning, such as the ancient Indian suttee, or sati, practice of burning widows. The author pays special attention to North American culture and its emphasis on practices of mourning that are primarily conducted in private, without the help of community or friends, and compares this approach to grieving customs throughout history, which were so integrated into daily living that they led to ready-to-wear clothing for mourning periods and various other practices. Ashenburg also explores the traditions of keepsakes, the type of clothing deemed acceptable for mourning, and places where the deceased were laid to rest. In addition, she examines modern approaches to mourning, such as Internet support groups.

In a review of The Mourner's Dance for Publishers Weekly, a contributor noted: "Though its treatment of anthropological themes may be selective, the book eloquently makes the point that mourning is a necessary and transformative experience." Writing in the Library Journal, Mary Prokop referred to the book as "an informative, educational, and entertaining text."

The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History provides a look through the ages at how people in various cultures viewed and practiced cleanliness. The author's survey includes ancient Rome, seventeenth-century France, and modern America, where, the author claims, cleanliness is overemphasized. "I think Americans are really over the edge. They were as dirty as Europeans until the Civil War," the author told Anna Mundow in an interview for the Boston Globe. The author explained the effectiveness of the Civil War-era Sanitary Commission, which was created to help prevent infections and other problems in the Union Army and prompted Americans to take a new approach to the idea of cleanliness. "I think America came out of the Civil War thinking that cleanliness was progressive, effective, egalitarian," Ashenburg told Mundow. She added: "Today, though, I think American cleanliness has to do with controlling things."

In her book, which focuses primarily on Western Europe and the United States, the author reveals how ideas about cleanliness have varied according to cultures and eras. For example, she explains how first-century Romans thought being clean meant taking a two-hour soak in baths, using a type of small rake to scrape the body, and then applying oil after the bath. Meanwhile, French aristocrats many centuries later considered changing shirts and washing hands to be the epitome of cleanliness. "Ashenburg piles one delightful … anecdote upon another," noted Scott H. Silverman in the Library Journal. The author also explores how ideas about cleanliness are connected to peoples' concepts of both sexuality and spirituality. Other topics examined by the author include historical events associated with cleanliness, such as plagues and the discovery of germs; strange instructions for cleanliness made by doctors over the ages; and the indulgences of various authors concerning their own cleanliness. Overall, Ashenburg provides an analysis of why peoples' standards for cleanliness have fluctuated over the centuries. "In clear and straightforward prose, Ashenburg condenses a vast amount of information into smooth chapters that are free of padding," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor of The Dirt on Clean. New York Times Book Review contributor Sara Ivry commented: "With its whimsical line drawings and gee-whiz marginalia (heard the one about the ordinance decreeing that feces be removed from hallways at Versailles at least once a week?), The Dirt on Clean is an amusing … primer."



Booklist, November 15, 2007, Barbara Jacobs, review of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, p. 11.

Boston Globe, December 30, 2007, Anna Mundow, "Pretty Dirty Things: A Survey," interview with author.

California Bookwatch, January, 2008, review of The Dirt on Clean.

Canadian Book Review Annual, annual, 2003, Patricia Morley, review of The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die, p. 391.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2007, review of The Dirt on Clean.

Library Journal, September 15, 2003, Mary Prokop, review of The Mourner's Dance, p. 78; November 15, 2007, Scott H. Silverman, review of The Dirt on Clean.

National Post, December 29, 2007, Robert Wiersema, review of The Dirt on Clean, p. 9.

Nature, November 22, 2007, Virginia Smith, review of The Dirt on Clean, p. 482.

New Statesman, March 31, 2008, Cressida Connolly, "A Bigger Splash," review of Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing, p. 56.

New York Times Book Review, December 16, 2007, Sara Ivry, "That Fresh Feeling," review of The Dirt on Clean, p. 27.

Psychology Today, September-October, 2003, review of The Mourner's Dance.

Publishers Weekly, July 14, 2003, review of The Mourner's Dance, p. 68; November 17, 2003, John Baker, "Canadian Agent Bella Pomer Sold a New Book by Journalist and Lecturer Katherine Ashenburg for U.S. Rights to Becky Saletan at North Point Press," p. 12; September 3, 2007, review of The Dirt on Clean, p. 51.

School Library Journal, May, 2008, Tom Holmes, review of The Dirt on Clean, p. 162.

SciTech Book News, March 1, 2008, review of The Dirt on Clean.

Toronto Life, March, 2003, John Macfarlane, "This Issue," includes brief profile of author, p. 19.

Wilson Quarterly, winter, 2008, Winifred Gallagher, "Bath and Body Works," review of The Dirt on Clean.


Business Week Online, (October 23, 2003), "Mourning in America; Author Katherine Ashenburg Talks about How Grieving Changed Dramatically after World War I—and How It's Changing Again Now."

Curled Up with a Good Book, (July 9, 2008), Virginia Williams, review of The Mourner's Dance.

Dirt on Clean Web site, (July 9, 2008).

Katherine Ashenburg Home Page, (July 9, 2008).

Mark of Ashen Wings, (January 28, 2008), Dru Pagliassotti, review of The Dirt on Clean.

University of Rochester Web site, (January 31, 2005), Sharon Dickman, "Event: Neilly Series Lecture by Katherine Ashenburg, Author of The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die, on Mourning Practices in North America."

Writers Read, (March 25, 2008), "Katherine Ashenburg," interview with author.