Title: American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning
Author: Kate Sweeney
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Publication Date: March 15, 2014
Number of Pages: 232
How I Got It: NetGalley / Alison Law
Someone dies. What happens next?
A family inters its matriarch’s ashes on the floor of the Atlantic. Another holds a memorial weenie roast at a green burial cemetery. An 1898 ad for embalming fluid promises, “You can make mummies with it!” while a contemporary leading burial vault is touted as impervious to the elements. 150 years ago, a grieving mother might tend a garden at her daughter’s grave. Today, she might tend the roadside memorial she erected at the spot her daughter was killed. One woman wears a locket containing her brother’s hair, the other, a necklace containing his ashes. Someone dies. What happens next depends both upon our personal stories and where those stories fall in a larger tale—that of death in America. It’s a powerful tale. And yet it’s usually hidden from our everyday lives until it happens to us.
American Afterlife explores the experiences of individual Americans involved with death in a culture where even discussing such things is practically taboo. These chapters follow ordinary people making memorial choices as well as the purveyors of those choices to investigate how we memorialize our dead, where these practices came from, and what this says about us.
The details in these personal stories build upon one another to reveal a landscape that’s usually hidden in our ordinary lives—until the day it’s not. At once strange and familiar, and by turns odd, poignant, and funny, American Afterlife brings fresh insight to the oldest of concerns.
NPR Affiliate Producer Kate Sweeney Explores Americas Traditions and Trends Regarding Death in "American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning”
What originally began as a graduate thesis to explore why death dually fascinates and terrifies most Americans, eventually became the book "American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning." Atlantan Kate Sweeney was a fan of the HBO series "Six Feet Under," and found herself intrigued with "alternative" burials, as well as the Victorian memorial traditions of visiting cemetaries when courting, photographing the dead, and creating memorial jewlery incorporating the deceased's hair. She found that memorial photography was so popular at the end of the 19th century, not because of morbid fascination, but due to the fact that photography was a new technology and someone having their picture taken was rare. Family members chose to have have photos made of their dead relative because that person may have never had their photograph taken while they were alive. A memorial photograph could have been the only photograph ever taken of that person. As for memorial jewelry, the prevelance was more sentimental than factual. The hair of the deceased was woven into "bracelet chains, earrings, wreaths—even purses and tiaras." Hundreds of years before Pinterest, Victorian women’s magazines "featured vexingly difficult craft projects featuring hair."
While the book covers past customs, it also sheds light on changing trends. Such as the fact it is no longer true that cemetaries are the only option for the dead. The rate of cemetary alternatives is rising and The Cremation Association of North America predicts cremation "to outpace “traditional” whole-body burial by 2017." Other options are "green" burials, which means no metal casket fixtures or embalming fluid, or the deceased can choose to become any variety of gems, ink drawings, plant mulch, artifical coral reefs, fireworks or vinyl records.
Wanting "to satisfy her own curiosity about death, loss and bereavement," Sweeney found it "best to just look the phenomenon in the face to figure it out." She began interviewing obituary writers, funeral home owners and a multitude of people involved in the business of death. Sweeney traveled to New Mexico, Minnesota, Illinois, and South Carolina to visit the National Funeral Director Association headquarters, the Museum of Funeral Customs, attend the 10th Great Obituarist Conference, and participate in an artificial reef "burial." She researched and visited Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery, and spoke with officials about roadside memorial regulations, online sellers of cremation urns, chaplains, a memorial tattoo artist, and a volunteer memorial photographer. After meeting a volunteer photographer who takes photos of stillborn infants she had a revelation and her focus shifted from "Why were the Victorians so death-obsessed?" to "What is our relationship to death now, and maybe: are we a little alienated from it?"
This book explores "how we memorialize our dead, where these practices came from, and what this says about us." Sweeney emphasizes that "this is a book that’s equally about death and life. They’re just two sides of the same coin."
Kate Sweeney teaches workshops for creative writing and is the NPR Affiliate Producer responsible for the bimonthly non-fiction reading series, True Story, on WABE 90.1 FM. Her award winning writing (three Edward R. Murrow awards plus several from the Associated Press) has been featured in an assortment of local and national magazines. "American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning” releases March 15, 2014 from University of Georgia Press. For more information visitAmericanAfterlifeBook.com
** I received this book in exchange for an honest review **
** This review is due to appear in the April edition of Buckhaven Lifestyle magazine (BuckhavenLifestyle.com) **