A biography of American mourning

Jun 24, 2014

Author Kate Sweeney’s first book came out earlier this year.

American Afterlife is a book about everyday Americans who find themselves involved with death and memorialization,” Sweeney says, “as well as how we got here as a country.”

Sweeney spoke with memorial photographers and funeral home managers; people who specialize in funerary urns, a woman who tends to her daughter’s roadside memorial, a hospital chaplain, a tattoo artist who inks memorial portraits.  

Sweeney went to Las Vegas, N.M. to attend a conference of obituary writers. She perused the Museum of Funeral Customs in Illinois, and attended a burial at sea on the Atlantic Ocean.

These cross-country--and cross-cultural experiences were totally new for Sweeney.

Yes, she decided to write a book about death, but she says she’s not excessively morbid.

She doesn’t wear black nail polish and smoke cloves and ponder death all the time.  

“It began as a matter of simple intellectual curiosity,” Sweeney says.

She always loved Six Feet Under, the HBO series about a family that owned a funeral parlor. While the show sounds dark, it was also deeply funny, and it was one of the first well-loved HBO shows.

Then, Sweeney read an article in The New Yorker about cemeteries that specialize in “green burials,” which are memorial sites where everything is biodegradable. She found a cemetery nearby in Westminster. S.C., so she decided to do some reporting, make it a magazine story.

“It was the kind of thing where you begin writing about something and learning about something, and ... the whole world opens up to you about that topic. It seemed like everywhere I looked, suddenly it was like, ‘Oh here’s a company that makes artificial coral reefs out of peoples cremated ashes.’ And ‘Oh, did you know that the Victorians used to make mourning jewelry out of huam hair,’ and just all sorts of fascinating things about which I knew nothing.“

The other reason Sweeney thought she should write a book about mourning is that, while fully aware that death is an unavoidable part of life, she herself had never experienced catastrophic loss.

To that end, while American Afterlife certainly isn’t a self help book or a manual about grief, it is an exploration of what it’s like for the rest of us after the death of a loved one, a series of profiles of people who have survived incomprehensible sorrow, and the others who help us get through it.

In addition to these deeply personal stories, Sweeney also explores the origins of words like casket and mortician, which were created in the United States. American Afterlife balances lightheartedness and fascination with respect and grace.

“Besides being fun, it’s been a real honor,” Sweeney says. ‘I’ve talked with a lot of people who have really shared their personal experiences with me and opened up in a way makes me feel so honored. “

When you talk to Sweeney, you can tell each of the people who told her their stories has changed Kate in a different way.

She remembers details not as if she’s reciting facts, but almost as if these are her stories now, too.

“I think that one reason I wanted to write it is that I wanted to be not so afraid of death,” Sweeney says.

“I wish I could say that were true now, that I could say I’m no longer scared, but I am. I am scared of losing the people I love.

“But the people I met who work with death every day often there would be just this light about them. And this strength. IT’s something I saw again and again and again, and I don’t think I”m ever going to forget that.”

Sweeney will read from, and sign copies of, her book American Afterlife tonight at 7 at Malaprop’s bookstore in downtown Asheville.