About the Book

American AfterlifeAmerican Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning

University of Georgia Press, March 15, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8203-4600-7

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“From cooling boards to cremationists, obituarists to embalmers, Kate Sweeney’s American Afterlife holds a mirror up to human mortality and mortuary praxis and gives us a reading of the vital signs. Her book braces and emboldens our eschatological nerve—a reliable witness and well-wrought litany to last things and final details.”

—Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade


“At a brisk pace, but with frequent stops to relish the magnificent oddities of the terrain, Kate Sweeney guides readers down the lanes and boulevards of the American way of death. As we look into the grave, she looks at us, with an unflinching gaze that would be the envy of Jessica Mitford. Revelatory and—dare I say it?—terrifically entertaining.”

—Peter Trachtenberg, author of Another Insane Devotion


“American Afterlife is an insightful, warm, and lively tour of how we say good-bye. Kate Sweeney’s quest for the ‘why’ behind mourning rituals has given us a book in the best tradition of narrative journalism.”

Jessica Handler, author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss and Invisible Sisters


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.