16 July 2018

American Afterlife | Book Review

American Afterlife: Encounters in Customs of Mourning (2014)

By Kate Sweeney

Part of the obsession with death and dying is wanting to learn more about every aspect. Sweeney's book is written so the reader can feel as if they are on an incredible journey of investigation and rediscovery. Historical facts and long-forgotten truths are brought to light through the elegant and sometimes humorous words within the pages. 

"To Americans, death is an enigma" Sweeney writes when a museum curator becomes perplexed by a guest's question. And the question itself is jaw-dropping. The curator of the museum is only one of the many stories wrapped up in her "travel journal" type encounters. The places and individuals she encounters would be on the bucket lists of any individual who is curious about death and dying customs in America. From the museum, she visits a cemetery or two, she explores the "green" funeral movement, a tattoo artist's philosophical impressions of memorializing loved ones on skin, a a funeral chaplain, a mother who maintains a roadside memorial, and more.

History is rich within the pages of American Afterlife. Understanding the implications that war, disease, culture, and even fashion had on the views and practices related to mourning, funerals, burials, cremations, and so on is extraordinary to read. Sweeney is doing more than recounting her adventures; she is also providing the reader the facts, references, a tentative map and the desire to investigate these places yourself.

Kate Sweeney is empathetic to the reader and beautifully discusses each encounter, fact, and location as if to place an arm around the reader's shoulder. This book is far from morbid or grotesque. It is a great addition to any death education library.

UPDATE: It's sad to say, but the Museum of Funeral Customs, as mentioned throughout the book, is permanently closed. This mid-western location was open from 1999 to early 2009 and due to lack of funding and traffic, they were forced to close their doors permanently. Some of the photographic remains of the museum can be found simply by searching the internet. One can only imagine what it must have been like to set foot through the doors rather than view the photos through a screen.

-Monica Massengale, Death Reference 2018