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American Afterlife: Encounters in the…

American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning

by Kate Sweeney

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In 2009, Kate Sweeney wrote a Master’s thesis at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The author has reworked the thesis and published it as American afterlife : encounters in the customs of mourning. She covers early burials (who knew what a cooling board was), cemeteries, funeral homes, roadside memorials, and green burials. She writes of a visit to the now defunct Museum of Funeral Customs, participates in a burial at sea, and interviews various people like a tattoo artist, a writer of obituaries, a memorial photographer, and several others. Changing ways of dealing with death are highlighted.

Since this work began as a thesis, it contains endnotes as well as a brief bibliography for further reading. Surprisingly, she does not include Jessica Mitford’s The American way of death in the bibliography, the book that brought the funeral industry into public notice. There are also a few illustrations included, but none on cooling boards. In my advanced reader’s copy, there was no index but one will be included in the final version of the book. It would have come in handy several times. The author was confused about the life of Queen Victoria when she was used as an example of mourning. Her husband was Prince Albert, whom she mourned the rest of her long life, not King Edward who was her eldest son.

Having read several very dry and uninteresting books that began as theses, I expected a densely written academic book. Instead this was an informal and highly interesting book about funeral customs written by a reporter for the NPR station in Atlanta. I can recommend this to anyone with an interest in the subject of mourning customs. ( )
  fdholt | Jan 22, 2014 |
Every 14 seconds, some one dies in the United States. But how do we mourn those deaths? How do current mourning practices compare to those of the past? And what do new innovations and practices in the funerary industry have to say about the social landscape of the country? Kate Sweeney’s American Afterlife looks at all these facets of the American funerary, burial, and death services to get a picture of how we deal with the loss of a loved one.

Her book covers many unique aspects of the death business, from different methods of burial and remembrance to urn sellers to memorial photographers and more. Sweeney’s book is much like Mary Roach’s Stiff but without any of the humor. Her voyeuristic in-roads into the America death industry are eye-opening but fall a bit short of ground-breaking. The writing is good, but overall, I wanted more, something that address some greater realities about mourning and mourners. If you’re interested in some of the newer aspects of the funerary business, such as turning loved ones into coral reefs or buying your own urn or the legality of roadside memorials, then you’ll get some answers here. For anything else, you’ll have to look elsewhere. ( )
  NielsenGW | Dec 27, 2013 |
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What happens after someone dies depends on our personal stories and on where those stories fall in a larger tale--that of death in America. It's a powerful tale that we usually keep hidden from our everyday lives until we have to face it. American Afterlife by Kate Sweeney reveals this world through a collective portrait of Americans past and present who find themselves personally involved with death: a klatch of obit writers in the desert, a funeral voyage on the Atlantic, a fourth-generation funeral director--even a midwestern museum that takes us back in time to meet our death-obsessed Victorian progenitors. Each story illuminates details in another until something larger is revealed: a landscape that feels at once strange and familiar, one that's by turns odd, tragic, poignant, and sometimes even funny.… (more)

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