Encounters in the Customs of Mourning
An award-winning writer explores the patchwork American cultural history of grieving the departed.
One family inters their matriarch’s ashes on the floor of the ocean. Another holds a memorial weenie roast each year at a green-burial cemetery. An 1898 ad for embalming fluid promises, “You can make mummies with it!” while a leading contemporary burial vault is touted as impervious to the elements. A grieving mother, 150 years ago, might spend her days tending a garden at her daughter’s grave. Today, she might tend the roadside memorial she erected where her daughter was killed. One mother wears a locket containing her daughter’s hair; the other, a necklace containing her ashes.
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 are personally involved with death: obit writers in the desert, an Atlantic funeral voyage, a fourth-generation funeral director―even a midwestern museum that shows us our death-obsessed Victorian progenitors. Each story illuminates details in another, revealing a landscape that feels at once strange and familiar, one that’s by turns odd, tragic, poignant, and sometimes even funny.“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