An interview with Kate

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When would you say, was the moment you became interested in the “customs of mourning”?

When I began the book, I knew I was interested in the wide body of quirky little-known facts that populate this topic. That’s what drew me in, on the surface. I mean, Victorian hair jewelry! The history of embalming fluid! How cemeteries came to be! Roadside memorials! All these things have these fascinating stories behind them. Quickly, I got to be a lot of fun at dinner parties. Then I had to ask myself if there was a deeper reason I was investigating all of this, and I realized it was this: There I was, in my late twenties and then early thirties, and I had never experienced catastrophic loss myself. The thought of loss terrified me. And since there’s no handbook that will tell you how to make everything okay once it does happen, I figured that I was doing the next-best-possible thing: Getting stories from people who had grappled with loss, or who helped people through it. I think that’s what we do as human beings in situations like this: We trade stories. And that’s largely what the book is.

When you were doing your research for the book was there anything that you found surprising or wholly unexpected?

There were so many moments like that. One I think of is this. I dove into the topic of memorial photography thinking it an odd, macabre practice from the past. Then I met this photographer who takes contemporary photographs of stillborn infants for their families, and this new truth hit me like a thunderclap: Her photos represented the only evidence parents might own of this brief but profound relationship. The reasoning was similar for our Victorian forebearers, for whom the memorial photo might be the only depiction they owned of a loved one. This was just one moment that began to change one question for me. It was no longer: Why were the Victorians so death-obsessed? but rather, What is our relationship to death now, and maybe: are we a little alienated from it?

Is there anything “behind the scenes” of your research process that you think readers might find interesting?

I developed a regular research relationship (Say that three times fast!) with the National Funeral Directors Association. One day, I was talking with their librarian, Kathleen Walczak, about some detail of funeral history, when she mentioned that they have a research library, and that I should come up and check it out. Their library is one small room in the complex that is the NFDA outside Milkwaukee, WI, but what a room! I spent several days there, combing the curling pages of old funeral trade publications--although a lot of these were on microfiche, so I also spent many-an-hour staring into the light of the machine. These old magazines were from the dawn of the funeral trade as we know it today. FASCINATING. I also got to pore over embalming textbooks, etiquette manuals--everything under the sun. It was just me and Kathleen. She gave me the key to their photocopier. She was so kind, and geeked out about all these small facts along with me. That was a great week.

The title of your book is American Afterlife. Aside from the fact that most of your research was done in America, would you say that there is anything uniquely American about these burial customs?

Absolutely. We’ve developed a definite way of doing things in the US. Our “traditional” (only in the last 100 years or so, mind you) funerals, with the flower displays and the big caskets and the rest are uniquely American, and in the book, I got to explore how these came to be— and even what folks in other countries may tend to think of them.