American Afterlife
Encounters in the Customs of Mourning

Kate Sweeney

A remarkably touching and humorous narrative about death in America


“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 wellwrought 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: On the Love of Cats and Persons

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Someone dies. What happens next?

One family inters their matriarch’s ashes on the floor of the ocean. Another holds a memorial weenie roast each year at a greenburial 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 at the spot 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 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 deathobsessed 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.

Page count: 232
8 b&w photos
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5


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Kate Sweeney is a producer for NPR affiliate WABE 90.1 FM in Atlanta, Georgia. She has won three Edward R. Murrow awards and a number of Associated Press awards for her work.