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American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning Paperback – October 1, 2016
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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)
American Afterlife is an insightful, warm, and lively tour of how we say goodbye. Kate 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)
As radio reporter and producer Sweeney notes in this unsettling, compassionate volume on American mourning customs, death was once a ubiquitous part of American life; the Victorians raised mourning to an art form. . . . Her stories originate mostly in the South, but have universal relevance. Sweeney writes with a deft touch and with empathy for mourners, whose stories she relays with clarity and care. (Publishers Weekly)
From WABE reporter-producer Sweeney comes a funny, edifying American road trip that bears witness to our most revealing and eccentric funerary customs. (Gina Webb Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
[Sweeney's] enthusiasm . . . makes American Afterlife such an entertaining read. In the face of oblivion, Sweeney doesn't miss the occasional chance to marvel at life. . . . Sweeney makes no pretension of grappling with the totality of death. But through the constellation of her details we begin to see the practical shape, that thing we will only fully understand when we all inevitably meet it. (Wyatt Williams Creative Loafing ("20 People to Watch in 2014"))
Respectfully illuminating both the ludicrousness and the significance of mourning and its accompanying memorialization rituals, Sweeney reports the unsavory details alongside the poignancy of grief and sorrow. Written with the grim wit and appreciation of investigative reporter Mary Roach, the author delivers informative history on the murky business of death. A considerate exploration of mourning, just haunting enough to attract those with a penchant for macabre oddities. (Kirkus Reviews)
Sweeney's wicked sense of humor renders the topic of death not so scary, and her good-natured affection for the obsessives, the oddballs, and the entrepreneurs in the dismal trade make her a bewitching tour guide. (Teresa Weaver Atlanta Magazine)
A remarkably touching and humorous narrative about death in America
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American Afterlife is not morbid in any way, but rather enlightening, and really entertaining to read. It will be reread specifically because it IS entertaining.
Firstly, what I expected was hard non-fiction. I wanted a tightly-connected book that described the history of funeral practices in some level of detail. Instead what this book gives you is a rather loose cobbling together of a few historical tidbits and a surprising amount of memoir. Imagine something of the form, "roadside memorials have become increasingly popular; Steve built a roadside memorial in 1976 when his wife died in a terrible accident. She was blonde-haired and blue-eyed and stood 5'8 with a wispy figure and a penchant for pancakes that would make any man weak in the knees." OK, I'm making all that up but that's the general form we're talking about. The book seems to be about 15% history, 15% current day practices and 70% personal anecdote from the author's time writing the book. It's well-written certainly and entertaining in some ways but it's completely not what I expected when I plunked hit the 'buy' button.
The second important thing to know is that the book is not really terribly historical. The first chapter talks about funeral practices of days gone by from hair jewelry to cooling boards but the second chapter is about memorial tattoos and from there we're very much stuck in the present day. So this is a book about TODAY and only remotely historical.
In summary, it's entirely possible that you'll love this book. The author is a good writer and entertaining in a certain sense of the word but you should not buy this book with the idea that it's going to teach you much about the history of the mourning process. It contains a plethora of anecdotes both relevant and not; some entertaining and some not but if you, like I was, are just looking for an exploration of the morbid history of how we deal with those most final of destinations.... this isn't that book. Mary Roach's "Stiff" is probably more your cup of tea.
It's my endeavor to write reviews that are, above all, helpful to you as you make a buying decision. If I've accomplished that then great! If I've failed you in some way then please leave a comment letting me know what you would want to know. I'm always ready to improve my reviews and your feedback is a key component of that. thanks for reading this far!