Review: American Afterlife
Kate Sweeney. American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of American Mourning. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014. xiv + 216 pp. ISBN 978-0-8203-4600-7.
In her highly readable and freshly written American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning, Kate Sweeney goes in search of America’s elusive “death landscape” and reveals for her readers the myriad ways we mourn our dead. Chronicling her journeys to funeral customs museums, to tattoo parlors, and amongst the old relics of garden cemeteries, Sweeney’s work attempts to blend a cultural history of death with contemporary experiences of loss and mourning. Careful to point out that her work does not aim to offer an academic history of American death, the author picks at threads of the historical narrative to weave a tangible link between the long dead to those of us still waiting our turn. Struck by sheer breadth and diversity of death customs among American mourners, Sweeney writes her way from funeral homes to at-sea burials, noting oddities and distinctions as well as the shared search for larger meaning in the face of loss.
Each chapter in Sweeney’s work is unique in setting and tone, the author’s own curious meanderings acting as the only cohesive thread throughout. For example, the chapter on Oana Hogrefe, a post-mortem memorial photographer who specializes in creating portraits of recently deceased infants for grieving parents, reads painfully and heavy with grief. Other chapters, such as Sweeney’s coverage of the Great Obituarists Conference gathering, capture the morbid humor and amiable irreverence of folks who make hobby or art in the face of the inevitable reaper. More a collection of stories than an argument-driven narrative, Sweeney’s work will appeal to general audiences and students more than scholars of death and religion. Sweeney’s background in writing for radio is evident in her reflective and conversational prose. While some scholars may find her writing too breezy, students and general audiences will likely appreciate her casual and engaging tone, and will learn something new about death in America.
Sweeney is at her best when she allows herself to get close to her narrative, as in her introspective pondering on green burials. Comparing the pleasant sense of historic curiosity she experienced walking through Victorian garden cemeteries, Sweeney admits to feeling a visceral, claustrophobic fear as she contemplates “natural” casket-free burials. It is not the dead that frighten her, she notes, but rather the “absolute intimacy with the earth” (95). Indeed, Sweeney’s compassion for her subjects and willingness to get close to their pain transforms the impersonal roadside cross into a potent reminder of the singular, profound, and painful departures behind every such memorial. Her analysis of the shifting and mercurial meanings of the corpse will likely ring profoundly true for many of her readers. Noting that the rise in cremation has corresponded with a steady decline in traditional religious affiliations, the author analyzes the fading contact between living and dead bodies. Smartly, Sweeney does not accept outright the warning of scholars such as Philippe Ariés, who argued that death has disappeared from modern life. Rather than interpreting modern aversion to corpses as an inherent denial of death, Sweeney instead looks for the ways many search for meaning and concrete memorialization in the absence of the actual dead. Discomfort in the presence of dead bodies may be a hallmark of modern American deathways. Yet, in perhaps her most valuable contribution to death scholarship, Sweeney’s work reminds us that Americans are hardly trying to disappear death. Rather, most of us, Sweeney’s work suggests, are desperate to make death and grief our own.
As amateur historian and cultural anthropologist, Sweeney is less effective. Her engagement with scholarship is shallow, which is acceptable given the aims of her work. Sweeney is less sensitive and attentive to the complexities of human mourning when she confronts subjects from the past than she is with her contemporaries. In her analysis, Puritans’ morbid fears appear trite, just as nineteenth-century Americans’ intense focus on death appears weird and ghastly. Most problematic, for this reader, was Sweeney’s oversight of the non-Victorian, non-bourgeois, indeed, non-white histories of death and mourning. For all her wonderings through graveyards and histories of death in the American past, Sweeney largely ignores the unique death customs of African Americans, American Indians, and others who profoundly shaped American death customs. Her search for the elusive nature of how Americans die and grieve would have been served by a more complex notion of which deaths qualify under the banner.
Criticisms aside, Sweeney’s work captures well the open-endedness many Americans face as they prepare to die or lay a loved one to rest. The lack of a singular, dominant culture of death in the modern era simultaneously allows us construct postmortem rituals that reflect our individual values, yet also leaves many bereft of solid direction in the face of so many choices. Any study of death is also, inevitably, a study how human beings make sense of being alive. Given this, Sweeney’s patchwork collection of stories speaks powerfully to the unique despair and liberation found in a culture that allows and commands us to create ourselves and our lasting meaning, drawing only from the self, as we understand it.