Life or Death With Kate Sweeney
Available March 15, American Afterlife by Atlanta author Kate Sweeney delves into life, death and everything in between.
American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning is Kate Sweeney’s way of satisfying her own curiosity about death, loss and bereavement. An NPR producer at WABE 90.1 in Atlanta, Sweeney also curates the city’s bimonthly nonfiction reading series “True Story.” Published by University of Georgia Press, American Afterlife began as Sweeney’s thesis at UNC Wilmington, and she traveled the country to interview obituary writers, funeral directors and ordinary people who deal with death in everyday life for the book.
Sweeney puts death into perspective with quirky tidbits of history, a visit to the Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, Illinois, tours of Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta and Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first green burial cemetery in the nation, located in Westminster, South Carolina. She also attends a conference of obituary writers, talks with a memorial tattoo artist and examines the debate over roadside memorials in an attempt to determine the best way to live our lives — and the best way to die.
I spoke with Sweeney by phone in Atlanta about the book, how it’s changed her view of death and what it was like to hang out with a bunch of obituary writers for the weekend. She assured me she’s not a death-obsessed person who dresses all in black and hangs out in cemeteries. She’s just someone who decided to face her own mortality and tell stories while doing it.
Is there one story or chapter in the book that is your favorite?
Different parts of the book stick with me for different reasons, but I do love them all. When I look at them, I’m just so thankful to everyone who talked to me and who opened up. A lot of the folks I talked to spoke to me with such candor and I’m just so thankful to every single one of them.
Some of them, like the obituary writers, it sounds like you spent a lot of time with.
Yeah, that was really cool actually getting to fly to little Las Vegas, New Mexico, which I didn’t even know existed before meeting the obituarists and so getting to spend a weekend with those folks was really cool. The thing is that there weren’t even a whole heck of a lot of obituary writers at that conference, fewer than had been there in years past. As I went on researching that chapter, I called and emailed a lot of different obituary writers and talked with them about their craft and what they do, and that was really neat. In some ways, what they do is they tell life stories of people. In a way, that’s sort of what I was doing in this book, telling people’s life stories.
How long have you been fascinated with death? Does this go back to your childhood or did it develop later?
I am not a morbid person. I’ve never been somebody who goes around wearing black and hanging out in cemeteries listening to Goth music, but at the same time I think I’ve always been concerned with — and I think we all are to some extent — what is the best way to live life and how to get the most out of it. I worry about that all the time, and I think that my artistic response to that is to try to investigate that through my writing.
So, really what was happening was there were two different levels of interest going on. I was drawn to a lot of this stuff, because it was stuff I didn’t know about before. I didn’t know what Victorian hair jewelry was all about, this jewelry that people made out of human hair and then would hold onto as memorial jewelry. I didn’t know what went into putting together a conventional funeral. If you’re looking for sort of a world full of little known facts, funerals and memorialization, death is really ripe with it. As I went on, I sort of had to ask myself, why are you really doing this? What’s going on here? And I realized I was somebody in her late twenties and thirties working on this book who had never experienced catastrophic loss. I knew that sooner or later in all likelihood, this is going to happen to me. I think that on some level, I was looking for some ideas for how people cope with it. There’s no hard and fast answer for how to cope with loss when it happens to you, how to memorialize your loved ones, so what I did was turn to stories.
I was curious about your personal experience with death. Some people grow up going to the funeral of everyone in town, while other people aren’t exposed to that.
I was someone who definitely wasn’t exposed to that. I’m not a sociologist and I don’t like to draw big generalizations, but I think that’s true that that lack of familiarity with memorialization and with death is common in a lot of people my age and a lot of people who are living in this time and place. If you think about it, death and dying doesn’t take place in places where we’re likely to see it. It doesn’t take place in the home, it takes place in institutions so I think I have that in common with a lot of folks.
The idea of having a picturesque death scene replete with items like elaborate caskets dates back to Victorian England the Good Death. However, while such pomp was squashed in the United Kingdom in part by that nation’s massive casualties during the First World War, funereal finery in the United States continued to flourish even as our own attitudes toward death changed. – Chapter Six, “The House Where Death Lives”
How has writing the book changed your view of death?
I will say that doing this book has caused me to examine my own reactions and behavior when it comes to grieving. Here’s the reason for that. The book looks at folks in situations with mourning and memorialization today and then it also looks at people in similar situations in what is thought of as our mourning heyday, which was the 1800s, a time when public mourning was really public. Back then, when somebody died, there were precise rules of etiquette that people knew to follow. If you were a widow, you went into mourning for say two years. Today, somebody in the same situation doesn’t have precise rules to follow, and I am not saying that people had it better in the 1800s. I like germ theory and I like the fact that I don’t have to expect eight of my 10 children to die before they reach a certain age, but at the same time, talking to a lot of people I heard that people sort of feel at sea when they experience catastrophic loss.
Are we really giving people a chance to grieve? Are we allowing them a space to do that where they don’t feel like they have to keep it absolutely quiet? Since we don’t have those periods of grieving today, you might lose a loved one and then you go back to work a week, two weeks, three weeks afterward and you’re just sort of expected to behave like everybody else. That can be tough on people.
What you’re saying calls to mind the mom who lost her daughter in the book, had the roadside memorial and maybe wasn’t grieving in a way that made people comfortable. I thought it was interesting that you included she sort of made you uncomfortable.
She did a little bit. With Mary Wilsey, she lost a daughter to a car accident. Her daughter was just 20 years old, and the story that you might be thinking of is something like the day after her daughter died, she went out into the world and started planning for her daughter Brittany’s funeral. She went into a bridal shop and she chose a bridesmaid’s dress for her daughter to wear in her casket. She went to a floral shop and picked out flowers. The florist or someone who worked there asked her what is the occasion and she said, oh, it’s my daughter’s funeral and the florist was very uncomfortable about that. She said that her friends also said to her, you made her uncomfortable because you’re not at home having people take care of you. Instead, you’re out in the world with your grief sort in people’s faces and they don’t know what to do with that. That angered Mary because she felt like, well, I still want to do this last thing for my daughter. It’s the most important thing in the world to me.
Although she hasn’t absented herself from the world, Mary Wilsey has been living at an occupational remove. The first time I visit her, fifteen months after her daughter’s death, she’s just gotten a job—part-time work assisting the county Parks and Rec Department with its senior citizen program. It’s the first role unrelated to grieving that she’s taken on since Brittany’s death. Like a nineteenth-century mourner, Mary has kept herself occupied with the work of grief. – Chapter Eight, “Death by the Roadside”
A similar example, in that same chapter, when people don’t like roadside memorials, the big reason is that they are a symbol of grief in a public place … It raises this question: Should we have to be reminded of death in our everyday lives? In the 1800s, we would have said yes.
I read that the book started as your thesis. How did it change and evolve as you were developing it into a book, and how long did that process take?
There were some stops and starts because I graduated from my MFA program at UNC Wilmington and sort of had times when I was not working on the book. I started the book in 2007, and I think the main way the book changed was sort of figuring out the book’s tone. When I first started putting the book together, I was really drawn to the intellectually fascinating sort of nerdy facts about death. Like, ooh, I’m going to get to do a chapter on memorial photography, I’m going to get to write about hair jewelry, I’m going to write about green burial. But then what happens when you start interviewing people and talking to people who really have had real experiences with loss or people who have spent their lives sort of shepherding people through their loss, suddenly it becomes a lot more serious so you’ve got to figure out how do I balance these two tones.
Lenette Hall is a pioneer of enterprise. She puts it like this: ‘I sell the product that nobody wants to buy.’ As CEO, owner, and sole staff person of The Urngarden, Lenette sells funerary urns and other memorial accessories online, where she also blogs about the death trade’s ever-widening world. – Chapter Seven, “Lenette Hall, Owner, The Urngarden”
For me, it was a process of realizing that some of the lighthearted moments that I had in the early drafts really didn’t belong. They were actually evidence of sort of my own discomfort with what I was writing about and so there was a whole lot of cutting and a whole lot of rewriting that went on and I really feel confident and excited about what’s out there in the world now. There’s still actually a lot of humor in the book. An example that I think of from the book is the sister of a guy who is buried at Ramsey Creek Preserve, the green burial cemetery in South Carolina. He was in his thirties when he died, he was in a motorcycle accident, it was tragic, it was horrible and she tells this moving story of walking through the cemetery with her mother trying to find a spot to bury Stuart. They found this spot under a sourwood tree and he loves bluegrass music so sourwood was perfect and she goes right from there to telling me, oh yeah, the whole family goes back every year and his biker buddies come and they have a bluegrass jam at the cemetery and a weenie roast.
You sort of have these moments of lightness and moments of darkness. There were just so many things like that in the book.
I hope this isn’t too personal, but the book made me think about how I want to be buried. I’m wondering if you came to a conclusion about what you want to happen when you die?
Writing the book has caused me to think about that deeply and I’ve officially decided not to share my personal conclusion. The reason for that is that people who are advocates for different kinds of disposition often have really strong opinions about this idea that their form is the best form, and I don’t want to come across as an advocate for any particular form of disposition, because I sincerely see the reasons for every single one of them. For now, I’m keeping that mum, but it has caused me to think about it and make a decision with my husband.
What do you think is next for the business of the afterlife? You cite that cremations may surpass burials in the next couple of years.
I had followup conversations with everybody, but in my followup conversation with Joe Sehee from the Green Burial Council — when I first wrote about Ramsey Creek Preserve in 2007, there were four green burial cemeteries in the country — he told me that there are up to 40 now in the United States. So, that’s a trend apparently. Cremation is on the rise and I don’t know what that means for traditional, sort of full-body burial. I know people who would never consider anything but that, but I think that the folks to keep an eye on are the Baby Boomers right now. They’re coming of age if you will. They’re the folks who reinvented doing home births and getting married on the beach, and they have their eye on how they want to die and how they want to be remembered. We have stuff like death cafes, these blogs in which people talk about everything relating to death and those are popping up all over the world right now. You see a lot of people from that generation there saying it’s really important to me to have control of the last rite of passage in my life.
Kate Sweeney will be touring in promotion of American Afterlife throughout 2014. Her book launch party in Atlanta will be held on March 14 at Manual’s Tavern at 7:30 p.m. Carapace Raconteurs will be there telling stories about death, Sweeney will read from the book, and tables will feature shrines in the tradition of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Visit her website for the full tour schedule. Her reading series “True Story” is on hiatus right now but will return in May.