Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Book Review: "American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning" by Katie Sweeney

I like cemeteries. I love the artistry of the headstones, the historical aspect and that it's quiet.
This is not me.

So this book kind of fell into my wheelhouse. In it, Kate explains the logistics of burial are kind of foreign to us and that when we are confronted with planning a funeral (especially if i's totally unexpected) we are somewhat at a loss. It's not a taboo subject as much as it is something that we don't think about until we absolutely have to.

There was a museum in Springfield Illinois, The Museum of Funeral Custom, that sounded like it would have been awesome if it was still open. It had artifacts about how people dealt with death and funerals through different times. There was a quilt, and all around the corners were the families names inside of a little patchwork casket, and when that person died, you moved their coffin into the middle of the quilt that looked like a little churchyard. My question is, where do you display that? Does that get casually thrown over the couch? Do you snuggle up with the dead relatives quilt while reading? There was also a wreath made out of the hair of the creator's dead mother. I won't be doing that for my mom, and not just because she has short hair either. I don't mean to mock people, but it's amazing how different it was.

Kate visits an old wonderful cemetery in Atlanta, Oakland. Famous Georgians are buried there including lots of politicians, soldiers from the Civil War and Margaret Mitchell of Gone With the Wind fame. Did you know that you can figure out a lot about a person by their headstone? If you see a tall angel holding a torch it means "a life snuffed out too soon", so it might be on a younger persons grave. Cradles and lambs are often used to indicate very small children and babies. If the headstone has hands holding each other the people buried their were parents, or at least spouses.

There was a whole section on green burial and how for a lot of people, it's like burial and funeral traditions during early times. Since no embalming is used, funerals have to be held quickly after death. A lot of people hold wakes or showings in their own homes. Family members can help dig the grave. I'm kind of all about this. I always say that whoever is around when I die can just take all my organs that someone might be able to use, say a prayer over me, put me in a cardboard box and bury me.

I really liked this book. It wasn't sad, which was kind of surprising considering the subject matter. It wasn't cheaply morbid or voyeuristic on people's sufferings. It was even funny sometimes. It gets 3.5 stars!

Author Katie and I had the following conversation on twitter:

Can I say how proud I am that I figured out how to embed a tweet. Holla! So what would you pick, wreath or quilt?


  1. Oh, this is totally in my creepy wheelhouse, too (I just requested a book about the history of decapitation if that tells you anything). I love anything that compares cultures and digs deep into stuff we don't find too often.

    1. I am a fan of the slightly creepy too. I kept thinking about what it would be like to have a wake with an actual body in my living room and I couldn't fathom it, it's amazing how things have changed in only 100 years!

  2. Must read! Sounds vaguely like Making an Exit by Sarah Murray, just a tighter focus. Great review!

    1. I really enjoyed it! Another random Goodreads recommendation that worked out well.


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