Modern Mortality: A Q&A with "American Afterlife" Author Kate Sweeney - Atlas Obscura
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Modern Mortality: A Q&A with “American Afterlife” Author Kate Sweeney

article-imageGraceland Cemetery, Chicago (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)

The art of dying in the United States is in a league of its own in terms of options, and cost. While green burial sites sprawled through forests, and even underwater reefs where ashes have been transformed into future homes for fish, are growing in popularity, there are still the exorbitantly expensive coffins buried in carefully manicured cemeteries, the embalming, the obituaries. American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning by Kate Sweeney, published this March by the University of Georgia Press, goes on-the-ground in examining what the history of death is in the United States, and how it’s rapidly changing. We asked Sweeney, an Atlanta-based author and award-winning radio story producer with NPR affiliate WABE, about her walk through the shadow of death. 

You did a lot of legwork in the book, wandering through Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, visiting roadside memorials, exploring green burial forests, riding the boat with families out to a memorial reef. Why do you think a sense of place is so essential to death in America?

We’re experiencing a period of change in this country, in which people are increasingly opting for cremation and scattering rather than traditional burial at cemeteries. We are a transient people, and that’s a big reason the family burial plot is dying off. (Cremation is also a lot cheaper, and another part of this may have to do with an increased squeamishness about dead bodies, but I digress.)

Still, people choose to scatter at the places their dead loved, or places of majestic beauty, and to we who survive, those places — the Grand Canyon, the Gulf of Mexico — become imbued with the spirits of the dead. And that’s kind of the ultimate testament.

A lot of people are scattering in more than one place, and maybe that’s a major statement about who we are as Americans. In life, we live out our American destinies manifest, traveling to where our careers and passions take us. Then in death, where our ashes are scattered reflects that: Here I am, in the Smoky Mountains, under my favorite tree in the backyard, scattered off of Maui, and hanging in a chain ‘round my daughter’s neck.

Much of American Afterlife uses the (now closed) Museum of Funeral Customs as a point of reflection on death in the United States. What drew you to center the narrative on the museum?

Other than the fact that the place was amazing?

Okay, so really: It’s always helpful for a writer to have strong scene with which to illustrate a point. As I wrote these stories of all these people making memorial choices today, I naturally ended up looking at how we got here as a nation. That involved reading and note-taking a great deal, going to research libraries, etc.

And that research was fascinating: learning, for instance, about our Victorian forebears, the folks who lived in the 1800s and influenced a great deal of what we think of when it comes to death and memorialization. These are the people who invented the deathbed scene, the cemetery as we know it, and even the conception of heaven that still holds sway in the popular imagination.

But when you’re telling tales of memorialization in America, there’s no substitute for actual scene, right? (People only want to read so much “I was sitting in the library, looked up from the microfiche and declared, ‘My god, that’s wild!’”)

The Museum of Funeral Customs was perfect. Want some Victorian jewelry made from human hair? Here are several cases! How about a collection of hearses? Cooling boards? A model of a home funeral from the 1920s? The place granted some great concrete jumping-off points for illustrating our nation’s fascinating past and present when it comes to death.

article-imageA viewing display at the Museum of Funeral Customs (photograph by Robert Lawton)

article-imageFuneral carriage at the Museum of Funeral Customs (photograph by Robert Lawton)

Do you think there will ever be an afterlife without cemeteries, or do people need the dead around?

A lot of historic cemetery people I talk with worry about this. Sure, we may have digitized records now, that genealogical researchers can use when looking up family histories even without cemeteries, but that’s no substitute for traveling to the place and touching the gravestone. I kind of have to concede the point. After all, I was just talking about what a pilgrimage for me it was to visit this museum in Springfield to see all that stuff I’d been reading about, right?

There is something to the artifact, to the original object — especially when combined with the physical place it came from. And again, that may be one reason scattering ashes is so popular. When Americans lack a single home-place, they might opt for association in death with the multiple places that moved them in life.

In what way have the deceased and mourning shaped our current cities and landscapes?

What a fascinating question. Here’s one example: As I mentioned above, our Victorian ancestors basically invented the cemetery. Prior to about the turn of the 19th century, there were no cemeteries in the United States, only graveyards. Graveyards were places you buried your dead, but they were not designed to be pleasant places, and the living did not spend much time there. Many were built in city centers, but European cities in the late 1700s developed this little problem: graveyards there were getting overcrowded. There were cave-ins and all sorts of nasty, smelly incidents, including this disgusting one in Paris I talk about in the book [the collapse of the Cemetery of the Innocents that threw over 2,000 corpses into neighboring basements, leading to the creation of the Catacombs].

Oddly enough, this was part of what led to the great cemetery movement, and the advent of the rural-style cemetery, a trend which came into our continent in the early 1800s, with the establishment of cemeteries like Mount Auburn in Massachusetts and Oakland Cemetery in Georgia.

These cemeteries were designed to be gardens for the dead and places of respite and reflection for the living. They were intentionally placed on the outskirts of city-centers, on these great, sprawling grounds, where families and courting couples visited and held picnics and planted gardens on their family plots. If you look at their design, you’ll see that they’re quite reminiscent of the nation’s first great parks, which were being established around the same time. (Although, to our Victorian forebears, the great cemeteries were far more romantic and contemplative than mere parks, having, as they did, that added thrilling element of death to dwell on. The Victorians were big on that.)

With their winding walkways, cul-de-sacs, and landscaping, early cemeteries are also reminiscent of another later development: the suburb. I’ll leave that one with you to ponder. 

What do you imagine an American cemetery will look like in a hundred years?

I try to leave most prognosticating to actual experts, as I’m just a writer who got obsessed with this stuff and let it take over her life for several years. Here’s what we do know: the cremation rate is rising. It has topped 40 percent, and the Cremation Association of North America estimates it will outpace traditional burial by 2016 or so.

Of course, people still bury ashes in cemeteries. Another trend is the green burial cemetery, which buries people in an ecologically friendly manner: no embalming, no vaults. According to the Green Burial Council, there are now 40 green burial cemeteries in the United States; that’s up from four in 2007, when I began following that phenomenon. So in a hundred years, who knows? It would be fun to quip that maybe all cemeteries will be historic cemeteries, but in truth, I wouldn’t bet on it. 

article-imageA roadside memorial in California (photograph by Donald Lee Pardue)


American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning by Kate Sweeney is available from University of Georgia Press.