American Afterlife by Kate Sweeney

The Living Undead

Books Reviews
American Afterlife by Kate Sweeney

A young man lies in a casket.

His death, by motorcycle accident, so stunned family and friends that the shock remains, four days later, at his memorial service. They wander the funeral home aimlessly, confused. His death arrived with so little warning it set them adrift.

Finally, funeral chaplain Anne Gordon stands and looks over the audience. Gordon, a former Scots nurse who now lives in North Carolina, speaks at weddings but prefers funerals. She serves as chaplain to the police department. She loves high-speed pursuits. She expects to be unexpected.

Today, her speech surprises.

Everyone dies, she says. And that’s okay.

Writers have addressed mortality for centuries. John Donne admonished not to ask for whom the bell tolls. Chuck Palahniuk suggested that on a long enough timeline, everyone’s life expectancy falls to zero.

Fearful as it may be for the dying, death is over for the dead. The same can be said of its burden, grief. The living alone must carry that.

How we do so stands as the subject of Kate Sweeney’s first book. Drawn from extensive interviews and her years as a reporter with what can only be called a death obsession, Afterlife moves past the corporeal act of death itself and examines how we, as a society, mourn. Sweeney answers questions we never thought to ask and introduces us to characters like the delightfully unexpected Anne Gordon.

This study comes at a particularly interesting moment in American history, a sort of accidental confluence of science and population.

Between 1946 and 1964, the Greatest Generation birthed more than 76 million children. These Baby Boomers constituted at one time nearly 40 percent of the United States population, the largest generation America had ever known. The oldest Boomers now live in their late ‘60s, meaning the generation raised on John Wayne, that fought, died in and protested the Vietnam War, invented rock n’ roll, liberated women, enjoyed a sexual revolution, got high, disco danced, reinvented Wall Street greed and gave us everything from the iPad to Starbucks—this same group now must decide how it will age and, yes, die.

Boomers have fought hard to keep their parents alive—few pull the plug until they exhaust every FDA-approved procedure, sample the growing retinue of imported medications and at least consider the foreign organ trade. Boomers seem determined to beat death.

This helps us all. Every generation since the Baby Boom has, so far anyway, lived a life incrementally safer and more privileged. We expect long, orderly, pleasure-filled lives ruled by reason and mostly free of the capricious death (diphtheria, polio, Ford Pinto, etc.) that once plagued us … and still plagues a great many not lucky enough to be a 21st-century American.

Immortality? Call it our birthright.

With her book, Sweeney has found the sweet spot between a citizenry that never dies and those left to carry the flame when we do.

“To Americans,” she notes, “death is an enigma.” And yet, “…this strange land of mourning, of memorialization, and of death itself is one for which we’re all eventually bound.”

How does someone raised to believe nothing bad will ever happen respond when the worst comes calling? For context, Sweeney begins in the Victorian era, death’s golden years, when societal norms dictated ways we mourned.

She details, at length, mourning periods. They varied depending on your familial proximity to the deceased. Mourning attire—always black, always uncomfortable—came with a host of strange death-related phenomena, like jewelry made of hair, and in-home funerals where undertakers prepared grandma’s body in the kitchen.

Morbid as it all seems, the Victorians, Sweeney reminds us, had good reason—they lived surrounded by death. The average American died at 47, and infant mortality so terrorized parents that many didn’t name a child until after a first birthday. Disease and disaster took rich and poor alike.

This was also, lest we forget, the Age of Reason. The Enlightenment traded the old beliefs of predestination and an angry God for the notion that man could be a creature of worth. Death might be unavoidable, but the dead meant something in life. For the first time, you were gone but not forgotten.

By the early 20th century, medical advances meant we could fight back. Once an inescapable part of life, death became an anomaly. Grief went out of style—almost overnight, public mourning became not just unfashionable but unseemly, distasteful.

The demise of mourning meant the demise of the dead, themselves. Once prepared for the afterlife in our own homes, we now hold them at arm’s length.

For evidence, Sweeney points to the death trade’s preponderance of euphemisms, which constitute, if not their own language, then certainly an intentionally disorienting dialect. Coffins? No, call them caskets. Cemeteries? Call those memorial gardens. The undertaker turned into a funeral director; the dead person, Joe or Jane, merely the decedent.

The slow-moving, but not so subtle shift, goes on. As we strive for a more active and natural approach to life, many people take a more natural and active approach to death.

Witness the green burial. Sweeney recounts her journey to Ramsey Creek Preserve in North Carolina where the dead—here they don’t shy away from that word—lie in a biodegradable pine box. No embalming fluids, no grave markers, merely the natural landscape. Returning mourners will find nothing of their dearly departed except the natural world their bodies feed.

Then we come to the cremains. Cremation is not exactly new … but how about shooting grandma’s ashes into space so they can orbit the earth?

Strange? Yes. But stranger than storing grandma in an urn on the mantle? Space becomes something to consider because we can now reach it. Not interested? Then how about the ocean … or rather, the ocean floor? Sweeney braved seasickness to report on a company that drops ash-filled concrete balls off the coast of South Carolina. These rest in peace for hundreds of years as artificial reefs.

A growing numbers of people scatter ashes in national parks … so many, in fact, that the park system now issues ash-scattering permits. If this sounds New Age, think again. The cemetery as we know happens to be a 19th-century invention. Our death-obsessed ancestors the Victorians designed these peaceful, bucolic settings not merely as resting places for the dead but also for themselves—they picnicked, played and went on dates in their cemeteries.

Another new trend in grief comes in colors—the tattoo. Some mourners tattoo merely a name. Others want a painstakingly rendered and realistic portrait. Both memorialize, publicly and permanently, the dead. Think of it as a long black veil you cannot remove later when the storm clouds of grief disappear.

Still, as Sweeney describes it, the sentiment behind these tattoos celebrates living too. Tattoos seem to be as much about hanging on as letting go.

“It’s not just the permanence of the finished product,” she writes, “but the discomfort inherent in the process that draws people in mourning to translate an emotional throbbing into a physical one and emerge intact on the other side with a beautiful scar.”

If your loved ones aren’t into tattoos, then think of the Internet as your portal to immortality. You can now post videos to various Web sites where staff will (for a fee) posthumously deliver them to your Facebook friends.

You may turn down your brother’s invitation to play Candy Crush Saga, but you’d likely accept his digitized farewell.

Sound absurd? That’s no accident. Sweeney constantly reminds us absurdity plays as big a role in death as in life. Take her section on roadside memorials. What begins as testimony to a parent’s undying love quickly devolves into a discussion about municipal codes. Turns out, if the white cross marking the spot of your child’s death sits in the right-of-way, it’s illegal. Worse still? How often people report the violation.

Many things can be said of passing drivers who want a memorial torn down, none of them nice. Sweeny, though, suggests that the offended dislike the public display of grief more than the violation itself.

Along with all its entertaining forays into death, the book contains moments of genuine poignancy … none greater, perhaps, than the chapter on photographer Oana Hogrefe.

Hogrefe specializes in families whose newborn dies before leaving the hospital. It is heart-wrenching to read. Still genuine hope lives here.

Hogrefe’s photos—provided free of charge—memorialize the moment, crystallizing a family’s grief tied to a very real event. This may sound strange, but for parents caught in this horrifying scenario, all too often the grief goes unrecognized. How, after all, do you mourn a life that never was?

Here, Sweeney deftly walks us through, showing us, remarkably, not letting go but holding on, creating a sense of togetherness, of love. A sense of family. In recognizing its death, a child receives life … however short. The photos say I lived. I mattered.

We get much more, of course, including an incredible section on obits and the journalists who write them. But you get the idea—however much we try to hide it, grief accompanies death. It remains a part of life.

Sweeney writes the perfect story for our time, in the best possible way—with brisk, clear prose, unobtrusive but unflinching. She shepherds us through a strange landscape yet doesn’t linger. How best to mourn is simply, in the end, too personal.

Today your death may inspire tears or tattoo. A plume of smoke may signal your ashes rocketed into space. You may sleep with the fishes or collect dust … on your dust … on the mantle. Maybe you’ll become jewelry or fertilizer or a roadside memorial. Cremation not your thing? Wear your best suit and draw a large crowd. Or let a quiet few lower you into the clay by hand.

The bell eventually tolls—for you, for me, for all of us. That much we know.

How your loved ones carry the burden may be the only real uncertainty.

Kevin Hazzard is an LA-based freelance writer and the author of an upcoming memoir about life as an urban paramedic.

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