A variation of the question Kate Sweeney most often gets goes something like this: “What’s a nice girl like you doing writing a book about death?”

Sweeney, a young Atlanta author and public radio producer, has just come out with a book called American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning (The University of Georgia Press, 2014). “I kind of got into this not thinking it (death) was a trend, but it is a trend, a cultural wave,” she said during a lunch break from her producing duties at WABE, Atlanta’s NPR station, WABE 90.1 FM. “Maybe I’m part of the wave!”

Once that initial question is answered – while working on her master’s degree in creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, she began interviewing people about death and those in death-related pursuits – she says, “I realized that that question in and of itself is fairly telling; we don’t think of death as a regular part of life but we all do have to grapple with some really hard questions on that topic.”

Sweeney, 36, who has not yet lost anyone close to her, found that once the topic is broached, people are then eager to talk about their experience with death and memorialization. “After all,” she says, “how many polite forums are there for people to talk about this stuff? It’s almost like giving permission for them to talk about something that was a sort of cultural prohibition.”

Yes, interest in and talk about death is on the increase – and so are the forums accommodating those conversations.

  • Death Cafes (http://deathcafe.com/), monthly gatherings taking place all over the country, have taken a firm hold in the past year;
  • Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death (https://www.facebook.com/LetsHaveDinnerandTalkAboutDeath) is setting a table for such discussions, too.
  • The Conversation Project (http://theconversationproject.org/) is having success encouraging families to have end-of-life conversations sooner rather than later.
  • And interest in lively obituaries and creative memorial send-offs has been going viral for a couple of years with no slowing down in sight. Legacy.com, one of the 50 most-visited websites in the U.S., gets more than 24 million unique visitors a month.

Dipping in to these trending topics, Sweeney reports on such old-fashioned customs as wearing a locket or braided chain of a deceased loved one’s hair to more contemporary offerings as having a loved one’s ashes built into an ocean reef. The book includes an interview with a North Carolina tattoo artist who specializes in inked images to memorialize the dead and a report on obituary writers who meet annually to share tales on writing about the dead. There is a tour of Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery, one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, as well as a look at green burials, a growing trend in which there is no embalming, casket or headstone marring the environment. Sweeney also writes of the evolution of funeral homes and modern day roadside memorials where accidents have claimed lives.

The contents are random, well-researched and interesting. Even to a curious someone in her mid-30s who wasn’t that well-acquainted with death – until she started digging in and found them too compelling not to compile into this volume.

“The interesting thing is,” Sweeney says, “that writing the book has caused me to go ahead and make some of those decisions realizing what a burden what that would be to people if I don’t. No matter what our choices are, it’s important to talk about these things.”

For updates on Sweeney’s book signings, readings and appearances, go to http://www.americanafterlifebook.com/



Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband. More info on Facebook and at www.obitkit.com.

Image via Amazon.com

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