Sunday, May 25 at 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Kate Sweeney will be at the Historic Oakland Cemetery Bell Tower on May 25th from 3 p.m. – 5 p.m. for public readings of her book American Afterlife with a signing to follow. Refreshments will be available for those in attendance of this free event. A Dying in the 19th Century tour will follow at 5 p.m. with a costumed guide. Regular tour prices apply.
In anticipation of this special event we asked Kate some questions about herself and her fascinating book:
American Afterlife gives us great personal insight on the death experiences of others. What made you decide to write a book about it? How long have you been interested in this topic?
I’m actually not a super-dark person. What made me start this book was just the treasure-trove of fascinating trivia about death customs in our country’s past and present-day, as well as the stories I started collecting from people. Armed with fun facts about the history of embalming fluid, roadside memorials and everything you can do with ashes nowadays, I quickly became a hit at dinner parties.
Then I realized one reason I was so fascinated in these stories of obit writers, funeral directors and nineteenth-century widows: I myself had never experienced catastrophic loss. I was only in my late 20s or so, but I was terrified of loss and mesmerized by questions of how to live life well. Through these stories, I hoped to get some idea of what to expect from the experience of loss, and what it means to live a good life. Big questions, I know.
Do any other cultures or time periods inspire you in regards to the death experience/process?
Oh, absolutely. In the 1800s, we had a big death culture in the United States. I mean, this was the era that invented both the death bed scene and the cemetery as we know it. In the book, I got to research and write about why that was and why that changed—how we went from two-year mourning periods to two-week breaks from work, and from home funerals to funeral homes. This is an amazing story, and one that really has a lot to say about how we “do” death today—and how that’s changing.
More and more people in America seem to be embracing a unique death plan that represents their true character and self. Have you thought about this for yourself? Do you encourage those you love to think about it for themselves, or do you appreciate the natural flow?
Okay, ready for a little soapbox time? Here I go: I think that planning for one’s death and memorialization preferences is extremely important. Georgia has a handy advance directive that makes it easy to let your loved ones know what you want in terms of medical care and what you want after you die. Think about it: Your loved ones are already sad or grieving; the fewer tough decisions you leave in their hands, the better.
Okay, I’m climbing off the soapbox now. But really, it matters to let your survivors know what you want before crisis hits. Okay, really, I’m done now. I do think we’re seeing more open conversations now about this, thanks in part to the aging baby boomer generation, folks who want to have control over this final rite of passage. I actually got to write about this in the book.
In what ways do you find death inspirational?
Great question. And terrifying too, no? That’s the whole thing with death. I didn’t set out to write some big, profound book here. I thought I was just interested in all these stories and facts about something I knew very little about. However, I think now, that, quite unconsciously, as a writer, I often pursue stories that get at big questions of how to live life well. This book is very much about that. How do we wish to be remembered? And that question lives on the other side of this coin whose other side is undeniable: Our time here is limited. So do it right.
Was the Historic Oakland Cemetery a big resource for you? In what ways?
Oakland has been an amazing resource to help me learn about how cemeteries came to be what they are in this country. That’s an entire chapter in the book. Did you know that cemeteries as we know them didn’t even exist until the 1800s? There were graveyards, like the one in Atlanta’s city center that Oakland replaced, but those were not pleasant places. Opening the door on the history of cemeteries in the Western world—something I’d known nothing about before—that helped me realize what the true scope of this book might be, and I’m so thankful to Mary Woodlan and David Moore and Kevin Kuharic (who’s no longer here) for taking the time—again and again and again—to help me reach that point.
Do you have a “favorite person” or animal buried at HOC?
You know I love Tweet the mockingbird. If his owner had been around today, who knows what memorialization option she might have gone with. There’s one company, for example, that will freeze-dry your pets for you. But I digress. If I could go back and time and meeting anyone, it might be the mysterious Dr. James Nissan. Just who was he? And was he really afraid of being buried alive??
What are your future plans in regards to writing? Any more books in your future?
Yes! I’m working on some essays now, but there will be more books. I’m working with The Muse on that right now; you know; it’s not totally up to me, but my mind is open and ready for whatever’s next.
About the book
American Afterlife (University of Georgia Press) is Kate Sweeney’s poignant, thoughtful, and even humorous account of what happens when someone we know dies. Sweeney weaves together a collective portrait of illuminating stories — of a funeral director, an obituary writer, even a Midwestern museum that takes us back in time to meet our death-obsessed Victorian progenitors — revealing something larger: a landscape that feels at once strange and familiar, one that’s by turns odd, tragic, poignant, and sometimes, very funny.
About Kate Sweeney
Kate lives in Atlanta where she writes and creates public radio stories for 90.1 WABE-Atlanta. While pursuing her MFA at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, she spent time with obit writers, funeral directors and ordinary Americans who found themselves involved with death and memorialization. The result is the popular nonfiction book, American Afterlife (University of Georgia Press). About American Afterlife, Paste Magazine wrote, “Sweeney writes the perfect story for our time, in the best possible way,” and bestselling author Thomas Lynch calls the book “a reliable witness and well-wrought litany to last things and final details.”
She has won four Edward R. Murrow awards as well as a number of Associated Press awards for her work. Her writing has appeared several times in Oxford American Magazine, as well as Utne Reader Online, Atlanta Magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and New South, among other outlets. She is curator of the popular bimonthly nonfiction reading series, True Story.