Book Reviews: American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning by Kate Sweeney (***)

Every once in a while I actually pay money for a book and in this case I rather wish I hadn’t. Usually I go into a “positives vs negatives” analysis on books but in this case I think I’ll opt for more of a “this is what this book is” concept.

Firstly, what I expected was hard non-fiction. I wanted a tightly-connected book that described the history of funeral practices in some level of detail. Instead what this book gives you is a rather loose cobbling together of a few historical tidbits and a surprising amount of memoir. Imagine something of the form, “roadside memorials have become increasingly popular; Steve built a roadside memorial in 1976 when his wife died in a terrible accident. She was blonde-haired and blue-eyed and stood 5’8 with a wispy figure and a penchant for pancakes that would make any man weak in the knees.” OK, I’m making all that up but that’s the general form we’re talking about. The book seems to be about 15% history, 15% current day practices and 70% personal anecdote from the author’s time writing the book. It’s well-written certainly and entertaining in some ways but it’s completely not what I expected when I plunked hit the ‘buy’ button.

The second important thing to know is that the book is not really terribly historical. The first chapter talks about funeral practices of days gone by from hair jewelry to cooling boards but the second chapter is about memorial tattoos and from there we’re very much stuck in the present day. So this is a book about TODAY and only remotely historical.

In summary, it’s entirely possible that you’ll love this book. The author is a good writer and entertaining in a certain sense of the word but you should not buy this book with the idea that it’s going to teach you much about the history of the mourning process. It contains a plethora of anecdotes both relevant and not; some entertaining and some not but if you, like I was, are just looking for an exploration of the morbid history of how we deal with those most final of destinations…. this isn’t that book. Mary Roach’s “Stiff” is probably more your cup of tea.

1 Comment

Filed under books

One response to “Book Reviews: American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning by Kate Sweeney (***)

  1. “Every once in a while I actually pay money for a book and in this case I rather wish I hadn’t” – funny, the free novels via amazon Daily newsletter tend to yield the best *recent* fiction, while books authors send me almost never hook me from page one, and books I pay for (so highly recommended, or they sounded so good) all too often are the biggest disappointment. Kudos to you, returning to the classics instead of spending your time reading contemporary authors. I should do that too.

Please let us know what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s