Intriguing, eccentric swatches of everyday Americans grappling with the intricacies of death.
Developed from her master’s thesis, Atlanta-based radio host and producer Sweeney’s compassionate and intermittently eldritch exploration of the grieving process spotlights passages from all facets of contemporary life. The author’s almost apologetic explanation of why she became so fascinated with “the entire American landscape of mourning” is needless as the book incrementally reveals itself as an amiably written slideshow about the choices we make while in the grips of grief. The author escorts readers through the now-shuttered Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, Ill., where antique caskets and funereal Victorian fashions were on grim display. Sweeney never strays too far from her Southern homeland and introduces professionals for which death and mourning provides their livelihood. She features a tattoo artist who deifies the dead through body art; a photographer specializing in the commemoration of infant deaths; and a dedicated, diligent obituary writer. The author also delivers an astute assessment of the highly competitive urn manufacturing market that is at odds with the lucrative, marked-up funeral business. Divinely ornate burial grounds are a lost art, Sweeney attests in a chapter on the decline of the cemetery, and the author makes an engaging tour guide of Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, founded in 1850, the nation’s first biodegradable “green-burial” graveyard. She also documents burial-at-sea ceremonies via artificial reef balls containing cremated remains. Respectfully illuminating both the ludicrousness and the significance of mourning and its accompanying memorialization rituals, Sweeney reports the unsavory details alongside the poignancy of grief and sorrow. Written with the grim wit and appreciation of investigative reporter Mary Roach, the author delivers informative history on the murky business of death.
A considerate exploration of mourning, just haunting enough to attract those with a penchant for macabre oddities.