Kate Sweeney tackles the topic of death with a wicked sense of humor

Her new book, American Afterlife, delves into the art of memorialization
Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

Death is the single inevitable chapter of every life, even though many people would rather die than talk about it. Thankfully, Kate Sweeney was so fascinated by the subject of how we say goodbye that she decided to do some exploring. The result is American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning (University of Georgia Press), a brisk, thoroughly entertaining stroll through the art of memorialization. Sweeney, thirty-five, is an award-winning writer and producer at WABE, the Atlanta NPR affiliate. Her gift for radio storytelling translates smoothly to the pages of a book as she concisely captures quirky personalities and poignant insights.

Here is Sweeney’s first encounter with Carolyn Gilbert, founder of the International Association of Obituarists: “I am reminded of certain English teachers of my youth, the ones who were always wearing shoes from different pairs by mistake and making loud fun of themselves for it, the ones magnanimous in their praise for torturous love poetry written by fifteen-year-olds. They looked at you, and you felt they knew your secret best thing.”

Sweeney’s wicked sense of humor renders the topic of death not so scary, and her good-natured affection for the obsessives, the oddballs, and the entrepreneurs in the dismal trade make her a bewitching tour guide.

Read more: Interview with author Kate Sweeney

Also New:
Book of Hours
Alfred A. Knopf
Death plays a leading role in Kevin Young’s new collection of poems, an emotionally charged elegy to loss that also manages to celebrate life. A decade after his father’s sudden death, Young, a poetry professor at Emory, wrestles with the impenetrable silence of bereavement: “Not the storm / but the calm / that slays me.” But he also writes brilliantly about the birth of his son in a poem called “Crowning”: “Her face / full of fire, then groaning your face / out like a flower, blood-bloom, / crocused into air.” All of life’s passages should be immortalized so gracefully.

Unaccompanied Minor
Merit Press
Hollis Gillespie, queen of outlandish humor (Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch and Trailer Trashed) and an Atlanta magazine columnist, takes a flying leap into fiction for teenagers with this compulsively readable action adventure. Fourteen-year-old April Mae Manning, the daughter of two flight attendants, is forced to live on airplanes after her father dies in a crash and her mother is institutionalized by an evil stepfather. A hijacking escalates April’s personal crisis into a full-blown disaster. The author has long mined her previous life as a flight attendant for great comic nonfiction. Turns out it makes for fun fiction, too.

This article originally appeared in our March 2014 issue.