Once taboo, death in America comes out of its cold, hard shell in unexpected ways

Story highlights

  • The Victorians were open about death; later, it became a topic of discomfort
  • These days, people are starting to talk more about dying
  • Journalist Kate Sweeney's new book explores customs of mourning in America
  • Sometimes those rituals include reefs, roads and roasts
Kate Sweeney first met Oana Hogrefe over coffee at an Atlanta strip mall. They talked about horrible things.
About babies who die in utero and the mother who must go through labor anyway. Or those born with genetic disorders whose parents live through a cruel countdown to the day they will have to disconnect the tubes.
They also spoke about how Hogrefe points her camera at these children and clicks.
As a memorial photographer, she volunteers to take photos in hospitals under the most trying circumstances. Sometimes the images she creates are the only tangible thing parents have left of a child who died at birth or soon after.
Sweeney learned Hogrefe took a photo one time of twin girls -- one born healthy, the other sick. The healthy twin was crying inconsolably so the nurses laid her next to her sister, who had little time to live. Hogrefe took out her camera. Later in life, she thought, the surviving sibling could look at this picture and see: " 'Here we are, close together.' At least that makes it real."
Sweeney, a journalist, had begun researching a book on memorials when she first spoke with Hogrefe. The Atlanta writer had thought of memorial photography as a macabre practice left over from another era when people were obsessed with death. She didn't understand why anyone would want such photos.
In her new book, Kate Sweeney explores mourning customs and America's relationship with death.
But after meeting Hogrefe, Sweeney saw things another way. These photos were often the only evidence of lives lost so young. They said these tender lives mattered.
The memorial photos led Sweeney to ask a deeper question: What is our relationship to death now? Are we, as a society, alienated from something that is inevitable?
The answers are complicated but death, it seems, is starting to come out of its cold, hard shell.
Sweeney's book, "American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning," looks at how certain people process death and why they choose certain rituals and memorials. There is a chapter about green burials or internments that are completely biodegradable. Others examine roadside memorials, a cemetery that was built to be a hang-out, obituary writing and underwater graves.
Like the television show "Six Feet Under" that piqued her curiosity in the first place, Sweeney's book puts death front and center in a form that is digestible, poignant and, at times, entertaining.
"Death is not something we talk about," she tells me, as we, too, meet in an Atlanta coffee