Awful Interview: Kate Sweeney

4 Nov

Atlanta, that wonderful time of year is descending upon us again. No – not the holidays! (Though I’ve been jonesing for a turkey leg ever since exiting this year’s Ren Fest.) The Letters Festival! I mean, holy smokes, we’ve got three days of Independent Literature about to descend upon our fair city. I’m swooning. You swooning? You should be.

So we’ve got a bevy of fun stuff to help get you riled up. First up to bat? A second round of Awful Interview with Atlanta’s own Kate Sweeney, author of American Afterlifeand all-around gem. We’re not sure why she was up for letting us awfully interview her… again. But boy were we glad to do so! Kate will be helping kick-off the festivities this Thursday evening at BURNAWAY’s beautiful office space, alongside Aaron Burch, Esther Lee, and Jason McCall. You can snag your tickets for all that literary goodness here. In the meantime, let’s get to this interview, shall we?

Vouched: So, Kate – it’s been almost 9 months since the release of American Afterlife. How many bizarre, unsolicited stories about death have you heard whilst promoting the book? What was the weirdest?

Oh, my. I’ve heard so many GREAT stories from people about their experiences with funerals and ways they chose to remember their loved ones. One of my favorites is the family who filled their pant-legs with the ashes of their family patriarch,  and then took a casual group walk through the football field of his college alma mater, allowing the ashes to spill out onto the field as they did so, like in “The Great Escape.”

Vouched: Record scratch – wait, what? I mean, i figured you would have weird stories, but that’s pretty out there. Do you have really epic notions for your own funeral now? (I would worry that that’s a morbid question, but I mean, you wrote a book about death rituals, so it feels like fair game.)

Actually, I do have more notions regarding my own funeral than I did when I began all this. I’ve even sat down and made a plan–something I never would have done as a regular, unleaded 30-something who had never heard stories from so many people who’d experienced epic memorials, horrible memorials, as well as exhausting memorials due to a total lack of pre-planning. It’s actually a great gift to those you leave behind to let them know what on earth you want before the time comes–and, almost more importantly, where key documents are. Because you don’t want to leave your significant other/sons/daughters/parents the burden of dealing with all this crazy minutia on TOP of mourning, too. And the hard fact is this: There is a lot of minutia and rigamarole involved. And we don’t know when we’re going to go.  Sure, it feels weird to have these conversations and make these plans, and it feels doubly weird in a society in which even thinking about death is considered to be weird–but it makes a huge difference to everyone we love.

Vouched: Wow, you’ve become quite the advocate! Would you be willing to share a bit of your plan, or is it a surprise? I have a perpetually late friend who wants to have his coffin arrive at the funeral parlor 15 minutes late when he dies (honestly, it would be out-of-character if it didn’t) … is that something that can happen?

That IS something someone could make happen, for sure. I love it! Folks have told me stories about doing traditional funerals with the hearses and the cemeteries and vaults, about opting for direct cremation with no service, choosing green burial, about writing funny or even bitter obituaries for their loved ones, having their loved ones’ ashes made into plant mulch, LPs and artificial coral reefs. (Not to mention our forebears from the 1800s, who made jewelry out of human hair and invented memorial photography! Now they were a party people.) Seriously, though: For every one of these types of memorialization, someone had a story about how scarring and awful her experience was, and someone else had a story about how this was absolutely the right decision, and how it was healing or cathartic in some way.

So, you know, I went into this experience with some prejudices–the kind we all have–about what’s right and what’s weird when it comes to memorialization. But having heard these personal stories, those prejudices have been stripped away.  And not to paint myself as some Grand Authority to whom everyone’s paying attention in terms of her opinions on memorialization, but it’s because I’ve learned this that I’ve actually decided not to speak publicly about what I’ve chosen, personally. I just don’t want to come across as having any sort of bias, because what’s right for me may not be for you, and I get that.

Vouched: Totally fair. Okay, so – I have to ask – is Six Feet Under your all-time favorite television show by default now?

Had there been no Six Feet Under, there would have been no American Afterlife. That is the literal truth.

Vouched: WHOA! I’ve stumbled across interview gold! Would you elaborate on that, plz?

Sure! I was obsessed with that show. It was the first show I ever binge-watched and which moved me to have imaginary conversations with the characters while, say, walking my dog or driving to the store. So naturally, I read everything I could get my hands on about it. One story I came across was an article about a green burial cemetery in California, written by Tad Friend in the New Yorker. The cemetery had served as a setting for something that took place on the show, I believe. Almost as a footnote, the story mentioned that the nation’s very first green burial cemetery–which began the trend of ecologically-friendly burial spaces in the US–was in South Carolina. I was really intrigued, and it looked like no one had written a major feature article about the place, so that’s what I did. Oxford American published the story in its Spring 2008 issue, and things snowballed from there. Suddenly everywhere I looked, there were fascinating stories about how we Americans remember our dead, from third-generation funeral directors, to roadside memorials, to all the stuff we’re doing with ashes, to our Victorian forebears who made jewelry from human hair. I had to write about them.

Vouched: Six Feet Under really is one of those shows where you miss the main characters after it’s over. At least that’s how it was for me. Say, if you could pick one character from Six Feet Under to attend your reading at the Letters Festival, which would it be? And why? What would you say?

Oooh, good one. Well, clearly, it’s the father. It might be kind of unnerving, but I’d love to see his ghostly presence standing in the back, laughing and shaking his head at some of the  stories from the book. I think that in the end, I’d simply shake his hand–if you can do that. Can you shake a ghost’s hand?

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