I can’t think of any scholarly projects, books or otherwise, that begin and end at the author’s grave. And certainly none that encourage the reader to get down in that dirt and dig. But that’s exactly where we find ourselves in Shannon Lee Dawdy’s American Afterlives: Reinventing Death in the Twenty-First Century.

In the near-confessional first pages, the reader learns that Dawdy began her exploration of the United States’ rapidly changing death practices in response to the loss, in the span of five brief years, of four people she loved, which had left her feeling “as if I had drifted too close to a black hole.” This may seem like the now near-obligatory moment of reflexivity one finds in many a contemporary scholarly text, but American Afterlives isn’t your standard academic book. By the epilogue, set at some undated point in the future, that is certain. You read about an archaeologist, deep in that familiar one-by-two-meter unit of an archaeological dig, wiping sweat from her brow and troweling out fragments of Dawdy’s still shroud-wrapped bones.

Had you only watched the documentary from which the book emerges — I Like Dirt., which Dawdy directed with filmmaker Daniel Zox, whose presence, along with his spare black and white photographs, fills the book’s pages as well — you wouldn’t realize that you have already seen Dawdy as a corpse. The film opens with scenes of a cemetery on a northern California hill, a scrubby landscape of baked brown and gold against a blue-bird sky, scented with “sunburned oak and bay laurel.” The camera rises above the grave, revealing not a standard metal casket and concrete-lined vault, but a body in a shroud, dotted with the petals of gerbera daisies. The shrouded body, we learn in American Afterlives and in the film’s closing credits, is Dawdy. Originally, the plan had been to hire an actor for this scene, but Esmeralda, the maker of the shroud, worried the actor would overheat. A Hollywood native and one of the many larger-than-life characters with whom Dawdy and Zox meet, Esmeralda is a film-industry costume designer turned custom shroud-maker who thought “tree-huggers” might want shrouds. Dawdy decided that, if anyone would take a risk in that pit, it would be her.

The American deathscape is in the midst of a revolution and Dawdy was determined to find out what is happening and why. She soon realized that she “stumbled into a cultural field that was simultaneously falling apart and blossoming.” Stan, an entrepreneur and distributor of novelty funeral paraphernalia, tells her that “There have been more changes in the funeral business in the last ten years than in the last 100.” American Afterlives tracks these transformations, moving from the natural burial of the film’s opening scenes — burial without conventional embalming, casket, or vault — to a DIY-funeral training session in a Californian backyard full of wind chimes and Tibetan-style peace-flags, or from the funeral director’s convention filled with glossy personalized caskets and sleek hearses to a human composting start-up where corpses are transformed into something to take home to fertilize the roses. 

While the film is distinctly Californian, the book is far more expansive, considering death practices on both coasts, in the Midwest, and in the South. It reveals something rather profound about American life. This isn’t a simple story about heightened secularism, but about new forms of spirituality. Dawdy admits that she initially thought that the book’s question was going to be “what does a secular afterlife look like?” But she soon realized that that is the wrong question. “It is not that Americans are becoming more secular (a troublesome category in any case), it is that they are becoming more spiritual,” she notes. A Pew Research Center study conducted between 2016 and 2021, which shows this shift to traverse differences in gender, political affiliation, race, age, and education level across the United States, details findings that are well reflected in Dawdy’s research sites. “The death entrepreneurs I sought out know this,” writes Dawdy of their awareness of Americans increasingly identifying as spiritual but not religious. “Their customer base is broad, diverse, and growing. These are not people who believe in ‘nothing.’ But what they do believe is all over the map — eclectic, syncretic, speculative, woo-woo, and whackadoo. This is not to discount these beliefs as inauthentic or erroneous. People believe what they believe.”

For all their diversity, these beliefs have a shared core that offers something revelatory of the nation. The traditional “American way of death,” to borrow Jessica Mitford’s term — the viewing of the embalmed body prior to a casket burial — was laden with meaning. Throughout the twentieth century, despite a continuing influx of immigrants and religious influences, it remained consistent across most ethnic and denominational differences. This way of dealing with our dead became, if not a civil religion, a national ritual that overrode our differences. The embalmed body was at the center of “a shared national ritual that most Americans once understood as giving dignity to the dead and comfort to the living.” Now, there is a longing to do different things with corpses. It isn’t that rituals no longer matter. Dawdy shows us that ritual practices around death are prospering, but amid an openness to new ideas, “a yen to borrow, experiment, improvise, and invent ritual” that doesn’t predictably adhere to political or demographic lines. Perhaps that is the case because the new American death rests on a powerful continuity. “As highly variable as they are, DIY death rituals refer — like all other rituals — to an underlying belief system,” Dawdy notes. “In fact, it is precisely their tailor-made uniqueness that gives loyal expression to a core belief system that Americans broadly share — individualism. What we are witnessing is the cult of the individual overtaking the cult of the nation.”

This brings us back, as Dawdy notes, to the questions of classical social theory. To Weber’s questions: does capitalism always bring about disenchantment? To Durkheim’s ponderings on ritual and its social work, but with a twist. “With a twist” is perhaps the best way to describe this book’s scholarly nature. Yes, the old timers are here — there is Robert Hertz, some Philippe Ariès. If we’re thinking about personhood, there’s going to be some Marilyn Strathern. And in discussing magic, some Bronislaw Malinowski. Dawdy also draws on Thomas Laqueur, whose classic monograph is of more recent vintage. Prior to the publication of Laqueur’s 2015 The Work of the Dead, the study of death had been, well, rather moribund, if not stone cold. Laqueur’s book was perhaps its first sign of new life.

The book is a better example of a different kind of ongoing conversation, however. It is a story of what Dawdy and Zox learnt together. Dawdy describes their filmmaking process as “physical and creative at the same time, with a necessarily intense camaraderie among the crew. This combination parallels the joyful labor of an archaeological dig.” The film came first. American Afterlives is “in part the cutting-room floor — all these themes, characters, dialogues and, subplots that we couldn’t fit into the twenty-one-minute documentary.” This upending of conventional research practice — the book usually comes well before the film, and filmmaking and research are entirely separate moments of creation — provides a deeper perspective on American death.

We discover that an archaeologist’s eye for the material is similar to a filmmaker’s. Both Dawdy and Zox are drawn to “stuff,” to afterlives materialized. Did you know, for example, that human remains can now become diamonds, paintings, tattoos, or glass orbs easily mistaken for paperweights? Or even the inners of bullets? For archaeologists (and for filmmakers), objects matter because of what they reveal about relationships. American Afterlives is about people above all else. Esmeralda joins Jerrigrace, California reiki healer turned DIY funeral trainer who is all dry ice and warm hugs, and Jerrigrace joins Eric — “a few tattoos, the beginnings of ear-plug” — who hangs out in the shade in a cemetery in Guerneville, clad in a black Mac Dre t-shirt, and reflects on what might come next. Eric joins Rod, who is crossing the West in his truck, scattering his wife Shelley’s ashes in every place they visited together, in places important to their love story, and in places she had told him about. Dawdy notes that “It is hard to work on death and not have people assume you are a goth princess, or dispositionally morose.” But the book is tender without becoming sentimental.

What about death itself? By the end of the book, Dawdy admits “I can comfortably say I am okay with dying. Don’t worry, I’m not planning on it. But then, almost no one does.” And her body? Dawdy is sure. She wants to be buried. “I’m fine with decomposition. I’ve seen a lot of it. Plus, as an archaeologist, I thought it would be unfair to my future colleagues if I didn’t leave them something to puzzle over. My request would include that I be buried with certain artifacts as clues. My burial would become a time capsule, a message in a bottle from one archaeologist to another. It is a kind of futurity I can imagine with greater confidence than any other kind of afterlife.”