American Afterlives documents rapidly changing death practices in the United States while asking what this change tells us about American society today. Conceived as a kind of contemporary mortuary archaeology, it zeroes in on material practices, particularly those concerning the corpse and its role in memorialization, ritual, and spiritual belief. The research focused on death-care professionals — traditional funeral directors and embalmers as well as inventors, designers, entrepreneurs, artists, and other “death positive” advocates. The ethnographic method was built around collecting material for a documentary film made with collaborator Daniel Zox, including person-on-the-street interviews that asked Americans: “What do you want done with your body?” and “What do you think happens to us after we die?” The book argues against the common perception that Americans are particularly “death denying,” a critique that misidentifies the effects of a twentieth-century taboo against public grief and naively presumes that consumerism disenchants death. In fact, American death today is simultaneously becoming more consumerist and more spiritual.

The structure of the book parallels the process of decomposition. It begins with the whole corpse (Chapter two, “Flesh”) to investigate the peculiar history of American embalming, the current transition to DIY funerals and green burial, and the practice of “extreme” embalming. Chapter three, “Bones,” examines the rise of industrial cremation and focuses on the artists and creative entrepreneurs who make art, jewelry, and other objects with pulverized human bone. “Dirt” follows where and how the dead are being returned to the earth through practices such as ash scattering, human composting, and conservation cemeteries. The final chapter, “Spirit,” considers belief and ritual. It concludes with the proposition that American death culture has moved through several historical phases, inflected by major events such as the Civil War and 9/11. The current movement towards DIY ritual and forms of green disposition represents a revival of nineteenth-century American spiritualism as well as a response to the climate crisis.

I am grateful to have been asked to reflect on the somewhat unusual form of American Afterlives and its relationship to I Like Dirt., the companion film. American Afterlives was easier to write than it is to frame. Anytime you break from genre, or create an unusual fusion of different ones, it’s like inviting the reader to a meal and ask them to taste it blindfolded. They may not go for it. Still, I came to the form of writing I did pretty straightforwardly. I asked myself: “what is the most honest way that I can present what I’ve learned?” The solution I came to is a cinematographic travel journal that meanders into social history and anthropology whenever a phenomenon or interview brought up something that begged for further explanation.

This was the honest solution because the ethnographic material and the images that became the raw material for the book originated in a five-year journey across the United States with my filmmaking collaborator, Daniel. We set out to make a documentary film investigating how American death care practices were changing and why. As a trained archaeologist, what particularly interested me was disposition of the body and inventions of new rituals. These are the most tangibly material of the changes occurring in death care. (Other changes, such as online memorialization and other digital death practices, are no less significant but happen in a different dimension.) Further, one of Daniel’s special interests as a filmmaker and photographer is the human body. He has done several projects filming dancers and his current portraiture project focuses on trans subjects and their stories.

When I say that I aimed for an “honest” approach, part of what I mean is that I chose not to hide my learning process but to make it part of the story. I did not do what most scholars are forced to do by academic convention — fast-forward to their findings and arguments. I did not want to overplay my expertise. Perhaps I was influenced by the fact that I had never made a film before; I was a complete ingénue. I didn’t know the first thing about lighting, sound, equipment, timing, and the many considerations of editing both pre- and post-production. I also naively thought that making a documentary film was like conducting an open-ended research project — that you start with a few questions and worry about how it assembles into a story later. But documentaries, I learned, are usually scripted, as is reality television. Unexpected, gem-like moments do come up, but the film schedule is structured around a story that the writer wants to get across. For me, that was the cart before the horse. When we set out, I had no idea why death care was changing so rapidly in the U.S. That’s exactly why I was fascinated; it was unknown.

We collected hundreds of hours of footage not knowing exactly where it was all leading. The film we made, I Like Dirt., zeroed in on California death practices and the local cultural forces that inform them, from new age spiritual practices and bodywork to environmental ethics, techno-entrepreneurialism, and ethnic inequalities in labor. We chose to narrow the geographic focus for the film because it was going to be difficult to communicate something coherent about the wildly diverse set of practices and viewpoints that we had encountered across the national stage. But that meant that all our other material — from New Orleans, Chicago, Indianapolis, and elsewhere — fell to the cutting room floor. This material became integral to the book, supplemented with follow-up interviews where gaps remained (unfilmed) and with more in-depth treatment of our work in California.

For the documentary, we didn’t want to make something academic and authoritative. This meant no voice-over narration, which is the signature of an “expository” documentary. (For a widely cited typology of six documentary styles, see Bill Nichols’s book). We wanted to make a film in which the interviewees told the story in their own words while long shots of artifacts and landscapes told a story of their own. Daniel and I conceived of our effort as an experiment in archaeological filmmaking, a hybrid of the observational and poetic styles of documentary film. Halfway through the process we even co-taught a class called “Experiments in Archaeological Filmmaking” at the University of Chicago. One of our key inspirations was Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven, not because of its content matter (pet cemeteries) but because of the way in which the camera lingers with his subjects after they finish speaking. These awkward silences create gaps, like leaving a stage curtain half open. They invite the viewer to fill in who these people are and why they might be saying what they are saying. And they remind us of the artifice of filmmaking.

I worried that if I inserted myself into the interviews, in such a way that viewers would see and hear me on film, my point of view would overwhelm that of the person I was interviewing. Besides, I was never the most interesting person in the room. In making the film, we encountered a dazzling spectrum of people from different walks of life, all of whom had interesting things to say about death. The project was a truly collaborative effort, not just because of the intensive creative partnership between Daniel and myself (everything was collaborative — from budgets and meals to aesthetic decisions and interview questions), but also due to the dozens of individuals who became our teachers. The other reason for the choice to leave me out of frame is that the best way to put the viewer in the filmmaker’s shoes is to have the camera positioned as if it is their own eyes and ears. After all, when you are talking to someone, you are not focused on your own voice and you don’t usually see your own face. You are barely aware of yourself; you are perceiving the other person and the scene around you.

I also worried that, had I been present in the film, I would become a distraction. Or worse, narcissistic. “Look at me, I’m making a film!” With such a delicate subject, it was especially important to be sensitive to the inherently extractive nature of filmmaking and ethnography. I myself really don’t enjoy being filmed or recorded. It makes me feel quite vulnerable. To balance things out a little, I would often try to establish rapport with an interviewee by revealing my own vulnerabilities and mentioning my own experiences with loss. These did not make it into the film, since my voice is off camera. My body does appear, once, as a shroud-wrapped corpse, something only people who stay for the credits will know.

By contrast, American Afterlives is written entirely from my point of view. My voice is at times authoritative and expository, especially when explaining anthropological theory or providing historical background. But it felt even more important to try to level the field with my interviewees, interspersing my personal history and revealing my ethical and intellectual struggles throughout the project. This is why there is a memoir-like thread throughout the book — to balance the way I disappeared my role in the film and to offer something of myself in return. It is an experiment in emotional honesty and in giving up control as a writer/filmmaker. I needed to destabilize the pretense of my expertise. While we didn’t make the cameras and microphone visible in the film, the book approximates the participatory documentary style, where the filmmaker and the act of making the film are not hidden from the viewer. In the book, I take the reader backstage — of my own life, of the filmmaking process, and of the ways in which anthropological knowledge is formed.

American Afterlives can be thought of as a cinematographic book for a few different reasons. First, there’s its backstage narrative. Then there are its visual qualities. The vast majority of the interviews I describe and transcribe in the book were captured in a film medium. My raw research material comprised hundreds of hours of unedited recordings. As I sifted through the footage, things started to make more and more sense to me. The stories I wanted to pull out became clearer. I played and replayed selected scenes to get the words right in the transcription. Doing so also allowed me to see the interview and its setting over and over again. The result was that I was able to describe clothing, facial expressions, the room, or details in an outdoor setting with nuanced details that far exceed what I ever managed to get down in my fieldnotes for previous projects. The book’s most significant cinematographic character, however, emanates from Daniel’s self-selected film stills, which appear throughout the chapters. They tell their own stories.

American Afterlives is a book with many subplots. My hope is that there is an image that stays with the reader, an image that makes them ask for themselves, “what happens after we die?”