In the Sweet By and By? 

Nashville native explores different versions of the afterlife—and emerges just as puzzled as ever

Hereafter is an elegant and well-written little volume that stands out from the torrent of books on spirituality and the afterlife that rains from the presses of God’s country in the new millennium.
Hereafter is an elegant and well-written little volume that stands out from the torrent of books on spirituality and the afterlife that rains from the presses of God’s country in the new millennium. Richard Schweid does not claim to possess a hotline to the Lord; he has not been touched by an angel; he does not consign to hell all people who disagree with him; and he is not running for office. He is a fair-minded writer whose new book explains many different ideas about the afterlife, the notion that the essence of human personality can persist beyond its vehicle’s death. Schweid, a former Tennessean reporter, has written several excellent and well-received books. They range from a quirky social history of Cuba seen through its cars (Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile) to a look at nature and economics through the history of eating eels (Consider the Eel). He lives in Spain, where he is senior editor of the Barcelona Metropolitan. Schweid builds his work on careful research and brings it to life with vivid anecdotes, and the best aspect of Hereafter is how he explains each different view of the afterlife on its home turf. He attends an autopsy to learn what actually happens to a body after death, then segues into ancient Egyptian embalming techniques. He surveys ideas about reincarnation while witnessing ritual cremation in India. The combination is mesmerizing. Schweid, a former Tennessean reporter, has written several excellent and well-received books. They range from a quirky social history of Cuba seen through its cars (Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile) to a look at nature and economics through the history of eating eels (Consider the Eel). He lives in Spain, where he is senior editor of the Barcelona Metropolitan. Schweid builds his work on careful research and brings it to life with vivid anecdotes, and the best aspect of Hereafter is how he explains each different view of the afterlife on its home turf. He attends an autopsy to learn what actually happens to a body after death, then segues into ancient Egyptian embalming techniques. He surveys ideas about reincarnation while witnessing ritual cremation in India. The combination is mesmerizing. Schweid is the son of Bernie Schweid and Adele Mills Schweid, pillars of the Southeastern book community for decades and owners of Mills’ Bookstores—the city’s most beloved independent bookstore, which closed in 1990. His mother died last year while he was working on this book, and he admits that the research helped him address his own grief. Not that there is even a whiff of self-help tone; the book is about Richard Schweid only in that he serves as the camera’s eye for interviews and that the result demonstrates his intelligence and talent. “What conclusions have I drawn from all this reading and interviewing and thinking about immortality?” writes Schweid. “That’s the question my mother asked me, a month before she lay down to die. . . . Regrettably, I had to raise my eyebrows, shrug my shoulders, shake my head, and say that so far I had not learned a thing, not one single certain thing about what happens after death.” Readers will find no answers, perhaps no reassurance, in Hereafter. But they will walk away with a greater sense of context, of the global similarities behind our desire to perpetuate this ravenous consciousness that so bedevils us, that keeps us dissatisfied with our animal bodies and yearning to transcend them. Many of Schweid’s interviewees live in Middle Tennessee, from pathologist and former county coroner Charles Harlan to Nashville Islamic Center board member Awadh Binhazim. To interview James Reeves about his faith in an afterlife, Schweid visits him in his barbecue restaurant in Lebanon, and places his example of religious faith in the context of a daily life and a region’s history: “The BBQ sandwich is a fine one with a tasty sauce, the sweet potato pie has a just-right texture in a feather-light crust, and James Reeves is about as stable and set down in his place as anybody is anywhere in the world.” This sentence is typical of Schweid’s method and reminiscent of that of another top-shelf Nashville writer, John Egerton. You start reading what seems like a pleasant aside, only to learn that actually everything is working together. “What conclusions have I drawn from all this reading and interviewing and thinking about immortality?” writes Schweid. “That’s the question my mother asked me, a month before she lay down to die. . . . Regrettably, I had to raise my eyebrows, shrug my shoulders, shake my head, and say that so far I had not learned a thing, not one single certain thing about what happens after death.” Readers will find no answers, perhaps no reassurance, in Hereafter. But they will walk away with a greater sense of context, of the global similarities behind our desire to perpetuate this ravenous consciousness that so bedevils us, that keeps us dissatisfied with our animal bodies and yearning to transcend them.

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