Review of: The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

What can one possibly learn about life from the dead?

A great deal, according to writer Thomas Lynch. It may even be, he reflects, that death and how we approach it is profoundly expressive of our stance towards life, whether we intend it to be so or not:

“…the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; that mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions….and if death is regarded as an embarrasment or an inconvenience, if the dead are regarded as a nuisance from whom we seek a hurried riddance, then life and the living are in for like treatment.” (p. 25)

Thomas Lynch comes by his insights on such mortal matters honestly: besides being the author of three books of poetry and an American Book Award nominated book of essays, he’s also the funeral director at Lynch & Sons Funeral Home in Milford, Michigan.

The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, was published in 1998 to wide praise. In the essays, some of which previously appeared in Harper’s, The London Review of Books, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker, Lynch’s lifetime spent in the company of corpses and the grieving (his father was a funeral director, as well) provides a telling framework for observations on faith, family, sexuality, community and, of course death.

Undertaking and poetry might seem an odd combination to some, but the two vocations have, in Lynch’s experience, profoundly nourished each other:

“Funeral directors have a variety of interests,” Lynch pointed out in a recent telephone interview, ” mine are reading and writing. Reading is an extension of writing, and vice versa. I’ve always written and published poems, and there are few poets who don’t have a day job.” Besides, he added, “I like being a funeral director.”

Lynch’s sense of the importance and meaning of undertaking led one reviewer of The Undertaking, Susan Jacobi of The New York Times, to accuse him of penning nothing less than an apologia for an irredeemably exploitive profession. Lynch ackowledges the potential for abuse, but points out,

“Can funeral directors take advantage of people? Certainly, so can any business. The difference is that I’m accountable by name, on the sign in front of my business. If we do a good job, you can praise us by name, if we don’t you can gossip aobut us. My sense of things is that fundamentally, I have to treat people properly.”

“I’m more interested in the meaning of funerals and the mourning that people do. It’s not a retail experience. It’s an existential one.”

In his essays, Lynch tells stories of his fellow townspeople – their lives and deaths, their grieving. Embedded in his recounting of the preparation of bodies and the placement of graves, is a clear sense, even though he never specifically defines it as such, of this work as a ministry tending to the deepest questions and most heart-rending wounds human beings endure.

He tells of a schoolgirl, abducted from the bus stop, raped,savagely beaten, and stabbed. The embalmer could have done nothing but declare a closed casket the only option. “The pay was the same,” as Lynch writes. “Instead, he started working. Eighteen hours later the girl’s mother, who had pleaded to see her, saw her. She was dead, to be sure, and damaged; but her face was hers again, not the madman’s version…Wesley Rice had not raised her from the dead nor hidden the hard facts, but he had retrieved her death from the one who had killed her.” (84)

Considerations of such tragedy leads Lynch to reflections on faith and spirituality throughout his essays, rooted in part in the Catholic faith in which he was raised and which remains a basic reference point:

“I am Catholic in the way,” he says, “that you can’t not be a Catholic once you are. I describe myself as a devoutly lapsed Catholic because I have so many questions, but the questions wouldn’t even form unless I’d been given this language of Catholicism, which is an advantage.”

Lynch’s faith was formed by his parents who, while both Catholic, approached spiritual questions from different perspectives.

“My mother’s faith was certain, she knew who would be in heaven and who wouldn’t.” Lynch grew up in a home, like many Catholics, in which petty complaints were put into perspective by the crucifix hanging in every room, a reminder of “the bad day against all others were measured” (95) and one in which “faith and grace made suffering a part of the way we make our journey back to God.”(97)

His father was not so sure. He witnessed enough senseless death and tragic accidents to convince him that “God took some days off.”

Lynch’s essays reflect both shades of fatih. He writes of how the confrontation with death indeed moves us to ask the questions we must ask and how “events unfold in ways that make us think of God. They achieve, in their happening, a symmetry and order that would be frightening if assigned to Chance.” (61)

But he also must ask, along with his father, where God was the night a family from his town was traveling through Kentucky on their way to the purported apparition site in Conyers, Georgia. Some boys heaved a cemetery stone they’d stolen from an overpass, sending it crashing into the family’s van, killing their daughter. “If God’s will, shame on God is what I say. If not, then shame on God. It sounds the same. I keep shaking a fist at the Almight asking where were you on the morning of the thirteenth? The alibi changes every day.” (56)

Lynch reflects that , “Faith is not all certainty. Faith is doubt and wonder. All is required is that I have exactly the same faith I read about in Jesus’ life. When he got to Gethsemane, he had doubts and he had wonders, too.”

Thomas Lynch’s home of Milford, Michigan is located in Oakland County, which has another famous resident: Jack Kervorkian, and in one of his essays, Lynch confronts the issues of assisted suicide and abortion.

Lynch began his thoughts on the matter by saying simply, “Slopes are slippery.” His argument, which he says he purposefully renders without reference to religion so non-religious people will listen, rests on a critique of the hopelessness, defiance of nature and inevitable consequences of purposeful killing. He asks, “Is it possible to assist the ones we love with their dying instead of assisting with their killing?… Is there a way to care for these needy people without declaring another open season, a general Right to Die or Right to Choice or Right to Assisted Suicide?” The fundamental problem, Lynch says, is that our culture as enshrined “choice,” forgetting that the content of choices are what matter morally. And, he adds, in his view, “The Church’s thinking on these issues about life is pristine. They mess up so much when it comes to sexuality, but they’ve got the mortality down.”

There is more in The Undertaking – thoughts on marriage, parenthood, Ireland and writing. There’s an absolutely riveting essay on, of all things, a poem about an artichoke, the mysteries of art, and the even greater mysteries and joys of life between men and women.

Thomas Lynch isn’t finished, of course. He has more work to do – more funerals to direct, more grieving to comfort, and more writing. He is currently at work on a second collection of essays, entitled Bodies in Motion and at Rest , to be published in 2000.

Lynch began writing about the care of the dead in this way as a fulfillment of a pledge to his father, who had asked, when his son first starting finding success as a poet, “when I’d write a book about funerals.” (xviii) In doing so, this marvelous, insightful writer has offered readers , not just a glimpse into a specific profession, but a lens through which we’re invited to see the journey more clearly and to discover that there is no reason to be put off by what seems at first to be the strange, perhaps even frightening work of this poet-undertaker .

After all, the sense of the word “undertaking” reaches further than funerals and caskets. It encompasses any struggle, and work, and perhaps even can be stretched to include the ultimate undertaking – life itself. And so we recognize an ennobling, deeply spiritual cast to the short, difficult and joyous days of our own live as Thomas Lynch asks us, “Which undertaking is it then that does not seek to make some sense of life and living, dying and the dead?”(xix)