All poets who take their jobs seriously spend a good deal of their time pondering death. Few, though, have logged as many hours as Thomas Lynch, who for 25 years has been a funeral director in Milford, Michigan. As might be expected from a writer who performs “daily stations with the local lately dead,” Lynch’s second essay collection, Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality, has a lot to say about both the current state of his industry (with its “Walmartized” funerals) and the attitude Americans have toward death, which is more or less to pretend it doesn’t exist and to hope it never happens to us or anyone we know. Of course, this leads to our inability to properly understand life. And we become one of those stunned mumblers whom the author has spent a lifetime consoling and selling caskets to at Lynch & Sons.
As in his previous collection, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Lynch muses on contemporary American life with an appealing mix of light and dark. The effect can be striking, especially in his essays on the death of a crafty old gravedigger; the alcoholism he inherited from his father and, devastatingly, watches develop in his son; his divorce and the wicked poem he later writes about his ex-wife. His prose is always lively, though in several essays he relies on the same cultural touchstones–Bill Gates, the Internet, his Catholic-school upbringing and the “wonderful breasts” of the nuns, and (oddly) the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Love the One You’re With.” More unfortunately, he can lapse into familiar generalizations of the “we boomers” or “as an Irish Catholic” variety. Then again, funeral directors must keep an eye on the habits and statistics of generations and groups (as Lynch puts it, “our favorite parlor game is Demographics and Expectancies”), so perhaps a few familiar generalities are excusable–an occupational hazard of the poet-essayist-mortician. In Lynch’s case (and there probably isn’t another), they seem a fair exchange for his entertaining and often surprisingly humble wisdom. –John Ponyicsanyi