A lot of writers put life and death into their work. But for almost four decades, Thomas Lynch has examined what Auden called the “unmentionable odor of death,” those details that even the most unflinching writers usually dodge.
Lynch, also a poet, is at least as well known in his village of Milford, Mich., as a funeral director (Lynch & Sons, with six locations). Some of his finest, wryest and most stylish essays about the human enterprise of mortality appear together in this collection.
But the mortuary business hasn’t been just a way for one poet to support his family. A career in burials and cremation also fires his poetic imagination — I’m sorry, but Lynch also savors puns about rigor mortis and cremation.
His father, who founded Lynch & Sons, fretted whenever one of his nine children left the house to play because he “had just buried some boy who had toyed with matches, or played baseball without a helmet on, or went fishing without a life preserver, or ate the candy that a stranger gave him.”
Lynch apprenticed with his father and brought home his work. A teenage Thomas was often delegated to bring the bodies of stillborn babies back to the family funeral home, in small, black containers about as big as a fishing tackle box. “These little fetal things,” Lynch writes, “stillborn or born but not quite viable, were freighted with a gravitas, fraught with sadness, laden with a desolation born of dashed hopes and grave-bound humanity.”
The memories of those small, frail forms, so certifiably human but not yet their own person, inform and complicate Lynch’s singular views on faith, the beginnings of life and his belief about a woman’s right to decide. When Lynch takes us into his later struggles with alcoholism and estrangement, you read them as the words of a man who has been bathed from birth to know how easily the gift of life can be rendered into dust.
Many of Lynch’s memoirs quarrel with Jessica Mitford’s enduring 1963 best seller, “The American Way of Death,” which held that — beyond a plain wooden box in the cold ground — most ceremonial and cosmetic funeral options were pricey scams to exploit the grieving.
Lynch writes of Wesley Rice, an embalmer who worked 18 hours to restore the appearance of the head of a young girl who had been abducted, raped and beaten to death with a baseball bat. All of his effort was so that a single, suffering person — the girl’s mother — could see her daughter’s face at peace.
Lynch writes that Rice “retrieved her death from the one who had killed her. He had closed her eyes, her mouth. He’d washed her wounds, sutured her lacerations, pieced her beaten skull together, stitched the incisions from the autopsy, cleaned the dirt from under her fingernails, scrubbed the fingerprint ink from her fingertips, washed her hair, dressed her in jeans and a blue turtleneck.”
Scott Simon is the host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday.”