Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking

Poet and undertaker – you could hardly imagine two more unlikely or unusual occupations. And yet, the more you think on it, the deeper the connections between them appear to be: both jobs are concerned with sanctifying and memorializing, building imaginary bridges between a dead past and a living present. The day-to-day drudgery of the duties couldn’t be more different, of course, but there’s a certain philosophical kinship between the professions, not least because both provoke puzzlement from the general public. When he isn’t overseeing the embalming and interring of corpses at his family-run funeral parlour, Thomas Lynch teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan and writes poetry. He has published five collections of verse, and been featured in The New Yorker, Harper’s and The New York Times, among other prestigious publications. He came to my attention through the critic William Giraldi, whose high praise is not easily won and never misplaced, and to whom I will be eternally grateful for the introduction, for Lynch’s little essay collection – an extended meditation on life and death, of course – was a deeply enjoyable read, by turns edifying and mortifying.

As the subtitle makes clear (“Life studies from the dismal trade”), this book is at least partially a memoir, or perhaps a meditation, on what it means to bury the dead for a living. For Lynch, undertaking was also a family profession, since his father began the tradition, and made sure – in the ordinary way of fathers – to pass on the craft to his sons and daughters. From a very young age, then, Lynch was around death. He was accustomed to the late-night phone calls his father would receive, and later to casual trips to the town morgue, to collect the night’s unlucky corpse. It’s this very familiarity with death that the general public finds so repellant, for, as Lynch is at pains to make clear, we have so sanitized the modern world as to leave no room for death and its attendant messes. In “Crapper,” for example, he weaves together the story of the advent of indoor plumbing with the rise in palliative care wards and “senior citizen” homes, suggesting that both were undertaken in a similar spirit, to rid us of life’s unpleasantries. Surely, Lynch suggests, it’s significant that people used to die in their homes, among friends and family, and today they seldom do. We might banish death from our homes, but we cannot banish its consequences from our hearts and minds, and our refusal to confront it – in the opinion of this undertaker – is a symptom of a wider sickness.

And just as bringing the crapper indoors has made feces an embarrassment, pushing the dead and dying out has made death one. […] out of sight out of mind. Make it go away, disappear. Push the button, pull the chain, get on with life. The trouble is, of course, that life, as any fifteen-year-old can tell you, is full of shit and has but one death. And to ignore our excrement might be good form, while to ignore our mortality creates an “imbalance,” a kind of spiritual irregularity, psychic impaction, a bunging up of our humanity, a denial of our very nature.

Death, after all, is one of the few things we all have in common, a spiritual Rome to which all roads lead, and to deny or downplay its inevitability sucks the significance from life, trivializes existence itself. Lynch knows this truth intimately, because undertaking, as he understands it, involves not merely caring for the dead but ministering to the living. We may speak, for example, of “Tom’s funeral,” but Tom long ago ceased to be: the funeral is for his friends and family, the beloved and bereaved, who gather as much for their sake as for his. “Undertakings are the things we do to vest the lives we lead against the cold, the meaningless, the void, the noisy blather, and the blinding dark. It is the voice we give to wonderment, to pain, to love and desire, anger and outrage; the words that we shape to song and prayer.”

And there you have it, plain as possible: the connection between poetry and undertaking made explicit. And I submit to you that, even if very few poems make death and its attendant griefs their subject matter, every poem is at bottom a “song and prayer” against death’s nullifying powers. Herrick’s virgins and Wordsworth’s flowers are celebrations of life, and life would be utterly unremarkable were it not for its opposite. In a poet’s prose, with humour and insight, Lynch probes the unexamined connections between life and death, and passes judgment on our death-denying modern culture. It is a noble undertaking, worthy of a poet’s time, and the rest of us could profit immensely from his labours.