Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Dying Words

Mortician/writer Thomas Lynch breathes life into his subject.

By Chris Wright

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople," writes Thomas Lynch in the opening line of The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Lynch is the director of Lynch & Sons, a family-run funeral home in Milford, Michigan; he's also a poet and essayist, and his new book is a collection of essays gleaned from 25 years of embalming, burying, and burning the dead.

If the premise sounds a bit unappealing -- prehistoric couches in half-lit rooms, endless arrangements of flowers and talk of the hereafter -- that's because conventional wisdom tells us that funerals are at best dreary, and at worst downright depressing. The funeral is life's crappy epilogue. It takes an unconventional wisdom -- like that of Thomas Lynch -- to have us see things in a different light.

An excerpt from "The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade"

A man that I work with named Wesley Rice once spent all of one day and all night carefully piecing together the parts of a girl's cranium. She'd been murdered by a madman with a baseball bat after he'd abducted and raped her. . . . Most embalmers, faced with what Wesley Rice was faced with after he'd opened the pouch from the morgue, would have simply said "closed casket," treated the remains enough to control the odor, zipped the pouch, and gone home for cocktails. It would have been easier. The pay was the same. 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. The hair was hers, not his. The body was hers, not his. 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. 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, and laid her in a casket beside which her mother stood for two days and sobbed as if something had been pulled from her by force. It was the same when her pastor stood with her and told her "God weeps with you." And the same when they buried the body in the ground. It was then and always will be awful, horrible, unappeasably sad. But the outrage, the horror, the heartbreak belonged, not to the murderer or the media or the morgue, each of whom had staked their claims to it. It belonged to the girl and to her mother. Wesley had given them the body back . . . it was what we undertakers call a good funeral.

Reprinted from The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. (W. W. Norton).

Like a good poet, Lynch breathes life into his subject. In his hands the funeral becomes a vital part of life's ceremony. "How we treat our dead tells us about ourselves," he says, and in the book he makes us believe it. Part memoir and part manifesto, The Undertaking has garnered a wealth of public interest and critical acclaim, even securing a slot as a National Book Award finalist. It is one of the year's creepers.

The essays in The Undertaking are driven by passion, humor, and irrepressible logic. They are also surprisingly lively, considering the subject matter. Lynch's madly discursive prose leaps from witticism to emotional declamation, from a coolly quoted statistic to a passage of inspired lyricism. But he always leads us back to the graveside, and he always leaves us wanting to peer in.

Lynch's essays look at mortality without blinking. They might offer a modest (and persuasive) proposal to combine cemeteries with golf courses, or draw a line of argument from the flush toilet to modern attitudes about death, or show us the unbearable sadness of losing somebody we love. More than anything, though, these essays convince us that taking care of the dead is one of our most basic responsibilities -- something we undertake for the living as much as for those we praise and bury. As Lynch puts it: "It is the thing to do."

In person, Lynch is soft-spoken and bespectacled, sporting a baggy suit, a bow tie, and a few days' stubble -- in appearance, every bit the lugubrious undertaker. But he is also as witty, thoughtful, and gracious as his book. And every bit as willing to talk about death.

Q: The subtitle of your book is Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Isn't this a bit misleading? A lot of people see undertakers as being dismal people --

A: They are [laughs]. I've been trying to get taller and gaunter and rub my hands more. But it is a dismal trade. A funeral is a bad day. And there are life studies to be had -- what we learn from the bad day. That's what the subtitle is about.

Q: There is suffering in the book, but it's not a dismal book. It's often witty and even uplifting.

A: As funerals sometimes are. But too often what we try to say is that laughing's okay but crying's not. So often when we have friends who are bereaved, we'll talk with them about anything but the death, because we think our role as friends is to distract them. We talk about the stock market, the Yankees, or the goddam weather instead of how does it feel to have your spouse be dead, because the answer to that is not "have a nice day." It might be miserable. So I want people at your funeral -- and mine -- to be uplifted, but not because they've been distracted.

Q: Your book got me thinking. For the first time in my life I started to question what I want to happen to me when I die.

A: I think in time the question will evolve into not what you want done for yourself, but what you want when someone close to you dies. Because you'll have to live with those decisions. When you die, you'll have your heaven or your abyss or whatever is out there or isn't out there. But you'll be well beyond worrying about whether you'll be buried or burned or blown out of a cannon.

Q: Yes, but I want people to get together when I'm gone and have a good drink and a good cry and a good laugh. In your book you say you don't want that kind of lightheartedness. Given the book's humor, I was surprised by that.

A: Your hope that people will laugh and cry is a good one. I just don't want people to feel as if they have to grin and bear it. If they feel like getting together and having a drink, fair play to them. But if they feel like walking away and weeping, or screaming, or shaking their fist in the face of whoever's out there. . . . All I'm saying is, I want to instruct my family that whatever they feel like, whether they feel like saying "Bugger off," "Piss up a rope," "Thank God for his life" -- it's okay with me, because I won't be there. It won't matter.

Q: The Undertaking got a glowing review in the Death Care Business Advisor, among other publications. Do you think they are rubbing their hands, seeing the book as a counteroffensive against the likes of Jessica Mitford?

A: Yes. [Pause]. Jessica changed my life. The basic premise of her book [The American Way of Death] is that when someone you love dies, you are in a very bad bargaining position -- which of course is true. It's the same when you have a gallbladder burst -- you can't go shopping for a surgeon. When you have a dead body on the floor, you're in trouble, you are in a bad bargaining position. But her next jump is: because you're in that position, every undertaker's a crook. Which is ludicrous.

Q: Do you think of your book as being a response to that?

A: No. Although I did feel that I would not want to write a book without speaking about that issue, the idea that funeral directors are all crooks.

Q: One step lower than used car dealers.

A: One step higher than attorneys.

Q: So what was behind this book?

A: I did want to organize, in my own mind, some of the themes I had touched on in my poetry. I did want to leave some record of what undertakers do and why we do it. But in the end, it has less to do with the fact that I'm an undertaker, and more to do with the fact that you are going to die as well as I am.

Q: A lot of the book is spent exhorting us to value all our rituals and traditions, not just funerals -- not to do away with the past.

A: I would hate to characterize anything as the good old days, because the good old days had plagues and fevers and flus and starvation. If I'm saying anything, it's to look at things for their meaning, not just for their performance. In the world we live in we're apt to see things in terms of their function, not necessarily their form -- how they operate rather than why we value them. And I think this is particularly true when you press your nose up against the existential questions: birth, death, marriage. Why do we do this? What does this mean?

Q: And the funeral ceremony is a way of answering those questions, or at least dealing with them?

A: It's a way of broaching the questions. In a way, the funeral presses your face up against the fact of our mortality.

Q: My cousin died in a car accident a few years ago. There was an open casket. My sister went in to see the body and ran out screaming, knocking chairs over on the way. Did that help her?

A: I can't tell you if that helped her, but I can tell you that I know an awful lot of parents whose daughters and sons were killed in car accidents, who never saw them, and who are still searching. I have stood with parents whose young children have been terribly disfigured; they might see a damaged child, but it proves to them that this terrible thing has happened. That's why it hurts. While your sister may have been traumatized, there's no question for her that this person is dead.

Q: In your book you say that MIA is more painful than DOA. You also say that you couldn't really believe JFK was dead until you saw photos of him on the slab. Do we really need that proof?

A: Yes. Take Princess Diana. That was a wonderful funeral, but I don't know if her boys saw the body. I kind of doubt they did. They have to live with what the media served up, a crumpled Mercedes-Benz in a French tunnel. I can tell you this: any 14-year-old boy can imagine far worse than what they would have seen. Their mother's just missing in action.

Q: But the funeral seemed to perform that healing function on a national level.

A: You're right. It's interesting that Britain is a culture that for the past 40 years has not attended the funerals of their fathers, their mothers, their sisters, their brothers, and people were determined. This was a media-anointed event. It was okayed to do this one: you could bring flowers, and if they had laid Diana out in Kensington Palace, people would have filed by to see her dead. There was so much free-floating, unattached, unfocused grief.

Q: People were using this ceremony as a focus for their personal pain.

A: The same thing happens on a smaller scale in Milford, Michigan, when a woman will come in to bury her husband, armed with a prescription to keep her from going to pieces. She goes through this event -- or nonevent -- as if she isn't there, because in a sense she's not there. Six weeks later she'll come to the funeral of her accountant's brother-in-law's best friend and break down. I think psychiatrists call it re-grieving.

Q: It's the snagged-sweater syndrome: all these terrible things happen to you and you hold yourself together, then you snag your sweater on a nail and you break down.

A: You unravel. Q: In the preface of the book, you talk about childhood friends clamoring to get the "grim details" of the Lynch family business. People don't want to face death, but we do want those grim details, the shattered skulls and the eyeballs popping out of the sockets.

A: It's much like the way our inability to deal with sex in any natural context builds an appetite for pornography. Our inability to deal with mortality builds an appetite for the pornography that is blood and guts. The appetite comes from an unwillingness to see death as part of the baby that's crawling, the marriage that's contracted. We see them as separate, isolated events, and because of that we objectify death. People will pay to have someone tell them what it looks like when somebody drives a Harley Davidson into a tree. In the same way, grown men pay good money to see the breasts of women they could never touch; this is not what you would call a natural understanding of sexuality.

Q: You've been in the trade for 25 years. Have you thought about giving it up, perhaps to pursue a writing career full time?

A: I've never seen it as either/or. I think one helps me do the other: being a good funeral director helps me be a good writer, and being a good writer makes me a better funeral director. The really grim thing is not dealing with some dead guy who's had something horrible happen to him. The grim part of my work is walking into a room with a mother and a father, or a wife or a husband, and having to say something.

Q: What do you say?

A: That's poetry: how do you speak the unspeakable?

Q: About your early experiences with death, you write: "The dead were unremarkable in ways that are difficult to imagine." Of course, the dead are remarkable for most of us because we can only imagine them. We've made them spooky and shadowy.

A: Death is not fearsome, it's not wild. These are our people -- after you see them dead it is unremarkable. For most of the history of our species, death was unremarkable. We're the first few generations that have not had to deal with it.

Q: What can we do?

A: We can reassert our responsibility to the dead, our willingness to deal with the dead. We should reassign ourselves those tasks: carrying our dead, burying our dead, being present, waking them, seeing them, saying what it means to have our hearts broken. These are the ways of getting in touch with our humanity. We should all try to see the skull behind the skin.

Chris Wright is on staff at the Boston Phoenix.

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