May 01, 1998

Death Duties

Filed under: Archive,Books

The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade
by Thomas Lynch
Jonathan Cape

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

The first I heard of Thomas Lynch was an essay in The London Review of Books entitled Embalming Father. A friend passed it on to me- on an A3 photocopy. Then he found more, and before long I had a file of Lynch works; wise, lugubrious essays written by a poet who also happened to be a funeral director. Essays, among other things, about the technical, social and existential niceties of burying the dead.

About this time last year, Jonathan Cape brought out The Undertaking, a collection of Lynch’s marvellously perceptive writings. It has not had very much hoopla and sales have not been, let’s say, epidemic. But that is not entirely surprising for a book which has a coffin – a perky looking coffin, but a coffin all the same- on its dust jacket.

Ever sinceThe American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford’s toxic kiss and tell on the burial business, and then Evelyn Waugh’s sustained satire on Forest Lawn cemetery in The Loved One, funeral rites in the US have been regarded as a branch of Disney World. American Paradise, the happiest land of them all, is, in our minds, now forever associated with vulgarity and excess. Caskets like Studebakers, a cornucopia of skin cosmetics, unguents and preservatives, and a vocabulary of mortal coil shuffling, absurdly enmeshed in euphemism.

Thomas Lynch cannot single-handedly redress this state of affairs nor was his book ever intended as an apologia for the mortician’s craft. But he does artfully change our perspective because, in wondering about the undertaking of undertaking, he has written a book concerned as much with the business of living as that of dying. In his world, the punctuation of births and baptisms, marriages and unmarrying, are every bit as significant as the big Full Stop. Of his own father’s death and subsequent embalment, for instance, he writes:

“This tending to his death, his dead body, had for me the same importance as being present for the births of my sons, my daughter. Some expert on Oprah might call this ‘healing’. Another on Donahue might say ‘cathartic’. Over on Geraldo it might have scarred him for life….It is not about choices or functions or psychological correctness. A dead body has had its options limited, its choices narrowed. It is an old thing in the teeth of which we do what has been done because it is the thing to do. We needn’t reinvent the wheel or make a case for it, though my generation always seems determined to.”

Lynch’s book is many things- private confession, family memoir, local history, tribal genealogy. When he visits relatives in West Clare in Ireland, it becomes a travelogue. A published and admired poet himself, he writes about poetry and its occasions- lines written to welcome the reconstruction of a bridge linking his town of Milford with the Oak Ridge cemetery. Or an ode to an artichoke, written by his editor at Cape, which in turn renews the spirits of his depressed friend and fellow poet, Henry Nugent.

In Uncle Eddie Inc he ponders the darker than dark side of undertaking when he describes the rise and fall of his brother’s specialty business: mopping up and deodorising the unwelcome leavings of violent death and extended putrefaction, an essay which then unravels into a meditation on suicide with some added swipes at Dr Jack Kevorkian and his “medicide” machine.

But the heart of the book is in the gently comic detail of his relationships- with family and friends, fellow citizens and inevitably, future clients. InThe Right Hand of the Father he recalls:

“I had an uneventful childhood. Added to my mother’s conviction that her children were precious was my father’s terrible wariness. He saw peril in everything, disaster was ever at hand…It was of course the undertaking. As a funeral director he was accustomed to random and unreasonable damage. He had learned to fear….My mother left big things to God…She figured on God’s protection and, I firmly believe, believed in the assignment of guardian angels, whose job it was to keep us all out of harm’s way.

“But my father had seen, in the dead bodies of infants and children and young men and women, evidence that God lived by the Laws of Nature and obeyed its statutes, however brutal…So whenever I or one of my siblings would ask to go here or there or do this or that my father’s first response was always No! He had just buried someone doing the very same thing.”

So it is with quiet acceptance that Lynch recognises that he also lives in, what he calls, twin topographies:

“My wife and I take walks at night. She sees the architectural detail of Greek revival homes, Queen Anne’s, Federalist and Victoriana. I see the garage where two teachers, long married and childless, known for their prowess at ballroom dancing and careful fashions, were found asphyxiated in their Oldsmobile…Or my wife sees a well-made garden, bordering the backyard of a house where I remember painting a bedroom overnight in which a man had shot himself, so that his children, grown now, wouldn’t have to return to the mess he’d made. She sees good window treatments, the warm light of habitation where, too often, I see vacancy and absence, the darkness where light went out. We get along.”

The Undertaking may be subtitled Studies in the Dismal Trade but it is not a dismal book, nor is Lynch likely to confuse mortality with morbidity. There is a Chaucerian vigour both in his perception and his sturdy, beautifully plain prose. His observations are peppered with unexpected particulars and disarming revelations- for a man in a solemn line of work, his wit is more than gallows humour and his lightness of spirit almost inexplicably free of cynicism.

Everywhere Lynch shows a poet’s measure, a fairness to the constituents of situations, a warmth to the humaness of folly and fear, and a sense of the connectedness of things -even though as a divorcee, a reformed drinker, a Rotarian, and a sixties man with an ear for Yeats and Tom Waits, Seamus Heaney and Kurt Cobain, he must know in his bones that the centre cannot hold.

He is also a businessman with a steady head who knows the difference between wholesale and retail and doesn’t need Jessica Mitford to tell him that the bereaved consumer is in a bad bargaining position. When you’ve got a dead body on your hands, he notes wryly, it’s hard to shop around. Thomas Lynch is an eminently practical man but he is a wise one as well. And he speaks from an authority greater than Norman Rockwell sentimentality when he reminds us of the fundamental virtues evident in that Oak Ridge cemetery-

“The distance between the dead and the living seemed no greater than the river. Neither strange nor embarassing, the dead are only dead, no less brothers and sisters, parents, children, friends. And death was considered part of the nature of things in a culture where crops failed, cattle starved and neighbours died. They were waked, eulogised, buried and grieved. And against forgetfulness huge stones were hauled in with names and dates on them to proclaim their permanent place in our townscapes. It is this ancient agreement- the remembrance of the dead by the living- that accounts for all burial grounds… most statuary and entire histories.”

The Undertaking is a splendid book with an originality and lyricism as unlikely as the forthrightness of its subject matter. Thomas Lynch remarks that he is usually refered to as a poet/mortician when he never saw anyone else refered to as a poet slash editor or a poet slash homemaker. I suppose this is because he truly has a dual calling. Few poets write as well as he. And, if you did happen to be in Milford, Michigan when the clock stopped, I can’t imagine anyone else you would rather call.

The Adelaide Review, May, 1998.

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