by Thomas Lynch
Penguin USA, 1997
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Sep 9th 1998
I heard undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch being interviewed on NPR last year, and he seemed such a moderate and wise person, with a few eccentricities. The Undertaking is a collection of reflections on his chosen profession, and through his writing, Lynch comes across quite different from his radio persona: he seems much more opinionated and fallible. The theme that runs through his writing is that death is unpleasant and upsetting; but rather than avoid it as we do, we should take it seriously and respect it. Lynch encounters plenty of hypocrisy and double-speak in his profession, from other undertakers, from grieving families, and from local politicians in his home town. He writes with a mournful crudity that exposes the half-truths and self-deception of others without self-righteousness. Indeed, this is a very funny book that I really enjoyed reading.
This is not a academic book, but it nevertheless addresses philosophical issues. One of Lynch's recurring motifs is that the dead no longer exist. Funerals should not be designed to make the dead person feel better, because that is not possible. A well off person asking for a pauper's burial is not making a self-sacrifice, because she will not be there to experience it. Philosophers have used the same premise of non-existence to argue that it is irrational to fear death. Why fear what you cannot experience? But Lynch realizes that death is very important to the living, no matter how much we now cover up the messy realities of dying. People used to lay out their dead relatives in their front rooms, but now they send them off to the morgue and then the undertakers as soon as possible. Lynch thinks that avoiding death is the same thing as avoiding life. How we respect life is reflected in how we respect death. The civilization of a society can be measured by how it treats its dead.
Lynch relates his ideas through his experience as an undertaker, and through burying his own. His family lives in Michigan but still has its roots in Ireland. He is a solidly heterosexual family man, divorced and ex-drinker, who has seen a thing or two. Yet strangely enough, when Lynch writes about his family, he reminds me of David Sedaris author of Barrel Fever and Naked. Sedaris, being a neurotic gay writer in New York, would seem to be a polar opposite of Lynch, but they both describe growing with their parents' stories, gaining some perspective on those stories as they grow older, and using those stories in their understanding of their parents' deaths. For both writers, family is crucial, although not in a right-wing "family values" way. Rather, both set out their families' roles in their lives while at the same time acknowledging the complexities and bizarre goings on that structure family life. One of the most striking parts of Lynch's book is his telling the story of his father's death. His father died in Florida, long after his wife's death, while sharing an apartment with a "lady friend." He had a heart attack just after getting out of the shower. Lynch and his brothers travel out there, embalm their father, and bring him back home for burial next to their mother. Most people do not get in such close contact with their parents' humanity, and most would not want to. Lynch does not preach to us that we should, but he writes about it in a way which makes it seem a reasonable way of going about life.