A Michigan undertaker/poet deals with the humor and pathos of death

Spring 2004 (Vol V, No. 1) Table of Contents

(Ed. Note: It is appropriate to take a retrospective look at Thomas Lynch’s first non-poetry book, as he is now completing his latest work, a book on Ireland. His collection of essays,The Undertaking-Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, reviewed below, won The Heartland Prize for non-fiction, The American Book Award, and was a Finalist for the National Book Award. It has been translated into seven languages. Ken Fermoyle, who has followed Lynch’s work for some years, will review the new book when it is published – and possibly interview the author – for a future Standard issue.

Perhaps it is Thomas Lynch’s Irish heritage that shines through and illuminates his views of death. The Michigan mortician certainly has the fabled Irish way with words. He turns a phrase with the best. One of my favorites is: “The poor cousin of fear is anger.”

Lynch also exhibits the traditional Irish inclination to find humor even in the deepest throes of sorrow. Ironies abound in this work. His career as an undertaker has made him familiar with death, perhaps too familiar for his liking at times. He can be matter-of-fact about it, but never callous, look on it as a natural part of existence, but still feel the sadness death brings.

The man’s writing has some of the qualities of the prototypical Irish wake, at once keening for the loss of friends and neighbors, and celebrating the lives of those left behind.

His scope is broad, in time, subjects and even geography. In the preface, Lynch describes what it was like to be an undertaker’s son during the 1950s. “At first I thought it meant he took them under,” he reports, adding that what his father did, and how, was of greater importance to his young friends than to him. Later on we learn more about “the dismal trade,” what it involves and how it has affected the author’s views on life and death.

He writes frankly and with great insight about his father, mother, siblings, and friends. His essays are not confined to Milford, his home in Southern Michigan, but were written in or about Ireland, the West Indies and California. His subjects range widely, too. One, titled Crapper, recounts an incident in Galway, Ireland, during which Lynch and fellow poet Don Paterson get into a discussion about Thomas Crapper, inventor of the flush toilet. The author muses about the similar roles of Crapper’s invention and undertakers. “We are embarrassed by [our dead] in the same way we are embarrassed by a toilet that overflows on the night that company comes. We call the plumber.” Or the undertaker, as the case may be.

This kind of sardonic humor abounds in Lynch’s work. But it is tempered by kindliness, an obvious empathy for people. He may treat life and death with little sentimentality, but never with disrespect.

Those are the qualities that make this little volume (4-3/4 by 7-3/4″ pages) such a valuable work. For this reader, at least, it provided a new perspective on death and “the dismal trade” that Lynch practices. It well deserved its spot as Runner-up in the National Book Awards. I recommend it to you.

The Undertaking, by Thomas Lynch; $25; W.W. Norton; 1997; 202 pp.

Ken Fermoyle’s career as a writer, editor and journalist spans 56 years. He has written more than 2,500 articles for publications ranging from Playboy and Popular Science to PC World, McCalls and the L.A. Times Book Review. An avid reader since childhood, he has been reviewing books off and on for nearly 50 years.


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