The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

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9780140276237: The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

Thomas Lynch serves his readership as a poet and memoirist, and his townspeople as a funeral director. In this wholly unique collection of essays, the two vocations meet as Lynch shows himself to be a competent functionary of mourning--dispensing comfort and homespun wisdom to the grief-stricken--as well as a poet poignantly tuning language to the right tones of private release. He is also a man of sardonic wit, uncovering humor where we least thought to find it--in our fear of and fascination with death. In its homages to parents who have died and to children who shouldn't have, its tales of golfers tripping over grave markers, portraits of gourmands and hypochondriacs, lovers and suicides, The Undertaking displays an impressively wide vocal range--from solemn, nostalgic, and lyrical to acerbic, sprightly, and unflinchingly professional.

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Review:

"...I had come to know that the undertaking that my father did had less to do with what was done to the dead and more to do with what the living did about the fact of life that people died," Thomas Lynch muses in his preface to The Undertaking. The same could be said for Lynch's book: ostensibly about death and its attendant rituals, The Undertaking is in the end about life. In each case, he writes, it is the one that gives meaning to the other. A funeral director in Milford, Michigan, Lynch is that strangest of hyphenates, a poet-undertaker, but according to Lynch, all poets share his occupation, "looking for meaning and voices in life and love and death." Looking for meaning takes him to all sorts of unexpected places, both real and imagined. He embalms the body of his own father, celebrates the rebuilt bridge to his town's old cemetery, takes issue with the Jessica Mitfords of this world, and envisages a "golfatorium," a combination golf course and cemetery that could restore joy to the last rites. In "Crapper," Lynch even contemplates the subtleties of the modern flush toilet and its relationship to the messy business of dying: "Just about the time we were bringing the making of water and the movement of bowels into the house, we were pushing the birthing and marriage and sickness and dying out." Death and fatherhood, death and friendship, death and faith and love and poetry--these are the concerns that power Lynch's undertaking. Throughout, Lynch pleads the case for our dead--who are, after all, still living through us--with an eloquence marked by equal parts whimsy, wit, and compassion. In the last essay, "Tract," he envisions almost wistfully the funeral he'd choose for himself, and then relinquishes that, too. Funerals, after all, are for the living. The dead, he reminds us, don't care. --Mary Park

About the Author:

Thomas Lynch's essays, poems and stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, The New York Times, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Milford, Michigan where he has been the funeral director since 1974, and in Moveen, Co. Clare, Ireland where he keeps an ancestral cottage.

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