To write a book about the business and philosophical thoughts of a funeral director that is neither morbid nor sensationalist in nature is a rather challenging endeavor. To think seriously about death and what a culture does with its dead bodies is bound to raise some readers’ discomfort, especially when it is carried out with deliberation and humanistic decorum. People who expect harrowing stories of grave robbers, desecrations, or lurid, near- pornographic accounts of the details of autopsies, embalmings, and the effects of physical decay on the human body will be disappointed by Thomas Lynch’s serious collection of essays concerning his somber trade.
However, a reader who is willing to engage in a silent philosophical discourse on the nature of humanity’s concern with the mortal remains of its species will find The Undertaking very rewarding reading indeed. Throughout the nicely illustrated, black-jacketed book, two major points emerge upon which its author, a published poet and practicing mortician, insists.
The first is Lynch’s expressive belief that funerals do not matter to the dead, who are beyond earthly concerns. The author reiterates at the somewhat overwritten beginning of his text that “the dead don’t care” what is or is not done to them. Instead, Lynch argues with conviction, a funeral is a chance for the living to come to terms with the universal fact of death.
Second, like William Gladstone, the nineteenth century English prime minister, whom he quotes upon this occasion, Lynch believes that the manner in which a culture disposes of its dead says everything about it. What value and meaning people ascribe to life, Lynch argues, can best be deduced if one observes how they care about burial, cremation, or other modes of disposal for their dead. Once death is perceived as a mere “nuisance,” as Lynch fears is happening in America at the end of the twentieth century, life itself has become devalued and dehumanized.
Funerals, therefore, exist to comfort the living and to give meaning to life. That is the double message of The Undertaking. To convince the reader of this message, Lynch takes his readers on a guided tour of his life, the lives of his family and his friends, and the deaths that bring him his customers. Thus, there are many memorable characters peopling Lynch’s interrelated essays, and the reader quickly encounters a fascinating variety of the still living, the once living, and the long dead. For reasons of confidentiality, many characters have been slightly altered or are composites of many real people, yet Lynch’s narrative makes every one of his fictional creations as real as the members of his family who reappear so often in his musings.
Corresponding to the deeply personal nature of his essays, Lynch offers some rich insights into his own character, which he sees as inextricably linked to his family history. Thus, The Undertaking contains many loving lines commemorating the author’s deceased parents, Rosemary and Edward Lynch. Here, the son admires the Catholic faith of his mother, which saw her raise nine children and which sustained her as she was dying from cancer in her early sixties. Juxtaposed to Rosemary’s faith that God would protect the family from all serious harm, Thomas evokes his father’s constant fear that something untoward may befall his children: Daily dealings with death as a funeral director have alerted his father to the fact that no life is safe from a fatal accident.
The father’s worries nearly find ghastly confirmation when Thomas drunkenly falls from a third-floor fire escape landing at college but, miraculously, suffers no serious damage. In 1969 and at the age of twenty-one, after his brush with death, Lynch searches for his roots in Ireland and meets his cousins Tommy and Nora Lynch, who live bachelor lives in an ancient cottage on the country’s west coast. Without indoor plumbing or running water, the cottage appears, to the young American visitor, as a link to a more natural past.
With a wink at the reader, Lynch offers the hypothesis that as bathrooms become part of the house, the acts of birthing and dying are moved away from home, resulting in their being seen as vague embarrassments. Frequently, Lynch begins with a point in his personal life or an event encountered while working in his profession and moves beyond to a poignant criticism of contemporary American culture. What angers Lynch are all forms of dishonesty, beginning with crafty euphemisms designed to cover up facts of...
(The entire section is 1853 words.)