(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Thomas Lynch is a poet and award-winning essayist. His book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (1997) was a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of an American Book Award. In addition, he has published three volumes of poetry including Skating with Heather Grace (1986), Grimalkin and Other Poems (1994), and Still Life in Milford (1998). Not coincidentally, Lynch is the funeral director in Milford, Michigan, and his experiences in this capacity profoundly influence his writing.

The essays in Bodies in Motion and at Rest vary widely in their subject matter: Lynch discusses his drinking, his hatred for his son’s cat, the death of the cemetery sexton. At times Lynch’s language is ironic and very funny; at others the language is poignant and sharp, cutting to the core of what it means to be human during the closing hours of the millennium. This is not to suggest that the essays are uneven in quality. Rather, the variety in the subject matter and the tone allows the reader to move through the book somewhat as he or she might move through life. There are sad moments and funny moments, moments that are supremely satisfying and moments that are supremely painful.

In addition to his home in Milford, Lynch maintains a family cottage in West Clare, Ireland, and his language often takes on the cadences of an Irish storyteller. This is particularly evident in the first essay in the book, also titled “Bodies in Motion and at Rest.” The essay begins: “So I’m over at the Hortons’ with my stretcher and minivan and my able apprentice, young Matt Sheffler, because they found old George, the cemetery sexton, dead in bed this Thursday morning in ordinary time.” It is in essays such as this one that Lynch seems truly to find his voice, the voice of a man who is intimately acquainted with death and who can write about it without sentimentality or cynicism. Lynch’s voice is one of calm and quiet reflection, both bittersweet and full of the knowledge that all people will face the same end. Lynch contrasts the activity and the inactivity of the quick and the dead as he describes the scene: “We are bodies in motion and at rest—there in George’s master bedroom, in the gray light of the midmorning, an hour or so after his daughter found him because he didn’t answer when she called this morning, and he always answers, and she always calls, so she got in the car and drove over and found him exactly as we find him here: breathless, unfettered, perfectly still, manifestly indifferent to all this hubbub.” Some of the finest lines in the book occur at the end of this first essay, as Lynch looks ahead to a future that has not yet happened but that he somehow sees: “Nor can we see clearly now, looking into his daughter Nancy’s eyes, the blue morning at the end of this coming May when she’ll stand, upright as any walking wound, holding her newborn at the graveside of the man, her one and only father, for whom her baby will be named.”

The tone shifts in the second essay, “Sweeney Revisited,” as Lynch returns to a subject he treated in his earlier book: his friend, the hypochondriac Matthew Sweeney. He reports on the outpouring of mail he has received since first recounting Matthew Sweeney’s obsession with his own imagined illnesses, and he does so with a gentle humor. Nevertheless, Lynch returns to his own trade as a way of putting hypochondria in perspective. He writes, “There is nothing like the sight of a dead human body to assist the living in separating the good days from the bad ones. Of this truth I have some experience.” Out of this conviction, Lynch arranges a job for Sweeney with a local undertaker, a job that Sweeney vociferously refuses to take. Sweeney does, however, overcome his hypochondria, finding the cure for his self-absorption in an unlikely place. When he purchases a new computer and discovers that computers can get viruses, Sweeney’s concern for the well-being of his new “friend” cancels out his own hypochondria.

Perhaps the finest essay in the book is called “The Way We Are.” Beginning with the phrase “I want to remember him the way he was,” a phrase heard often by funeral directors, Lynch reveals his own relationship to alcohol, to his son, and to his son’s addiction to alcohol. Like the bereaved, Lynch wants to remember his son the way he was, before he began drinking. Like the bereaved who often makes peace with a dead body by saying, “It’s not him anymore,” Lynch writes of his son, “It’s not him anymore. It hasn’t been for some time now. Not since he was fourteen and the thirst became a sickness. It is the thirst and sickness that has dogged my people in every generation...

(The entire section is 1931 words.)