Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Book Review: The Undertaking

Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (Penguin Books, 1998).

The picture of Thomas Lynch to the right is from You can go to NPR and hear Thomas Lynch to listen to Lynch read his poetry.

I heard Thomas Lynch speak a few weeks ago and decided I needed to read some of his work. Although it may not be an official title, Lynch is the Poet Laureate of Undertakers. He followed his father’s footsteps into the family business and his children continue the trade. But he’s also a well-known poet in both the United States and Ireland. Lynch repeatedly reminds his readers that a poet’s two main topics are sex and death. He’s certainly qualified to talk about this second. However, The Undertaking is not poetry, although the words often have a poetic quality to them. Through prose, Lynch tells stories about his impressions of the trade.

In his presentation a few weeks ago, he told us a story about one of his uncles in Ireland who had died. He went over to their cottage and was in the kitchen when the priest came in. He overheard some of the conversation and although his aunt’s back was to him, could see the expression on the priest face when he grieving widow said, "you know, Father, he died of gonorrhea."

The priest stumbled for words. "I’m shocked," he said. "I don’t remember having anyone die from that and your husband didn’t seem to be that kind of man. It must have been when he took that job up north."

The wife reassured the priest that her husband was a good man and then they talked about the services.

When the priest left, the daughter went to her mother and asked why she told the priest that he died from gonorrhea. "You know full well he died of diarrhea?"

"I know," the widow told her daughter, "but I’d prefer your father be remembered as the great lover he never was instead of the big shit he always was."

Although the above joke isn’t included in this book (maybe it’s in another of his books), there’s plenty here to laugh about. But there’s also a lot to cry over. Lynch presents a sympathetic portrait of most funeral directors. He tells about a colleague who, for no extra charge, spent 18 hours working on the face and skull of a young girl who had been abducted and beaten to death, just so her mother could see her again. "She was dead, to be sure, and damaged; but her face was hers again, not the madman’s version…. [He] had not raised her from the dead nor hidden the hard facts, but he had retrieved her death from the one who had killed her." (83-4) Lynch admits that some would have given up, left the body in a bag and placed it in the coffin and gone home for cocktails…

Lynch isn’t much for people preplanning their funerals as a way to "avoid bothering" the living. He sees making such arrangements as part of the healing and letting go process. Responding to "Russ," who wanted to preplan his funeral and insisted "It’s my funeral! My money," Lynch wrote: "Here is where I explain to Russ the subtle but important difference between the ‘adjectival’ and ‘possessive’ applications of the first-person singular pronoun of ownership—a difference measured by one’s last breath." (190)

One of the consequences of reading this book is that we're forced to consider how we live our lives. In talking about picking out a casket, he might joke that he doesn’t have a model that will get one into or keep one out of heaven, or one that will turn a frog into a prince or vice-versa. "There isn’t a casket that compensates for neglect nor one that hides true love, honorable conduct, or affection." (181) Life is for living. I recommend this book!


  1. That does sound like a good book and that is an interesting point that planning a funeral is part of the grieving/letting go process. I'm not sure if that is actually true though or if it is, it's a deeply subconscious thing. I found that whole process to be bothersome and a chore. I don't care what Bible verses should be read or what casket they should have or what the obituary should say. All I wanted was some quiet time to myself to think about what just happened and having that relegated to after all this "minutia" was done was frustrating.

  2. When I go, I just want to be cremated, have a quick service over the ashes and then have everyone go out and have a big barbeque party to send me off in style. Later at their convenience, those people who inherited my ashes can take me to a few chosen select spots at their convenience and scatter me around. I haven't lost too many relatives thanks to great genetics but when my only grandfather to pass away did so, we buried him in the rain (which during the drought that we in was a godsend for the crops) and then went to a local restaurant for a family reunion and to laugh together. Memories are so much better when you laugh over them instead of cry.

  3. That's a great joke and Thomas Lynch seems like a unique writer we should all experience.

    Great book review post.

  4. There is something to be said about laughing AND crying over memories. To see someone cry that you never have seen before...that's bonding.

  5. That sounds like a stimulating book. Thanks for sharing your review of it.

  6. Definitely my kind of book...thanks for the review. And I couldn't agree more with Ed :)

  7. I swear he looks like Jack Nicholson.

    I like Ed's idea, and I have told mr. kenju that is what I want as well.

  8. Sounds like there's a lot of us who prefer creamation (myself included). Although the point that he's making is that the funeral is for the survivors to have closure. Lynch suggests there is value in sticking by the grave as the dirt goes in or being at the creamation--which I like--often they wait till people leave to lower the casket and I leave feeling like something was left undone.

    Out in Nevada, at a burial I heard about, friends pulled out bottles, took a swig and then drop the bottle into the grave... another interesting custom.