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The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade
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65 of 66 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 1999
Format: Paperback
Every year I try to pick my own "Book of the Year." This started out as a way of picking an annual Xmas gift for my sister-in-law. Now it has become my own personal way of ranking books I have read. Though it is only late October and, though I had yet another book in mind, Lynch wins. I had heard him read a section of this book on a C-Span reading and bought it. But it sat unread on my shelf for close to a year. This past week, I was hungry for something good to read and so grabbed it pretty much at random. For the next three days, I used every spare moment of my time to finish it. Each essay convinced me that it alone was the best. And, except for the anti- Jessica Mitford diatribe near the end, it was hard to find any essay not to be a personal favorite in one way or another. While ostensibly about the funeral business-past and present--it is certainly about a great deal more. I found myself reading whole sections of it aloud to friends, with great excitement. Wonderful, rich writing.
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50 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2002
Format: Paperback
Life Studies from the Dismal Trade is the subtitle of Thomas Lynch's extraordinary collection of essays. It says far more about the substance of this book than the title itself.
Lynch is the sole funeral director in Milford, Michigan. As such, as he states in his opening, he "buries a couple of hundred of his towns people". It is not, an occasional aside notwithstanding, the technical aspects of his job that lynch focuses on here, however. As the subtitle suggests, it is the living that concern Mr. Lynch, and, in fact, as an undertaker, it is the living, not the dead, he truly serves. For, as he is wont to point out, the dead don't care.
The living, on the other hand, care a great deal. Especially in cases of tragic, unforeseen death. The young murder victim's family, the suicide's family, and so on.
Mr. Lynch is a published poet. So his essays are not the dry stuff of technical journals, but rater elegant, philosophical expositions on the nature of death, the nature of survival, and the nature of his profession.
One would think that this would be a rather depressing read but, in fact, it is anything but.
I have recommended the book to many friends-boomers like myself with aging parents. Reading this book helped me to deal more effectively with my own parent's deaths. It helps one put some perspective on the rituals that we observe attendant to death. That it manages to inform and entertain as well is a remarkable achievement.
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on July 27, 2000
Format: Paperback
and found it to be one of the most beautifully written books I've yet read. In going through a time where I've been caught up in examining the deeper issues of my own life, this small book spoke a great deal to what was going on in my head and heart. Not death, per se, but rather life and enjoying it, trying to make sense of it. Mr. Lynch examines a subject we in America too often prefer not to deal with - the aftermath of death; the process that begins immediately after the departing of the spirit.
Beautifully, sensitively written. I'm going to buy it as a birthday present for a close friend. READ IT! It's really not morbid! :)
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
Perhaps it is Thomas Lynch's Irish heritage that shines through and illuminates his views of death. He certainly has the fabled Irish way with words, and can turn 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, so he can be matter-of-fact about it, but never disrespectful. 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.
Those are the qualities that make this slender volume (202 4-3/4 by 7-3/4" pages) such a valuble 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.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
This book tells us the story of Thomas Lynch, poet and undertaker. Undertaking came naturally to Lynch. His father and grandfather were both undertakers, and five of his eight siblings are also in the business. The book combines memoirs with description of the undertaker's work, all in Lynch's exquisite prose style. He describes for us how each of his parents died, and how he and his brother prepared their own father's body for burial. He also delves into his Irish roots and how he came to inherit the family homestead in Ireland. Much of the book, however, explores the issue of undertaking, and its importance for contemporary American society. Lynch points out that professional funeral directors are relatively new. Only a short time ago, family members would prepare the bodies of loved ones for burial, and funerals and wakes were held in family homes. We no longer have rooms set aside for such purposes, nor do we possess the skills for building coffins or setting bodies in them. And so we depend on skilled professionals like Lynch to see that everything is done properly and to the letter of the law.

An interesting social issue that Lynch brings up is the question of the purpose of funerals and burials. Lynch argues that funerals are solely for the sake of the living, not the dead. He stresses that once a person is dead, he or she no longer has pride, humility, or preferences that need to be taken into account. Surviving family members, on the other hand, need the rituals of the funeral to help them say goodbye. The manner and setting of the funeral ritual also affects their social standing. For these reasons, he tells a friend that the minimalist funeral the friend wants for himself is out of the question. "What would such a funeral do to your family?" Lynch asks. When the man dies, his family disregards his stated preferences and opts for a traditional funeral and casket. While it's true that once you're dead, such choices no longer have any meaning, still, I'm not entirely convinced that we do not have the prerogative to make requests about how our bodies should be taken care of when we go. A dead person may have no pride, but a living person should have some say over how he or she will be remembered.

Lynch's language is a delight to read. However, he meanders off topic in a few places and becomes preachy in some others while leaving details a little unclear. In general, though, the book is engaging and thought provoking.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on July 15, 2000
Format: Paperback
Thomas Lynch guides us into a milieu through which we all will travel (at least once), but which few of us understand. "The Undertaking" is not a textbook of how the funeral business operates, but a series of reverent stories about people who have died, those who grieve them, and how the undertaker cares for both.
Lynch instructively reflects on the rituals associated with death (and death itself), and reinforces the importance of treating these moments of our ultimate disposition with respect and gravity. This perhaps is the most important aspect of the book.
As well, Lynch sometimes humorously, sometimes poignantly, reveals to us the complexity of working in the dismal trade--running a business that sells a product no one wants to buy, while doing it with patience and compassion.
My only criticism is that, throughout the book, Lynch constantly instructs us that the dead don't care what happens to them. Indeed, wakes and funerals are balm for the living, but who knows what the departed know? Wouldn't we all like to believe that, after the unfortunate end, we could attend our own funeral?
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I hate reading reviews of this book. They all generally go, "check this out. he's an undertaker, and a poet. isn't that wacky?" They point out the novelty of the author over the fact that he is an excellent author. In this book, Thomas Lynch eloquently discusses both halves of his lives. Every time a friend of mine tells me that he or she wants to be cremated i always try and disuade him or her by using the arguments Lynch makes in this book. A truly excellent read. One of the few books I have read more than once. I just read that he has a second collection of essays. I haven't read it, but i plan to include it in my next amazon purchase.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 14, 2006
Format: Paperback
If you're looking for a behind-the-scenes look into a funeral home -- as I initially was -- you should look elsewhere. However, by the time I realized this book was not about the daily operations of a funeral home, except tangentially, Lynch had already pulled me into this wonderfully absorbing series of meditations on life and loss, birth and death, love and grief. In beautiful, often poetic prose (with more than a few witty turns), Lynch describes what he has learned as an undertaker, poet, and human being. His musings are very Irish and Catholic but yet small-c catholic and universal at the same time. They are imbued with a deep sense of loss -- not simply the physical loss of death (though that's inevitably here as well), but the loss of tradition that accompanies almost every change, such as indoor plumbing or our becoming a more mobile, impermanent society. But this is no screed about restoring the old days and ways. Nor is it, really, about death. It is, in the end, a very thoughtful reflection on life. Though it's sometimes dirty and frequently incomprehensible, though it brings loss and grief, life is a joyous undertaking.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2002
Format: Paperback
When I finished reading this book, I immediately started over again from the beginning. It is beautifully and sensitively written, providing an insight into the "dismal trade" as no one ever has before. For example, Mr. Lynch writes eloquently of an embalmer's gift to a murdered child's mother, describing how the embalmer had "retrieved her death from the one who had killed her." It is one of those books that stays with you...that somehow makes an imprint on your very soul.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2007
Format: Paperback
I must admit that until recently I didn't have the slightest idea of who Thomas Lynch was or, as a matter of fact, is. But being a subscriber of Granta literary magazine it turned out that in the last issue devoted to stories related with what they understood to be the "Deep end" it was published a short story by him called "The hunter's moon" and I was really haunted by it. It was about a man, a sales rep in the funeral business, who arriving to the final part of his life recalls in his daily lonely walks through the woods the way he has lived, his wives, his dead daughter, the whereabouts of his trade, the harm done and the bliss received, and all that under the spell of the October's full moon. After that I began to learn more about this author: a poet and funeral home director, the one who has inspired the TV series "Nine feet under", a man of deep understanding of life and death and of what the latter means to the living. A writer worth to be read.
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