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The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade Paperback – August 1, 1998

4.4 out of 5 stars 110 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

Eloquent, meditative observations on the place of death in small-town life, from the only poet/funeral director in Milford, Mich. Poets like Lynch (Grimalkin and Other Poems) tend to be more respectful about death and the grave than novelists like Evelyn Waugh or journalists like Jessica Mitford. Lynch lives by the old- fashioned undertakers' motto, ``Serving the living by caring for the dead'' (as opposed to more mundanely providing, as one seminar put it, ``What Folks Want in a Casket''). Taking up the family business, Lynch philosophically bears his responsibilities in Milford, which has its statistical share of accidents, suicides, murders, and grieving survivors. His essential respect for the living and the dead notwithstanding, his shop talk perforce has its morbid aspects, such as making ``pre-arrangements'' with future clients, reminding families about uncollected cremation ashes, taking middle-of-the-night calls for collection, or, in a rare filial obligation, embalming his own father. But the author has a sense of the absurd possibilities of his business, even a whimsical scheme to run a combination golf course/burial ground. In one of the livelier essays, he reflects on the competition--both professional and philosophical--fellow Michiganite Dr. Jack Kevorkian, with his no-muss suicide machine, poses to Uncle Eddie's postmortem-clean-up business, Specialized Sanitation Services (``Why leave a mess? Call Triple S!''). In the high point of these dozen essays, he combines his profession and his vocation, delivering the dedicatory poem for the reopening of the restored bridge to Milford's old cemetery--``This bridge connects our daily lives to them,/and makes them, once our neighbors, neighbors once again.'' Already excerpted in Harper's and the London Review of Books, this thoughtful volume is neither too sentimental nor too clinical about death's role (and the author's) in our lives. (illustrations, not seen) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 202 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (September 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140276238
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140276237
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (110 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,132,109 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By L. D Sears 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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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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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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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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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.
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