- Paperback: 224 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (June 22, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393334872
- ISBN-13: 978-0393334876
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 126 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #144,304 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade Paperback – June 22, 2009
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“A startling and eloquent meditation on death and bereavement…If you think this book isn't about you, or for you, think again.”
“A memoir that is stand-out superb.”
“Mr. Lynch emerges as a cross between Garrison Keillor and one of the Irish poets; one thinks of William Butler Yeats…Forceful, authentic, and full of a kind of ethical and aesthetic clarity.”
- Richard Bernstein, New York Times
“[Lynch] is able to take us inside the palpable business of blood, tears, and the final verse of life in a manner that is almost shocking in the relief it delivers…[A] fine, sensible, and wise book.”
- Boston Globe
“Lynch’s vivid prose has the electricity of writing that tells us what is going on in the secret places of the community―and the secret places of the heart.”
- USA Today
About the Author
Thomas Lynch's essays, poems and stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, The New York Times, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Milford, Michigan where he has been the funeral director since 1974, and in Moveen, Co. Clare, Ireland where he keeps an ancestral cottage.
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The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch. W.W. Norton & Company 1997 $13.95.
“This is none of my business”, Thomas Lynch proclaims about his funeral, and yet, it is his: funeral director, mortician, undertaker, poet. Mr. Lynch is an Irish poet who here presents a dozen essays about his stock in trade, deftly weaving together anecdotes of the dead with funeral conventions and all manner of his profession.
These essays are more lyric than memoir, and Mr. Lynch’s background in poetry shines through in all of them. In one, the reader is reminded, or perhaps the author is reminding himself, that “the dead don’t care” whether their bodies are cremated, buried, scattered, or left to science. Another essay targets the author’s upbringing with an overprotective, mortician father who sees death lingering around every corner. It is only when the author becomes both a father and funeral director himself that he sees the wisdom of his late father’s intense scrutiny.
If there is any fault in these reflections, it is that the author tends to go on at length, over the course of several essays, about re-connecting with his Irish roots. Visiting family overseas turns him to introspection about both the country of Ireland and his Catholic rearing. Lynch draws interesting parallels between the plumbing and funeral business and man’s return to the natural world. In so doing, he also relates a succinct history of the death industry, but still manages to wax nostalgic and poetic for the way things were.
No aspect of life, or death, is left unmentioned in this tome. The book starts off endearingly with the author’s own immature views of undertaking as a child: “And I wondered why it wasn’t underputter—you know, for the one who puts them underground.” Lynch meanders through the embalming process, obsesses about the positioning of a body, discusses Dr. Kevorkian’s method of self-euthanasia, love, sex, grief, and divorce. In one amusing essay Lynch ponders the possibilities of a combination golf course and cemetery, and the semantics of such a scheme. Another essay finds the author wandering the streets of his small town in Michigan, musing on local celebrities and their influence in getting a new town bridge built. Uncle Eddie is the star of yet another essay wherein he starts a crime scene clean-up business while Lynch relates his own experiences in the matter.
Some essay topics may be too delicate a subject for certain readers, such as when Lynch examines the issue of children’s funerals and purchases of child-sized coffins of pink or blue. About dispensing advice for consumers, or even his own final preparations, the author appeals to the average person’s emotions: “Whatever’s there to feel, feel it—the riddance, the relief, the fright, and freedom, the fear of forgetting, the dull ache of your own mortality…you’ll know what to do. Go now, I think you are ready.”
"After my housekeeper was installed, I went to thank Milo and pay the bill. The invoices detailed the number of loads, the washers and the dryers, detergent, bleaches, fabric softeners. I think the total came to sixty dollars. When I asked Milo what the charges were for pick-up and delivery, for stacking and folding and sorting by size, for saving my life and the lives of my children, for keeping us in clean clothes and towels and bed linen, 'Never mind that' is what Milo said. 'One hand washes the other.'
"I place Milo's right hand over his left hand, then try the other way. Then back again. Then I decide that it doesn't matter. One hand washes the other either way."
Lynch's specific recollections--about suicides he's known and cleaned up after, about embalming his own father--serve as entree to larger discussions--the function of funerals, the problem of assisted suicide, or, in a heart-breaking chapter, how we grow into the fear of parenting. The dark possibilities that haunt the rest of us are more real for an undertaker:
"And as my children grew, so too the bodies of dead boys and girls I was called upon to bury--infants becoming toddlers, toddlers becoming school children, children becoming adolescents, then teens, then young adults, whose parents I would know from the Little League or Brownies or PTA or Rotary or Chamber of Commerce. Because I would not keep in stock an inventory of children's caskets, I'd order them, as the need arose, in sizes and half sizes from two foot to five foot six, often estimating the size of a dead child, not yet released from the county morgue, by the sizes of my own children, safe and thriving and alive. And the caskets I ordered were invariably 'purity and gold' with angels on the corners and shirred crepe interiors or powdery pink or baby blue. And I would never charge more than the wholesale cost of the casket and throw in our services free of charge with the hope in my heart that God would, in turn, spare me the hollowing grief of these parents."
The book is beautifully written throughout, and thoughtful, and despite all that I've said above the author comes across as a man fully alive, who appreciates life but understands death, as a man worth knowing. At any rate, his book is very much worth reading.
-- Debra Hamel