Book Review: The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, by Thomas Lynch

Thomas Lynch is a poet by inclination and an undertaker by profession. This warm and witty memoir brings to life (!) the secret world of those in "the dismal trade." Lynch paints himself as something of a tradesman, neither rich nor poor, but carrying on the needed business of extracting the dead from our lives in the kindest, most expeditious way possible. His stories are heart-warming and hilarious. There's the local woman upset, after a bridge collapses, that her funeral cortege would have to ride through downtown and enter the cemetery's back gate. There's the constant terror of his funeral director father, who saw his own young progeny in the faces of the young people he embalmed. There's the new craze in turning golf courses into cemeteries, with the possibility of having your remains blasted out of the sand trap. There's Lynch's consideration of "cremorialization," the practice of mixing your remains with glass or ceramic. making of the dead a semi-permanent knick-kick.

Often though, Lynch depicts the difficult side of the death business: cleaning up after gunshot suicides; piecing together the battered faces of murder victims; making bloody home inhabitable again. There's more to the mortuary biz than racking in the cash. And Lynch has few complementary words to say about Jessica Mitford, she of naysaying "The American Way of Death." And of Jack Kevorkian, a local Michigan "character" at the time the book was written, Lynch has barely-concealed loathing. Not because he was bad for business, but because of the path on which Dr. Jack's cavalier treatment of death and illness put us, in this age of convenience and distaste for suffering.

Mostly, though, Lynch waxes poetic about life and death -- aside from sex, the poets' (especially the Irish poets') favorite topics. He has a soft heart, bought at high price from years experiencing the tears and traumas of the grieving. He is not embarrassed to say that, while an expensive funeral is no substitute for years of neglect, many people feel, as he does, that it is sometimes a necessary way to move the living past death into new life.

Lynch's "The Undertaking" shows a human sufferer in humble service to the suffering. A wise, warm and precious book.