cover image Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

Thomas Lynch. W. W. Norton & Company, $23 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-393-04112-5

Like his father and most of his siblings, Michigan poet Lynch (Heather Grace) runs a funeral home, ""a kind of family farm, working the back forty of the emotional register."" In this superb collection of essays, he melds poetic language, resonant anecdotes and meditative musings about the rights/rites of passage. Lynch knows that funerals are for survivors: ""Any damage or decency we do accrues for the living."" Musing on the fixtures in his old house, Lynch concludes that only funeral homes and toilet makers offer their names as guarantors for their products. The son of a father ""accustomed to random and unreasonable damage"" and a mother who tended to trust God, he grew up with an acute sense of risk; as an adult, he also learned to fear, wanting for his children not riches but mere survival. During neighborhood walks, his wife catalogues architecture; Lynch recalls the stories of the dead behind small-town walls. His years of cleaning up after suicides have led him to a bedrock conclusion: vision comes not by violence but through growth, and while he has thoughts of hopelessness, he never considers suicide. With dignity and passion, he takes on Jessica Mitford, the muckraker whose The American Way of Death attacked his industry; Mitford called it barbaric to fuss over a dead body, but Lynch calls a ""kindness"" what a colleague does to restore the corpse of a murdered girl. He even criticizes the ""sensible"" move toward prearranged funerals: ""If we are not to be a burden to our children, then to whom?"" (July)