Blake Morrison

Mortician as Poet

The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

By Thomas Lynch

Jonathan Cape 226pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

Most poets’ accounts of their livelihoods would make dull reading indeed: Classroom Couplets, Shelf Lives and Tales of a Writer in Residence don’t sound as if they’d be much fun. But it was a bright idea of Robin Robertson, an editor at Cape and no mean poet himself, to suggest to the American poet Thomas Lynch, over a meal of raw fish, that there might be a book to be had from his line of work. For Lynch makes his living out of burying the dead , and a very perky subject it proves to be.

Not only burying the dead, also cremating, embalming, and, in particularly gruesome cases, stitching the bits back together. He pursues his dismal trade in the town of Milford, Michigan, two hundred or so of whose citizens he buries each year – the precise figure can never be predicted, but since humans have a ‘one hundred per cent death expectancy’ it’s steady business. He sells caskets and urns, runs a sideline in headstones, and does flowers on commission. His father, who liked to say that funeral directors are the last people to let you down, showed him the ropes; three of his five brothers, and two of his three sisters also work in the same field. The Lynches depend on death much as doctor do on sickness , lawyers on crime and clergy on the fear of God.

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