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.
Although Lynch writes with wit and charm, he regards the ceremonies of death as a solemn business, requiring gravitas. Funerals – like baptisms and nuptials – are an essential way of assigning meaning, a means of ‘disposing of our dead with sufficient pause to say [they’ve] lived in ways different from rocks and rhododendrons and even orang-utans and that those lives [are] worth mentioning and remembering’. He quotes Gladstone to the effect that you can measure people’s respect for the laws of the land by the way they care for their dead. He worries that we’re already living in an age of McFunerals, where the dead are regarded as a nuisance to be got rid of as quickly as possible.
He is impatient with those who seek to deny death its necessary rituals. With those who say they want only to be buried in a plain pine box (it’s not up to them, he sensibly says; they’ll not be around; they should put their feet up and let the living decide). With those who tell the newly bereaved, as if to comfort them, that the body they’re gazing on is ‘just a shell’. With those who think that by ‘pre-arranging’ our funerals we can somehow take the sweat and pain out of them. Most of all, he’s impatient with Jessica Mitford and her theory that in modern (particularly American) society there’s too much ‘fussing over the dead body’. He gives the example of a colleague who spent eighteen hours reconstructing and embalming the head of a girl who had been raped, then murdered by a psychopath with a baseball bat: when he’d finished, she was still dead, ‘but her face was hers again, not the madman’s version,’ and her family could mourn her. By caring for the dead, undertakers serve the living.
Certainly Lynch does. The people of Milford must feel lucky to have him, even if the most satisfied among his customers have a habit of saying ‘ I hope you’ll understand it if I never want to see you again .’ He understands. But he doesn’t forget his clients, and some of the finest pages tenderly memorialise them: little Stephanie, for instance, who died in the back seat of her parents’ van when a large stone (dropped from a bridge by youths) smashed through the windscreen; or Milo, who ran the local laundromat and was hugely kind to Lynch when his wife cleared off- ‘never mind’, Milo had said, refusing payment for the loads of washing he took away twice a week, ‘one hand washes the other’, a phrase that comes back to Lynch as he arranges the laundryman’s hands in the coffin.
Too much piety would be a mistake, given the subject. Lynch is blessedly free of it, as is shown in a chapter which discloses his plan, so far unrealised, to open a Golfatorium, a two-hundred-acre course merging golf and grief, where tears wept over a missed birdie can commingle with tears wept over a loved one’s grave. He also still has hopes for his ‘Cremorialization’ scheme, whereby the ashes of the dearly departed could be put to some appropriate use, bowlers mixed into see-through bowling balls, gamblers becoming dice, gourmands turning into egg timers, and so forth.
This vein of whimsy allows for some happy digressions. A whole chapter is given over to an endearing tribute to his hypochondriac poet-friend Matthew Sweeney, and not every opportunity for deadly word-play is resisted (‘[My father] always told us that embalming got to be, forgive me, de rigueur during the Civil War’). But his wry jokes and apparent meanderings know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going- so that the tale of his hapless Uncle Eddie ends up as an impassioned denunciation of the dangerous US trend for assisted suicides, ‘an oxymoronic romance that seek to make killing sound like kindness’.
The Undertaking is a funny and seriously moral book, full of small-town sagacity and universal wisdom. Anecdotal but also philosophical, pragmatic yet lyrical, it taps the vein of both Garrison Keillor and Robert Frost. It may come too late to help the dead, but the living should read it while they can.