Blake Morrison

Mortician as Poet

The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

By

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.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,
    • If you want ideas about what to read next, sign up to our free email newsletter, and get book reviews, archive mate… ,
    • 'The heroic male nude could not, I think, be used today to signify civic pride and glory', as Michelangelo’s 'David… ,
    • 'Munch’s later works show us a man liberated from the torments that gave rise to some of the best-known early works… ,
    • 'We read from left to right and from start to finish. Or do we?' Stuart Hannabus considers the merits of reading i… ,
    • Domestic scandal, sexual abuse and serial killers are on the menu in April's crime round-up. revie… ,
    • What did Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell and Edmund Burke all have in common? Clare Bucknell reveal… ,