The Undertaking

An Interview with Thomas Lynch

photo of thomas lynch

Thomas Lynch is a writer and a poet. For more than 30 years he also has been the director of the Lynch & Sons funeral home in the small town of Milford, Mich. It has always been a family-owned and -operated firm, founded by Thomas Lynch's father, Edward Joseph Lynch. The Milford location is one of six Lynch funeral homes in the state. This is the edited transcript of interviews conducted with hin during the winter and spring of 2006-2007.

We're all complicit in the banishment of the dead to the peripheries.  It is a culture that's based on convenience and cost efficiency, that doesn't like to be reminded of mortality.



Thomas Lynch reads to camera his essay Tract, in which he broaches the topic of his own funeral

Thomas Lynch reads to camera his essay Tract, in which he broaches the topic of his own funeral.


Thomas Lynch reads to camera his essay Tract, in which he broaches the topic of his own funeral

Thomas Lynch reads to camera his essay Tract (part II)


What does your funeral home represent for this town?

In many ways we represent the place where whatever conversation people want to have about death and dying and grief and bereavement. Whether in the most abstract sense or in the most particular, this is a safe harbor, a place they can have that conversation. And oftentimes I'm impressed by how people will wrap their existential concerns about a dying parent in the prearrangement conference. They need to talk to someone. And for those who are unchurched or unfamiliar in any tradition that gives them sort of the framework for this, a funeral home is still a safe place to talk about matters mortuary and matters of mortality.

So people come in to talk about arranging their parents' funerals or their own. They come in to talk about what to do with a child who's grieving because a schoolmate died, to talk about what will happen in the event of their own death, how to handle a dying parent, nursing home arrangements, elder care. All these things are part of the ongoing conversation that we here have.

What age were you when you really seriously thought you might become a funeral director, and how much of your dad's influence was a part of that decision?

When you grow up in funeral service, you always have a job. But at some point it becomes more than a job, and I can see this happening to the young people who have come here to work as high school students on work-study programs. I've seen it happen to Sean [his son], where you're swinging the door at night, helping people with their coats, directing them one place or another, carrying flowers, doing all the innocuous little things that add up to taking care of a family during visitation. But when some widowed person comes out and takes you by the shoulders and said, "Thank you, I couldn't have done this without you," and all you did was be there, or answer the call, or show up, there's this deep sense of having been of use to people at a time of need. And that's very seductive, because, I mean, it's human-to-human contact.

So what I find is that before people bring their expertise as an embalmer or as a manager or as an executive or as a director, before any expertise, you ante up your humanity, you know? If you're playing human to human, you'll do fine. But you have to do that first, because people will sense if you're not willing to do that, if you're just sort of going through the motions. People will know that.

So for me, I can remember swinging the door all through my teen years, and I think it was 1973 -- I was probably 24 or 25 years old [when I decided].

In terms of the practical details, what are some of the things you learned from your dad?

Well, we wear black for funerals -- people have to know who the directors are, who to ask -- and white shirts and gray ties. And my father did have a sense of formality and tradition when it came to funerals. He liked the idea that the culture had sort of organized these wheels, in some way liturgically, in some ways socially. But he said, "When a death occurs, people feel so helpless, it's good to have some of these things already invented." He would have probably had a difficult way of managing some of the changes that we see nowadays. He would have thought much of it ridiculous and much of it sublime. He would have figured that out, but I think for him the funeral, the procession, was part of the process.

I think he was keenly aware of the fact that a good funeral is not about what we buy or what we spend; ... that a good funeral is very much about what we do when someone dies. He always knew that the real traffic was between the living and the dead, and it is in managing that and emboldening the living to deal with their dead that you do them the most service. So it's not like you do things for them as much as you do it with them and embolden them to do for themselves. He had a very good sense of that.

Give me a sense of the changes in attitudes toward death in America.

I think we're among the first couple generations for whom the presence of the dead at their funerals has become optional, and I see that as probably not good news for the culture at large.

Up until a couple generations ago, humans were the species that dealt with death, the idea of the thing, by dealing with their dead, the thing itself, so that the way we processed mortality was by processing mortals from one place to the other, one station to the next in this little pilgrimage between as they were to how they are to what we hope they'll be. And this movement, emotionally, is mirrored by a physical movement. The bearing of it is so very, very important.

Sometime in the mid-60s, probably having a lot to do with Jessica Mitford's book [The American Way of Death] and a lot to do with other social factors, there was sort of the triumphalist American sense that we didn't have to deal with any discomforts. We saw people start organizing these commemorative events to which everyone was invited but the dead guy. The finger food was good, the talk was uplifting, the music was life-affirming; someone, usually the reverend clergy, could be counted on to declare closure, usually just before the Merlot ran out, and everyone was there but the one who had died.

And we come away from these memorial events, these celebrations of life, with the increasing sense that something is missing. And something is. What is missing is the corpse: the thing itself, not the idea of the thing.

Are social changes the reasons that we are more fearful and reluctant to deal with death in our everyday lives?

I think we're all complicit in the banishment of the dead to the peripheries. In some ways it is a culture that's based on convenience and cost efficiency. It's a culture that doesn't like to be reminded of mortality.

And why do the rituals of a funeral matter? Where is the meaning?

I think we act out things that are hard to put in words. People will sometimes ask me about the connections between poetry and funerals, and I do see this huge connection between the use of language in the two of them and how both rely on ritual and symbol and metaphor. Both [are part of] this effort to say something about something unspeakable -- great love, great loss, great hope, great fear, great doubt, the fist we shake in God's face, asking him, "What did you have in mind here?"

And when we talk about "the procession," what is the meaning of that?

I like the connection, the sound of the word "process"; it suggests movement, a pilgrimage. You can read in history books about the way a funeral procession was laid out -- which civic group, which ecclesiastical group, which fraternal group, which family group -- how everybody was lined up, so that as people walked in, there was this rise and fall of relationship and grief, and people know this, that good, orderly direction that was assumed by this process, this ritual. I think it suggests that we're going to get from one place to the other, whatever it is that we have to do to process this new reality, to get the dead to the edge of their changed role and get the living to the edge of this new changed life that they're going to lead without this person in their lives anymore.

So this pilgrimage, this journey that we go on, replicates in many ways other journeys that we see in life, from infancy to toddlerhood, from toddlerhood to teenagers to adulthood, the journeys we take in life in our heart, in the life of our mind, the life of our spirit. In many ways they're all replicated by this journey that we take between the living and the dead when someone dies, this procession.

Sometimes it's as simple as going up the street, down the block, into the church, out of that building, over to the bridge, over the river, over to the graveyard. In doing this, in accompanying the dead, getting them where they need to go, we get where we need to be. And I've seen it work, I've seen it work. It's a kind of theater, I suppose. ...

And the things we have to do in that period of two days or three days, that's also largely what you do for us, is that right?

I don't know what my part of it is, except it's duty, detail: Show up, do this, do that, be sure the car starts, keep it clean, you know, that type of thing.

But it's not just my job. I'm the guy that has the hearse, but there's someone else in town who is making a strawberry rhubarb pie to bring to the luncheon afterward, and that's what she's doing on the day. And there's somebody else digging the hole in the ground. And there's somebody else trying to get the choir to sing in tune. And there's somebody else arranging the flowers. And there's somebody else doing this, that. And somebody else is pressing somebody's clothes.

It's ridiculous, it's mundane, it's stupid, but at the end of the day what we are trying to do is assemble all our metaphoric weapons to do battle with this hurt, this still thing. And it works; it does work. I mean, there are good funerals. I've seen at the end of the day people walking upright away from graves, people walking upright away from fires, as if they were going to survive it.

And they won't forget, and that's the thing. I mean, if it was just a matter of forgetting, we would do that. We'd just say, "Well, let's not think about that anymore." But people will go home, and they will look at pictures of the dead; they'll look at movies of the dead; they'll quote the dead to one another; and they will weep and laugh and carry on. They'll survive it. All to the good, I say.

And is that the purposefulness in the ebb and flow of a wake and a funeral?

Oh, yeah. Isn't that awful? "Life goes on!" I mean, that is the terrible, terrible part. I know as a person who has grieved before, and I also know as a person who has been next to people in grief, that one of the awful messages on the day is "Life goes on." The stores are open. The till still rings. The stock market is open. Everything is going on, and here we are. So yeah, it is the good news and the bad news. It is the ridiculous and the sublime. It is that everything changes and nothing changes. Yeah, it's a mystery.

And what about the formalities, the particular traditions and customs that are a part of the funeral?

It is really helpful on the day your mother dies or your father dies or, God help us, a child dies, to have a certain part of the wheel already invented. If I'm an Italian Catholic or an Orthodox Jew or a Baptist African American, I don't have to wonder what's going to happen, because I know that my community of co-religionists, of ethnic fellows, my neighborhood, whatever, they've organized a plan so that I don't have to spend the first several hours or days or weeks trying to figure out what to do next because it's already been told by tradition, by custom, by culture, by form. And most good customs allow for some wiggle room, you know. ...

I have often noticed the difference between the first day that a family will spend here and the next day. When my father died, I was not prepared to put him in the ground then. But by the time a couple days later he went in the ground, it was exactly the right thing to do. I'm certain the same thing holds for people who put their dead in the sea or the fire or a tomb -- that we need time to disengage. I think they used to call that "social death"; that actual death happens like that. We get to say when people are dead to us, or dead enough, so that we can let them go.

Are most Americans still being buried?

Burial was the norm in the Western world probably until the mid-60s. But cremation has increased since then by about 10 percent in every decade. I think the national rate now is right around 38 percent. Here in Milford we're around 40 percent, and there are places where it's 60 percent and places where it's 16 percent. But there's no question that cremation has become normative in a way that it used to be exceptional.

And does the rise in cremation in America parallel changes in demographics?

I think cremation very much is like us. It follows the changes in our species, certainly in our culture. We are less grounded than our grandparents were. We are more mobile, more portable, more scattered. So in a sense, cremation suits us in that way.

What we have missed, however, in cremation in this culture is all the powerful metaphoric values provided by fire, its elemental worth. Whether a person is consigned to the earth or the fire is, at the end of the day, no difference. Whether we consign our dead to scavenger birds, as they do in Tibet, or to the sea, as they do when the sea is around them, or the tree, as our Native Americans did, it doesn't make any difference. The oblivion is the oblivion wherever it is. The elements are the elements.

For many people I know, when families are cremated, they feel as if they've in some sense kind of disappeared. ...

Well, if you ask any group of ordinary citizens, "How many here have attended a cremation?" there are very few hands raised in the room, because cremation is often shorthand for disappearance. It's something handled by "them" offsite, elsewhere, and I think that's problematical.

It is a sadness and a shame that cremation, the fire in this context, is seen as an industrial process instead of an elemental one, in the way that earth is elemental. I see no difference in the machinery it takes to dig a hole [and] the machinery it takes to build a fire. Humans figured out both before they had backhoes and retorts. But we are much more willing to go stand next to the hole in the ground than we are willing to stand next to the fire. And I think this has to do with our notions about fire itself. We'd be wise, as a culture, to examine some of these things.

When families come in and have their loved one cremated, do you talk to them about going with you to the crematorium?

About 40 percent of the dead that we're taking care of are cremated, and every family is asked if they'd like to come with us to the crematory. Some do. Most say, "No, go ahead and take care of that." And that's unfortunate. But more and more, when we say to them, "You may, and maybe you ought ..." or, "Maybe someone in your family should be designated, just to go in as your proxy, to say, 'Everything was done as it should be done,'" they do it.

When families have gone to the crematory, has it made a difference?

The crematory we use is impeccably run by ethical people, people we inspect, unannounced, a couple times every year. We make appointments for cremations because we have to go and watch the placement of the body in the retort and the beginning of the process, the identification process that's part of that, and we retrieve the ashes.

But when people go with us, it's at the back end of an industrial park in Lavonia, near a railroad track, so it's unlike the kind of commemorative surroundings that we have in our local cemeteries -- more is the pity. All the same, 100 percent of the people that have gone with us are grateful that we invited them to go. I can only take from that the sense that we're on the right track there.

The open casket, it is something that's often mocked.

I've sat with families who said, "Well, we want a closed casket," and I've often asked them, "Well, had they not died yesterday, would you not want to see them today?" The question is not meant to mock; the question is to say: "What is it you don't want to see? It's not that you don't want to see your mother or your father or your sister or your brother. It's not that you don't want to see them dressed up or laid out or with glasses on, or too much makeup or their hair done in a clumsy way. That's not what you don't want to see, because we can fix that all." What we don't want to see is our mother or our father dead, and that is the part we need to see.

Does it affect the nature of the grief if someone was present for the dying of the loved one?

What you're looking at [in the case of someone being there during that time] is everything's in order. Everything seems to fall into place. Everything assumes its natural order. So yes, the hurt is there, but the hurt does not overwhelm.

So what you've seen is what I've seen: that people who deal with their dead deal with death better. It's the people who, in many ways, try to put on the smiley face, that brittle grin you see so often that says, "We're going to be happy." It's that white-knuckled, socially enforced celebration [where] oftentimes the dead are absent from it, because that would be too compelling; that would be too much of a challenge.

So yeah, I do find that people who have dealt with their dying -- whether it was taking them to their chemotherapy or sitting those weeks through hospice care, or checking in those weeks through hospice care, because we can't always be physically present -- those people who were thoroughly engaged with this are thoroughly engaged with the rest of it. Does it make it easier? Do they get through it better? I'd have to say yeah, they do. Everything seems to fall into place. And yeah, everything plays its part in that.

The custom of eulogy, what is its meaning?

It has to do with the gift of language. It gives us a way to get some little mastery over these uncontrollable things by giving it a narrative thread. And a narrative is nothing other than a journey. ... And Mrs. Verrino's eulogy, her narrative of what she and her husband and their child were going through, was a way of sort of mastering this journey.

Her testimony is like all testimony -- it is a combination of gratitude and grief, and that the gratitude does not trump the grief, nor does the grief undo the gratitude. They can coexist.

The trouble is, in our culture we try to have one or the other -- either/or -- and it's both and then some in real experience.

With your own mother and father and their funerals, what were the moments that had meaning for you?

Well, both my parents were buried like Irish Catholics were buried, so there was this sort of tribal and religious language that had been developed over centuries for how we do this. There is a comfort when you don't have to reinvent that wheel, when we know we have to be at church at a certain time and that these prayers will be said and not those, and that this is accustomed behavior and this is outside the pale, and this is where we go.

So we had those advantages. Still, as every grieving person knows, we have to reinvent the wheel in which we are now orphaned. We are now without a mother or without a father. That is a wheel we can only invent at the time it happens. We can't prearrange that. Even though we can plan it and pay for it and all that, we can't really get that wheel to turn for us until it turns itself.

My mother died on the 27th of October and was buried on the 31st of October, so it was the Eve of All Saints. It seemed like an appropriate time for this sainted woman. But I remember coming home after the mass and the burial and the luncheon, getting back to her house -- it was about 3:00-ish in the afternoon -- and thinking, "The trick-or-treaters are coming." I have children at home; my wife had taken them home from the luncheon.

I went back to my father's house, and I remember thinking, "But life goes on." And that is the cruel part, and that is the good news and the bad news all at once -- that things are happening even so. I remember it hitting me there in the house: She actually died; we actually buried her today; she's actually not coming back here; she's actually gone.

And so I think of widowed people who must go through that when they're folding a sweater or cleaning out a drawer or looking for the power drill that their husband used to use to fix this drawer or that one -- these little mundane reminders that life is changed utterly and yet utterly the same.

So we learn to live with it. And I suppose this is the message at every graveside: They stay, we go, until we come to that point in which we are brought there, and we stay and they go.

So yes, I think all of these things help to sort of "fix" us in the firmament of where we are at any given time with our youth and our age, our well-being or our infirmity, our dying, our death and our remembrance. I see it all as part of the one journey, all as part of the one pilgrimage.

Months after my father died, I can remember this wave of feelings that would come over me, catching me at the most unpredictable times, this wallop of him being dead, him being gone. And it was over, oftentimes, the most mundane of circumstances.

And you have mentioned the range of feelings and emotions at a funeral. ...

I've always been touched by the fact that there seems to be as much laughter as weeping at the big life events. At weddings people are forever weeping at what is supposed to be a joyous event. We're celebrating love, huh? And yet someone's weeping because of the changed life that we're seeing before us. A daughter is no longer the daughter only or the son no longer the son only. So everything is weakened; weakened and tightened at the same time.

So we weep and we laugh, we laugh and we sing, and we try to work our way around this changed reality in much the same way a death in the family articulates this changed reality. And we laugh sometimes at all those good memories and all those silly things the person said and all those wise things that that person said and all their foibles.

I do find this recent push for every funeral to be a celebration of life as, in a way, a kind of a cruel joke on people who are in acute grief. So I like the word "funeral" for what we're doing here, because it doesn't require me to feel this way or that. It gives me room to do either, all along this sort of emotional register.

There's been a sort of national conversation about funerals over the years. What is your sense of what's driven and shaped that conversation, and what, if anything, has been missing from that public view of it all?

I think it's always been the case that funerals in general, and funeral directors in particular, provide an easy target for cartooning, because there is so much about what we do that can be held up for ridicule. It's an easy target; it always is -- you know, the Digger O'Dell [the "friendly undertaker" character in the 1950s television series Life of Riley]. And particularly when you see the transaction which involves this rather impressive life-or-death event with the rather mundane mercantility of it all. There is a fee. We do have a charge for our caskets. Money is involved. So it's easy enough. And I'm, along with the next guy, as interested in those cartoons as everyone else is. But when the entire conversation circles around and around about how much it's going to cost or how can you prevent this charge, I just find it silly after a while.

Whether someone comes into the funeral home insisting on the least expensive or the most expensive, I see in both cases an effort to assign value to cost, and I just think in my own experience it's never had much to do with it. It just doesn't work out that way. People will say, "I'd like something simple and inexpensive," and I want to say, "Well, over here we have simplicity; over here we have cheap." It's not always the same thing, and for everyone it's different.

But maybe with the fact that 75 million baby boomers are working their way up to the bar of mortality now, it's dawning on them that this could happen to them. Maybe because it's happening to their parents or their siblings and some of their friends now, suddenly I see the cultural conversation changing from "how much?" to "how come?"; from "what are we going to buy?" to "what are we going to do?" And I find that latter conversation much more compelling and much more difficult, because it's not as easy as dollars and cents. The till doesn't ring as precisely, and what works and where the values are require more discernment.

So I'm interested in it. I see my sons now working through this, and their generation. And the components of a funeral sometimes change. For some people it's not the open casket and the three-day wake and the roses and the limousines and the Panis Angelicus. For more and more people it's a trip to the crematory and some variation on the wake where people pay different types of witness. So it's interesting times we live in that way.

And are you a cremation or a burial man? I know it won't matter, it will be others, but do you see yourself as the fire or the earth, or --?

I've come to admire the earth, the wind and the fire. I really don't care. I've really come to the point where I can see in a fire all that release; I can see the Holy Spirit in it, you know. But I have graves at Oak Grove; I have graves in West Clare [County, Ireland]. I really think my people will know what to do when the time comes, and these are details I won't have to worry about.

How different is confronting death without faith?

I think of disbelief as a faith of its own kind. I was watching [author and cultural commentator] Christopher Hitchens the other day. He had a new book out about God not being great. There are days I can get behind that theory and have. But then I can read the work of Barbara Brown Taylor or St. Paul or C.S. Lewis, and I think, how would you get by without it? On any given day, it's up for grabs.

But I don't know of anybody who has come in here entirely angry at the prospect of God who has done well with this type of thing, with deaths in the family.

But you've seen people come in that are agnostics or --

But even people who do not believe or claim no religiosity or no particular faith, they are not without some text, some book they regard as, if not holy, it is the handle they're trying to hold onto to get through this.

Will you care after your death if they take care of you in death as you did your dad? Will that matter?

Whether or not my family is involved with the care of my body, that's their business. I'll be the dead guy, and the dead say nothing. This is a sign to me that they don't care, that heaven is not having to worry about these things, so I'm determined not to worry about them either.

But, you know, we used to say to my father, who directed a fair few funerals, "What do you want done with you when you're dead?," and he'd say, "Well, you'll know what to do." I think mine will know what to do, too, not because I've said, "Do this or that," but because they have seen life as I have seen it, and they sort of know me and I know them. And so they'll know what to do.

And yet you write that beautiful essay Tract in your book, The Undertaking, which is in some way a map, is it?

Well, read it closely, and what I've written is that as long as they deal with it, I don't care what they do. I do not care but that they do it honorably. That they do it for themselves I think is very important. So yeah, I enjoyed writing that piece. And I do think that while the dead don't care, the dead matter. The dead matter to the living. And at least so far as my experience is concerned, the living who bear those burdens honorably are better off for it.

Bearing witness one way or another, that's a key ingredient.

Well, it's showing up and just being there is worth an awful lot. There's this wonderful essay that was written -- I have it framed in the hallway there; the woman's name, I think, is Sullivan who wrote it. She talks about how in her life the difference was not between doing good and evil. It was just doing the next right thing.

I needed to read that piece because I'm disinclined -- when someone's sick, when someone's out of sorts, when someone's dead -- I'm disinclined to be around that. I mean, it's uncomfortable, and I don't know what to say any more than the next guy, and I don't do strawberry rhubarb pie. But I find that if you just show up, if you just walk in the door, people think you're a hero. And I have found that, whether I'm walking in the door with a stretcher and one of my own to help carry their dead out, or if I'm going to the hospital to visit a sick relative or friend, or if I show up for a funeral at another place, you know, at a distance, they thank you for that.

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posted october 30, 2007

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