The Undertaking

An Interview with Sean Lynch

photo of sean lynch

Sean Lynch, 27, is funeral director assistant to his father Thomas Lynch, his brother Michael, and Wes Rice and Ken Kutzli at the Lynch & Sons funeral home in Milford, Mich., where he has worked since 1999. Before coming to this career, he had a background in fine arts and took many courses that helped prepare him for the work he does now preparing the dead for viewing and burial. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 27, 2007.

Why did you decide on this kind of career?

I wanted work that had accountability, not only to family but accountability to myself. I knew that the job was interesting. I knew what my father went through -- the calls that came at odd hours of the night and during holidays and he had to leave abruptly. So I wanted a job that would provide my life with not only some sort of introspection on myself but for others.

Growing up, what did you understand your father to do?

The way I heard it put is that "Your dad works with dead people." And I always knew it to be quite the opposite to that -- that my dad worked with living people.

Can you give a thumbnail sketch of what you do here?

I assist in the directing of funerals and coordinating of arrangement conferences. I sit down with families from virtually start to finish and every type of detail or event that you can associate with a funeral. Then I play a large part in the preparation of the deceased for the families that we serve. That's my main focus.

And the preparation and the dressing and care of the deceased, why do you like that?

I think all of my life I've excelled at noticing certain details. And I suppose in my line of work, I can almost directly affect someone's memory -- a nine-year-old boy walking into a funeral home seeing his grandfather or grandmother look entirely natural, as if they had just left home to visit. For me, those small details add up to what we use in our mind as the thumbprint for the people that we know in our lives.

I also hope that I'm good at correcting those details or bringing those back to those people the wrinkles in someone's hands or face or the beauty mark or the hair that was lost during chemo. You can only go as far as families wish for you to go, but if you're given that permission, I think that there is a lot of good that [can] come from it.

Generally, what does caring for the dead mean?

The very starting point is, wash someone properly -- maybe they've been in a nursing home for years and years -- and then after washing someone and combing their hair, it's dressing them with whatever is provided or making sure that there's bedding with them. This extends into whether people's choices are burial or cremation.

And you can never overstep the boundaries of what the family wants you to do. You can try to have them get there with you, but a lot of times -- I hate to say it -- there are sometimes families that they may have not seen someone in 50 years, and they don't really care. This is a person that they feel obliged to take care of by the bare essentials but nothing more past that.

Is the obligation to do it right to the family, or is the obligation to the dead?

It's always some of both, but I have dealt with families before where I did wonder if there was a resentment that was harbored that went so deep that for some reason they could not get past that. There are families that seem disinterested, while there are other families who I find amazing at the things that they put together or the participation to the end, of where they'll go with us. Many of my friends who I've grown up with here always had good character, but now I've been reassured of that in the wake of their dad's or mother's passing by what they do as sons or daughters in dealing with deaths in their family.

In the prep room, where you take care of the body, how does that work?

It all depends on the person, the age, the nature of someone's death, how they were when they were alive. Smokers don't always have the best coloration in their skin, and drinkers go through a lot. We all go through our own deterioration while we're alive, just because we get older.

A lot of it has to do with properly washing someone's face, probably better than they've ever done in their life.

Then, starting with colors and everything -- say someone was from my Irish descent. They're pale-complected and have varying traits on their skin -- freckles, red marks, different veins that produce different colorations -- so therefore they shouldn't turn out looking even. I think there's a lot of character traits that should be left, that shouldn't be covered.

We've all seen people at hospitals, family members, that have had a greenish or yellow tinge to their skin. That's where cross-complementing comes at hand. But it should be fitting for the person, and it just requires looking at the person and trying to get an idea from the pictures that families give us.

You've said that what goes on in the prep room is sacred. What does that mean?

We conduct ourselves differently in different rooms throughout life, but [in] that room, you truly do.

And it's quiet. No radio in the prep room.

It is a very sacred area. It's a medium point between hospitals or homes or medical examiners -- a medium point before we go to this next step, because no matter what is your faith -- this goes out there on a limb -- no matter what stillness I'm feeling at 8:00 a.m. in the morning, if I am in there alone, I feel a little bit better if I'm conducting myself the way I would want someone to conduct themselves in the presence of a deceased family member of mine.

A lot of what I said may give people the impression that there's this nothingness about the room. But I say a lot of the time that, when I die, I'm probably not going to be hanging out at a funeral home -- I can think of a million other places [my spirit would] rather venture off to, if there is such a thing as a traveling spirit.

But for the ones maybe that are unsettled or lingering or maybe need to leave a lasting message for someone or for whatever reasons that they do kind of stay in between, before they make their way to the heavens or the hells or whatever your beliefs are, I want to be in a behavior and in an attitude -- a minister here always says, "Be in an attitude of prayer as we pray this prayer." And I like that, kind of an attitude of being open to this. You know, you may be alone or you may not be. Always be open for that.

Are people often uneasy about seeing their loved ones at the funeral home, the visitation?

It would be bad to answer this question without adding, "Everyone's different, of course." When I sit down with people, I just try to talk with them as if I was trying to get an understanding of something, too.

You have to first realize what someone's discomforts might be. Why might they be uncomfortable? A lot of times what we ask is: "Are there things at funerals that you had seen that you didn't care for, that seemed inappropriate or that were just plain bizarre? Were there things that seemed very fitting to the person or to the family, or meaningful, sacred?" And when you can separate between those things, you get an idea of not only the people that you're communicating with, but the person that you're burning or burying, and what's to be done.

I do sit down with people that have a wide range, as I do, of different feelings about different issues relative to funeral service. And I realize there isn't a rehearsal for this, and that people will kind of fire out with things because they are emotional, because they are kind of testing. Then multiply that by all the different dynamics of our relationships with maybe estranged brothers or sisters, and the divorce of parents.

You're in the presence of death always. What is that for you?

Sean Lynch applying makeup to Mary Jane Watkins.

I think, in the face of having an occupation that deals with death day in and day out, that you constantly have to look for those opportunities not only to excel in your work but to somehow improve upon the situation.

I've often made the point that we're good at what we do not because we're callous, but I do have to distinguish myself from being a mourner and actually rise to be the funeral director, because I'm no good to the people that have employed me if I'm another mourner.

There are a lot of people probably that go into this business for perhaps the wrong reasons; they view themselves as co-grievers with people and that families are looking for people who understand always what's going on. I find that most families are OK that you don't understand; that you, even as a funeral director, don't have the slickest way of offering your sympathies; that 99 percent of the time there aren't words for what happens.

I've always heard people say, "I couldn't do what you do." I truly think that there isn't anyone on this earth that couldn't do what we do. I think it is within all of us to know exactly what to do when we're in the presence of death. I think we all know exactly what to do.

What are those things we all know what to do?

Have a good cry. There's a reason that we have that reflex. But that's where you see a lot of this confusion, because we've become a species that in some way it's become indecent to cry, and somehow, for the widow at her husband's casket, it's not appropriate for her to fall to her knees and crumble in the presence of her employer or her accountant or her friend or grandmother. I say, what better people to fall before in front of that casket? I mean, those are the people that are supposed to catch you.

These strange standards that we've put together surrounding funerals, if we were able to just do away with those for a couple of days, we would really get to the core of a lot of good, pure, human emotion. And those close neighbors -- love and pain and hurt, all of those things -- truly you do start realizing how they are reciprocals of each other. You cannot have one without the other.

There is something primal, something universal in the sound of grief.

It's the language that has no barriers, it really is. You know what the sound of it is. It's unmistakable. And I won't lie: I'm uncomfortable a lot of the time, but there's a reason for that, too. There's a reason people feel uncomfortable around it.

What is it?

I think it is because you truly realize that this is a part of life that you are powerless over; that you do not have the end-all, be-all greatest thing to say that's going to make it better. It humbles.

And to think that somehow getting the obituary right or the printing right, that that's going to level off with that reality, is just ridiculous. Those things combined all together are simply just to make the experience of walking through the door bearable.

So when people become very complimentary that the memorial video presentation was so good, I appreciate hearing that, but what means more to me is if I was able to walk a family in, and they were truly able to get to that point where they felt comfortable enough to let it go, that head-on collision of "This is what's happened."

In a sense, we're all orphans at some point in our life. And it hurts really, really bad.

In preparing a body, you're giving them back to ready them to let go.

A lot of times I think we've confused as a culture that somehow being present among the dying somehow means we're accepting of death. I think you can narrow down to a very moment when you're left with those feelings of acceptance.

However, maybe your reaction isn't as instantaneous as the death itself. [And when that reaction comes], that's truly when you measure your acceptance of the death, your understanding of it, your not understanding it.

So by preparing the deceased for services or visitations when there isn't that convenient time for people to have assembled at the deathbed of someone, you are in a sense -- as Father Leo [Lulko] of the Church of the Holy Spirit says -- "gift-wrapping" them for that next step.

There seems a huge misconception about the funeral rite of preparing the body.

Yeah. There is the "shell" theory [in referring to the body], and I understand what people are trying to say, and I understand how that can be a comfort. But that's maybe the talk that we should avoid if we do want to get to those core emotions and those "chance-of-a-lifetime" feelings.

Can you talk about the shell theory, that the body is a shell?

If I'm the close family friend, and I don't know how just to stand silent and be a support without saying anything, because I'm truly feeling uncomfortable -- so the best I can offer up is something that I've heard: "This is just his shell." I hear that, and I have to bite my tongue, because everything that makes this person visually who they are, and that we can identify up here with who they are, is evident right there, or hopefully evident if we've done our job right. We do not deal with the idea of someone.

When I picture my sister [Heather Lynch], with all of her talents and beauties and everything, I do not picture her as this wavering gas or a sort of amoebic force or something. I picture her as the attractive, somewhat-shorter-than-I-am, brunette, feisty Irishwoman who has a big heart and would do anything for any culture of people in the world. I have to picture her in my head, starting with that short brunette young lady, because that's my sister. All the rest comes after that.

Many find the viewing the body vulgar.

Oh, I've heard that. "Barbaric" is the word sometimes, I think.

Regarding seeing our dead, what do you recommend to families who aren't sure about doing that?

For a family who is undecided and seems open to the idea, I think that you have to use other people and our own experiences as being a kind of testimony to the value in it, because -- this is not my line; it's been said before -- "We deal with death by dealing with our dead."

What about the discussions with a family about having a visitation, viewing the loved one in other ways?

The way I explain it to families is that what we do, and the timing of things, is entirely up to you. So if I understand a family is not open or does not need to see somebody, first I have to get an understanding: Are they not open to being here for the grueling process of standing on their feet, receiving friends? Because ask anyone, and you won't get too many hands raised about that.

Are they open to seeing their father or mother or other family member in their casuals, at an hour of the night undisclosed publicly -- just them? They can say a family prayer or exchange stories privately behind closed doors. Is that something they might be interested [in]?

So is it the situation? Is it the tradition? Is it the event altogether that they're opposed to? Or is it something else? Are they prevented by the nature of someone's death? Are we not able to see this person? Would it not be beneficial to see this person? Would we be able to take anything from identifying our dead loved ones?

There are circumstances where I personally have had to tell families that "If I saw some type of value in you seeing your son, I would recommend you seeing him. I do not. There is nothing there that resembles your son." And I've had to have that discussion with fathers and mothers. But once again, to let them know that they should view it as something that they have complete control over, the time and the nature of it and the informality or formality of it -- however it takes place, it is important to get them to that point.

What difference does it make to them if they do decide to view the body?

I've never sat down with a family that came back to me and wrote me a card or something and said, "I regretted seeing so-and-so." Never, ever have I had that.

I have had families that still, if the nature of someone's death had altered their appearance greatly and the work that we did was good work but still didn't all add up together, I've had families that they've turned around and said that they just really don't look like themselves. "Thank you, but could we close the casket?" I've had families that have said that many times. And still I think it is important for them to be able to be there and come to make that decision for themselves.

This business has its own inherent contradictions, and it is a business. You have a tension, always, between both worlds.

For us it's a business that is dependent on reputation and morality, care and consolation. Those things will determine how many families trust us. I've had to tell families before going into the selection room, when they were very vocal about how they thought I wanted them to purchase a particular casket, I've had to say bluntly, "I don't care what casket." It's their decision to make that decision. We've had woodworkers say, "I'm going to build my own casket, Tom; you won't have to sell me an expensive one," and all my dad says is, "Have it delivered here."

The focal points have never been merchandise. You look through the trade magazines and everything like that, you might get a different story. But very much within my family, the Lynches, and families that we've worked with, what families do together is our greatest interest, because we never want the nature of the services to always be dependent on expenses.

Now, that's not to say that if expenses for a family are of a great concern that they should be looking at huge sprays of multicolored roses and things. There's a practicality within it. But we also have to be kind of a help to them to keep things in a range, too.

Do you see any connection between what you do and what hospice does?

Oh, sure. The intimate natures of it are very similar. I had a conversation with a woman who works for hospice the other day, and we both were agreeing about the impossibility not to feel a connection to the people that you're serving, whether it's the dying or the surviving. And to avoid those connections are, once again, missed opportunities.

What is your view of what some would call the inherent contradiction of spending so much time making someone who's dead appear live or lifelike?

I think that no matter what size paintbrush you use, it's impossible to erase death's aftereffects. The sheer motionlessness of someone -- eyes closed, mouth closed, you know, no matter what pleasant expression someone has, the stillness about the room, the flat pulse -- you can feel that. Stand alone at someone's casket with no other support in the room and I think people may feel a presence, but I think that you can truly hear the hush in the room. And I think that that's a good sort of brush with death.

So we are not [as] concerned with making someone appear alive as we are trying to keep someone natural-looking. And I like getting to that point, because, quite frankly, if that person can feel, by identifying visually, that this is in fact my mom and she is dead, and I'm not so fixated on that random run of eyeliner across her eye or something, if I'm not faced with that, I can truly start to accept maybe that my mother is dead, that my brother will no longer be here with us, that my sister-in-law will not smile here on this earth in front of me physically anymore.

Can you briefly take me through, when you're in that prep room, the actual steps of preparing a body?

The body of Mary Leonard being cremated.

First, before someone's embalming takes place, a lot of times people put a type of moisturizing cream on their face, and then we will thoroughly wash them, shampoo and condition their hair, things like that.

After that, there is the embalming, in which the simple injection would take place.

After that process of injecting embalming fluid and setting features and properly aspirating someone and removing the gases takes place, a lot of times what I like to do is to go back and to reset someone's features, because a lot of times our muscles will recoil back into their normal positions.

Can you talk about what happens as a result of embalming?

After someone is embalmed, the first things I try to see are what sort of positive things have happened. A lot of times someone's coloration has changed to a more a normal pigment and tone. A lot of times there's the filling out of their tissues and things of that nature. And I'm trying to see, within that range, what I can do constructively or cosmetically that will work with those, always using a photograph or, if I know the person, my memory to serve me through that process.

But the very finer points, setting someone's features and making sure their eyes and their mouth [are] closed properly and -- a lot of times there's such an emphasis on the pleasant expression on someone's face, and I think that there are some people that went through life with a frown or a smirk, something different from a smile. So to always have this jolly smile on someone's face I think is maybe a little bit idealistic on behalf of the funeral director. But once again, if you can be sensitive to the natural kind of movement or muscle fluctuation of someone's facial features, you can achieve that. There are thousands of different variances in a smile or someone's smirk. It is amazing to me. It is in that slightest shift in someone's upper lip or the dimple, you know? It is almost better to leave some of those natural markings in that someone has had for months, years. The family is obviously OK with those. Why cover those?

When you put that person in the casket, what do you next do?

After someone is placed in the casket, there's the straightening of the surrounding fabric in the casket. A lot of times for men you'd have to pull a suit coat downward; you have a lot of bunching-up fabric. For women, organizing the fabric on their dress and things. And there is the need to make sure of the natural bends of their body, for as we get older we tend to hunch over a little bit more. And some people, as they get into their late 70s or 80s, they actually almost shrink because of their spinal columns.

And I use "fabric" as a very generic term for the casket. The casket is simply another sort of bed that you're laying someone to rest in. It's the way I look at it. It's why we also often explain to family members who might say, "Well, we're planning cremation; it's just a waste of a casket," I often reply that the casket, just as when we plan to bury someone, serves its purpose for that time, and that the reason we don't get into renting caskets is because that preparation, that time placing someone in their casket, seeing to those details, caring for someone in that preparation room, is an extension of that ceremony.

We have had families that wanted to be involved in dressing their deceased loved ones. I think that if most people took the time, they would realize that it probably does share more of a relationship with putting our family members to bed than it does as a display model, you know.

Give me a sense of how much time it takes to do those steps in the prep room. ...

I would say from start to finish, the process of being embalmed would be two hours. That could be short or long depending on the circumstances or someone's weight or size.

But the process of dressing them properly and casketing them, of doing their cosmetics, once again depending greatly on the nature of someone's death, I would say it can be an hour and a half to two, sometimes three hours.

How many people have you advised on not seeing their loved ones?

There was one father I had to have a discussion with where I recommended not seeing his son. I knew this family and went to school with their son. I remember he still wanted to see his son, and the best I could say to him was: "Please listen. Please listen to me. Continue talking to me, and if after what I say you still want to see your son, I'll stand there with you." So one time only this happened in almost eight years that I've been here working in the capacity I do now.

And what did you and your brother decide about planning for that day that will one day come, when your own dad dies?

My dad is a Catholic man. He very much wants a funeral mass. And to us in passing, he's described it, he doesn't want a collection of speakers to get up and share the highlights of his life. He wants the prayers, the incense, the burning candles, the gifts, the mourning, the laughing, the whole bundle of it. And I think he truly realizes that, although he's been involved in choreographing the good funeral, sometimes that this one is truly left up in the air and that maybe his kids will have to create his good funeral. And I think -- I know -- it will be a good funeral

Can you be ready for that?

You can't. So much of our culture emphasizes this sort of preplanning as a response to something. The only bet I'm comfortable making is that I will cry, I will laugh, and it will be a very, very sad day, not only for our family but for Milford and friends scattered about at large. And I'm hoping that I don't know what to do. I'm hoping that the support of other family members and other funeral directors, they'll be able to kind of steer me in the right direction and get me there.

Can you imagine preparing your dad in death?

I can't. Once again, we're talking about death, people dying. So many times we get sidetracked by the stuff involved that we truly forget that someone's dead and that it stings bad. And when that sting is covered up, I think we lose potentially the most important player to the funeral: the hurt involved. I don't know the exact name of the poem, but the poem is simply "Catherine, We Die." And I love it so much. And so often we get off of that very short statement: We do die.

And your own death?

It's going to happen. But I do know that now I have a file in the prearrangements, and it says that the upper chapel here, which is a little bit smaller in size than the lower chapel. I like it. I like the way that room feels in there, and I could picture me being in there. I don't really have a preference as far as the casket. I don't really see it as being my decision. I don't want to say, "Use the cheapest," nor do I want to say, "Use the most expensive." I simply want to say to people, "Use what you'll feel right using, and the other things will fall into place." I mean, the people that care about me will know what to do.

Burial for sure, no cremation?

I don't have a preference. I mean, I'm kind of a bones-and-nails kind of guy -- [singer] Tom Waits, you know. I always like how he describes cemeteries and things. So I guess I've always pictured a good old-fashioned tombstone, limestone or sandstone or something that will teeter in the weather. I've always liked that visual image. But if my family wanted to have me cremated, I'm sure I'd find peace in the fire, too.

And are you scared? You face death every day.

Growing up in the face of funerals seven days a week, or funeral-related activities, you truly think about it more, and I don't think it makes us any more accepting or comfortable with the idea of it.

What do you think are the challenges ahead for funeral firms in terms of your generation?

I think that they'll be more inclined to be directly involved, and they'll be better educated hopefully. We try to educate all the people that come through here about what is fact and what is fiction: that they can go to the crematory with us; that they can, in fact, be involved in every aspect of someone's funeral service. Knowing those things in advance and hopefully, given more time, our generation will have grown older and be more equipped to know exactly to what end they can go the distance with our dead.

The most important thing I see is not the punctuation or the ending to this; it's that what we do in observance of this, the process as we go through it, I think we have a good opportunity to find more meaning out of life if we did become better participants in death.

And may I mention to you here something concerning a family we served -- the parents of Anthony John Verrino, Nevada and Anthony?

I will say that the most memorable thing that I had taken from the funeral for their son related very little to the funeral service or me going to the home during the removal and having them walk out with baby Anthony and help us into the car with him and just the care and the bravery of that family.

What I'll be left with is at 8:30 a.m. on the coldest day in Michigan this year, I ran into his parents at a coffee shop. I was just heading to work, and they were bundled up in the appropriate gear for the weather. They had a backpack, and in the backpack was the temporary headstone that we had helped order for the grave of their son who was just buried two days before. Coldest day of the year in Michigan, and they were walking up to get a cup of coffee before going to place, just in their own company, their son's headstone at the cemetery.

And I remember this kind of glow that they had in their eyes, and I remember thinking, "That's participating." And even though this was a temporary grave marker, if there's any sort of ending point to this, it was this young couple, together, just the two of them, on the coldest day you can imagine, walking a mile or two up to the local cemetery and seeing this through. And although all of the events put together to that point made for such a courageous and beautiful tribute to their son, I couldn't think of a better ending than that.

And they did it all the way through.

Every step of the way. That somehow they could find this means, I think, that it is within us to be able to, too, to go there and be able to do those things.

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posted october 30, 2007

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