The Undertaking The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 1998
Pages: 224

My reading The Undertaking is all Lauren‘s fault. I had, surprisingly, never heard of Lynch until she mentioned him, and then I was struck with a morbid curiosity for what a third-generation funeral director (they prefer that term to the antiquated “undertaker,” despite the appropriateness of the name, and to the rather called “mortician”) would have to say. Add to this that Lynch is a semi-celebrated poet1, and you have the makings for either an excellent book about death and dying or an overly maudlin piece of smarmily-constructed prose better left for brochures and sympathy cards.

The good news for everybody is that Lynch usually stays pretty solidly in the former case. Only occasionally did The Undertaking stray into sentimental weeping and wringing of hands, usually when it took on the aires of the self-righteous and unforgivably saccharine Paradox of our Time2. Thankfully, those moments are few and far between, and Lynch spares us the creative nadirs of the truly obnoxious.

The crux of Lynch’s book, and I quote, is this: “The dead don’t care.” He says it a number of times. “The dead don’t care.”

This is important, and it’s a theme that runs throughout the short essays of the book. The funereal process, from the body preparation to the ceremonial rites to the lowering of the body, is done entirely for the benefit of the living. The attendant rituals of death are merely a process by which we assign meaning to the departed and signify in some way their relationship to us. The body itself can be fed to dogs, and it wouldn’t materially affect a damn thing.

This all sounds quite crass so far, I’m sure. But let me assure you that Lynch—used to, I’m sure, being delicate—treats the topic with a bit more poetry and dignity. Some of it is the nuts and bolts of the mortician’s life, and much grand theororizing about the nature of humanity as it pertains to our imminent demise. Most, though, is Lynch sharing with his readers what a lifetime of obsequies has taught him about people. The most touching, perhaps, is the very last chapter, when he muses rather sadly about his own death, planning his rites of burial, and then catches himself, remembering the advice of his own father, and decides to leave the details to his own children—he, after all, will not care one way or the other.

At 200 pages, this won’t take you very long to read. While the musings of a mortician are not perhaps what you would consider enjoyable reading, I stress that Lynch is actually an excellent writer, and that the vast majority of the work is a pleasure to read. Give it a try. And hattip to Lauren.

  1. Let me put it this way: someone once paid for his expenses to visit San Diego and read at four different venues. This, in the universally participated and chronically underappreciated world of poetry, is success[]
  2. George Carlin, to whom the piece is sometimes misattributed, calls it “a sappy load of shit.” It is actually the product of Dr. Bob Moorhead, a former pastor from Seattle, who sexually molested a number of his male congregants[]
§1936 · November 28, 2007 · Tags: , , , , ·

1 Comment to “The Undertaking”

  1. Lauren says:

    Glad you liked it. I’m afraid of going back to it now that I’m older, afraid that it might be pedantic, but I loved it so much when it first came out and it helped to shape some of my ideas on death and dying. Now I have to go back and read it again.

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