Book Review

The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch

Photo on 17-05-2014 at 16.24 #3

Thomas Lynch is an acclaimed American poet. He is also an undertaker. This book is a collection of  essays about death. The philosophy of death, the actuality of death and the practicalities of death. It is both personal and general, funny and sad, but above all it is warm – as Lynch makes clear from the start of the book, for him a corpse is never just a corpse. Despite dealing with death and dead bodies almost every day for over two decades, he still sees the human that every cadaver once was, and it is this, perhaps, that makes the book so moving.

Because it is sad, depressing, 200 pages of bleak reflection on the utter, utter inevitability of mortality for everyone in the world. Lynch evokes fathers, sons, children, he talks of violent suicide, assisted suicide, degenerative diseases, peaceful illnesses, painful accidents, foul murders, violence and blood and shit and embalming fluids and bits of bones and crushed skulls and some horrible deaths in horrible detail.

But that’s a good thing.

No death included in this book is given without a name, no corpse is described without mention of his or her family and the effect the death had upon them. No one and nothing can escape death, and in a remarkably honest and deeply moving final essay Lynch describes his own, personal, dream funeral.

It is about sex and death (as all poetry must be), it is about love and divorce, ageing and friendship, it is about business and writing and poetry and travel and success and failure and being a parent and being a child, it is about being left behind, about clearing up the messes left by other people’s lives, and other people’s deaths.

Lynch works in a small town, and I am sure many of the deaths included in the book would be recognisable to those who also live there, but it does not feel invasive, it never feels crass. If he describes something shocking it may be, yes, to shock, but it is never done without the parallel intention to illustrate a point about people, those it happened to and people, more generally, who something shocking could happen to.

The Undertaking is a warm book, full of respect for people and reverence, but acceptance, of the blackness that awaits us all. Death, so often ignored by most people, is rendered on every page as something inevitable we must. For someone as prone to melancholia as I am, it is perhaps not a helpful book, but it had me in tears and it had me smiling, too, many, many times. Catharsis is always good.

BUT there are some rather old-fashioned and unfashionable comments about abortion in here, but he’s a middle-aged, middle-class man from the Mid-West, so it’s not really fair to judge the book as a whole on that.

Read it. Unless you hate the fact that you won’t live forever.

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