The present is molten, the future is uncertain, and the past is all we have. I realised this when, thirty years ago, I began looking for my paternal grandfather’s grave (my other grandparents were cremated). He was buried in the same plot as his teenage son, who played the violin, wrote letters to the Radio Times and died decades earlier of rheumatic fever (his violin was buried with him). I failed to find this last resting-place, as the euphemism has it: the cemetery was abandoned and overgrown and church records lost. The dead had all gone forever, but the absence of a memorial to someone whose body had been interred seemed especially sad, perhaps because they were so often associated with lapidary commemorations at the very spot. As a non-Believer, I needed the comfort of a literary text that dealt with the importance of remembering the departed, especially the buried ones, and I found it in 1997. It was by Thomas Lynch and it was called The Undertaking.
Lynch, the American poet, created in his book an extended contemplation of life and death, of the living and the dead, that miraculously avoids the macabre by depriving it of its disturbing effects. Instead it offers the reader a way of facing the inevitable as well as the proposition that ‘where death means nothing, life is meaningless’. For, in addition to being a celebrated literary figure, Lynch is a funeral director, heading one of the biggest companies of undertakers in Michigan. He may be the only poet to have included the employees of a funeral parlour in the acknowledgements to a book – this one. That he is also their boss makes him doubly unusual. In having derived his main income from sources other than the creativity for which he is famous, Lynch belongs to a small clan. Among them is his fellow American Charles Ives, a composer who was also an insurance company magnate while serving up iconoclastic and often uproariously unclassifiable music when he had five minutes. These are not among artists disgruntled at having, say, to teach or clean hospital floors when – in their opinion, at least – talent dictates that they should be in continuous and unpaid flow; they are happy in their dual roles. The Undertaking is also one of a small number of modern masterpieces – Charles Sprawson’s 1992 meditation on swimming, Haunts of the Black Masseur, is another – that stand more or less alone beyond anything else their authors wrote.
Lynch’s first chapter opens with a sentence as matter-of-fact as it is startling: ‘Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople.’ After just thirty pages, it’s clear that he intends mitigating taboo not with gallows humour with with warmth, witty recollection, an unswerving eye, and philosophising. This view was just what I was looking for. I soon felt that here was a man who if not exactly having the measure of death – that would be uncharacteristically supercilious of him – could place it in the context of how the dead were prepared for a dignified leave-taking that would surely include long-lasting remembrance. That was something denied my grandfather and the musical son he joined in eternal embrace. I was, of course, prepared for a description of processes normally shielded from the world by black velvet drapes. And it coincided with my familial disappointment.
Lynch and his brother were summoned to Florida to embalm their widower father, who had died while on holiday with a lady friend. He writes, ‘He’d gotten the death he wanted, caught in full stride, quick and cleanly after a day strolling the beach, picking sea shells for the grandchildren and maybe after a little bone bouncing with his condo-mate, though she never said and we never asked and can only hope.’ On the way, the brothers had their ‘tools of the trade’ – gloves, fluids, needles, odds and ends and a box marked Slaughter Surgical Supplies – examined by airline security staff in case they constituted some hitherto unknown bomb-making equipment. When laundry-owner Milo Hornsby died two hours after midnight, Mrs Hornsby phoned to report that he’d ‘expired’ and to ask if Lynch would ‘take care of it’. Of course he would, even though at that time of day, apart from the interrupted sleep, it would be bothersome. But he wouldn’t be doing it for Milo’s sake, for Milo was dead, ‘helpless and harmless’. As the author repeatedly asserts: the dead don’t care; and, as Lynch’s father had told him, when the time came he’d know what to do.
Part of Lynch’s ancestry is Irish. He first located his cousins Nora and Tommy in County Clare. When Tommy died in 1971, Nora cycled to the local Post Office to phone Lynch long-distance. She herself died just shy of her 90th birthday, ‘a tiny jaundiced corpse, made little and green by pancreatic cancer’. It’s the kind of observation the author makes without wishing to shock – my grandfather died with, if not from, prostate cancer – and maybe to make us concentrate on the vibrancy of living, and ultimately to make the connection between the corporeal and the spiritual. Nora left her Irish house to him; the first thing he did was install a flush toilet, a ‘civilising invention’ that removed us from unpleasant reminders of the body and its functions. I recalled that my grandparents had outside loos, one at the end of a long garden and with squares of toilet paper sliced from copies of the Daily Mirror and hung from a hook.
Lynch doesn’t bleat about his inability to make the writing of poetry appear more important than the embalming of bodies. Even when he does write about it, the central focus is on two of his poet friends and the poems they wrote as hymns to the power of love, especially sexual love, which is about as far away from the ‘careless’ and insensate dead as could be imagined. At a time when even a well-known poet may count his admirers in hundreds rather than higher multiples, he is aware and unashamed of how his ‘dismal’ trade looms larger. Most people, he reminds us, are not enamoured of death, funerals, obsequies, and undertakers, though in being also a poet he can doubly number himself among the exceptions: the poet as one who as relief from solitude will take any opportunity to ‘dress up and hold forth in elegiac style’, especially if free drinks and a buffet including Swedish meatballs are part of the deal; and undertakers themselves, who serve the living by caring for the dead and staging their funerals. A man he works with, Wesley Rice, had stayed up all night re-constructing the bashed-in body of a girl murdered by a madman with a baseball bat. ‘What Wesley Rice did was a kindness,’ Lynch says. ‘And, to the extent that it is easier to grieve the loss that we see than the one we imagine or read about…it was what we undertakers call a good funeral.’
And I smile with regret at the forgetting that surrounds my grandfather’s memory when Lynch suggests how it might be remedied. On the way west by air to a poetry reading from his home in Milford, Michigan, he looked down from 33,000 feet and saw in the desert the greenswards of golf-course oases. He had the idea of the Golfatorium, where punters could drive, pitch and putt on fairways beneath which the dead, including their late relatives, were buried in their thousands and bunkers were a mixture of sand and human ashes. Then there was his notion of Cremorialisation, by which those ashes, instead of filling an urn (‘ten to twelve pounds on average’), were mixed with polymers and fashioned as objects related to the deceased: the hunter becoming a decoy duck, for example. Lynch believes there’s something of the Protestant work ethic about this: the idea that even in our literally lifeless extremity, when we have come to dust, we should be of use. It’s very American.
The townspeople in this story are seen through the author-undertaker’s eyes as people he will ultimately have dealings with but who share his temporal concerns. Two of them were instrumental in organising the rebuilding of the town bridge across the Huron, which formed part of his funeral processions to the old cemetery. For its opening, he wrote a poem, read at the ceremony by actor Mary Jackson, one of the two instigators; she’d had a long-running part in the TV series The Waltons. The poem ends:
A graveyard is an old agreement made
between the living and the living who have died
that says we keep their names and dates alive.
This bridge connects our daily lives to them
and makes them, once our neighbours, neighbours once again.
Lynch reminds his readers that the expectancy of death is a round 100 per cent, about which the dead have no opinion. This is droll. It’s worth mentioning, too, because there also seems to be something oddly American about it, that the deaths around Milford are sometimes bloodily violent and murderous.
My grandfather was a coal-miner, who daily ‘came to dust’ and once used the word ‘murderous’ to describe his time at the coal face. Some undertaker, too, would have had to perform re-constructions on his colleagues lying dead and crushed underground by rockfalls. After reading Lynch’s book, I was sure its author would wish my grandfather to have been remembered by something more concrete than fading testimonies. Pity he hadn’t been a golfer.
Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (1997). Jonathan Cape.