The question is inevitable: Why would Mr. Lynch want to do this kind of work? After all, he has won publication of a second book of essays, ''Bodies in Motion and at Rest'' (Norton); the first, ''Undertaking,'' prompted Richard Bernstein to praise him in a review in The New York Times as a cross between Garrison Keillor and Yeats.
''I really like being a funeral director,'' Mr. Lynch said. ''If you're a teacher you really have to wonder if you have an impact on people's lives. As a funeral director, in town we know immediately if we've been a force for good in the lives of the families we serve. They not only pay us but they also thank us.''
Being a funeral director is ''a way to minister'' to people, Mr. Lynch said. A funeral director is like the ''sin-eater'' in Celtic culture, a kind of secular priest who symbolically eats the sins of the community, he said. ''On the one hand, they're appreciated, and on the other held in contempt,'' he said. ''People are glad to have some one to call when there's a dead body on the floor; on the other hand they don't want to get too close to them.''
To hear Mr. Lynch tell it, the jobs of funeral director and poet are quite alike. ''The arrangement of flowers and homages, casseroles and sympathies; the arrangement of images and idioms, words on a page -- it is all the same,'' he writes in his new book, ''an effort at meaning and metaphor, an exercise in symbol and ritualized speech, the heightened acoustics of language raised against what is reckoned unspeakable.''
''A good funeral, like a good poem, is driven by voices, images, intellections and the permanent,'' he continues. ''It moves us up and back the cognitive and imaginative and emotive register.''
Both funeral directors and poets favor wearing black, he notes. Plus, both groups have a penchant for ''free drink and horizontal bodies.''
And so Mr. Lynch goes about his jolly way through the streets of this pretty town with its brightly painted gingerbread houses, population 15,000. He buries about 200 of his fellow townspeople a year. He knows people by name, exchanges jokes with them.
''Good to see you,'' the manager of the local restaurant, The Appeteaser, tells him.
''Good to be seen -- considering the alternative,'' says Mr. Lynch.
Mr. Lynch is an honorary Rotarian. Spotting the town clerk and treasurer having a retirement celebration, he has drinks sent ''over to the rowdy women,'' as he calls them.
And not all his s writing is about death. In the new collection there are essays on sex, alcoholism -- his father's, his own and that of one of his sons -- about writer's block, about fishing.
One essay is about how much he hated the family cat, a gray angora much beloved by his son Michael; the cat tore up all the furniture and also tried to kill Mr. Lynch -- he is convinced -- by crouching on the stairs so he would trip over it.
''I loved the boy who loved her,'' he writes, ''I had to abide its miseries, its contemptuous green eyes fixed on me with long-established indifference.''
Mr. Lynch has also written a poem about the cat: ''Mounds of furballs littering the house/ choking the vacuum cleaner,'' was part of his litany of complaints. ''Mice /that winter indoors safely as she sleeps/ curled about a table-leg, vigilant/ as any knick-knack in a partial coma.''
Now the cat is ''out in the ground dead, thank God,'' he said in the interview. ''And there's a stone in the ground to prove it.''
Mr. Lynch is a largely self-taught poet. His father, Edward, was a funeral director, and seven of his nine children now either own funeral parlors or work in them.
The constant presence of death made its mark upon his father, Mr. Lynch said. Because he buried so many children who died prematurely from illness or accidents, Edward Lynch developed an overweening terror about the mortality of his own children, fretting whenever they fell sick or suffered scratches or bruises. It is a terror that Mr. Lynch said he has inherited.
The Lynches were a family that relished language. ''Our dinner tables were full of contention and argument,'' Mr. Lynch said. ''We loved to throw an idea out and argue it to death.''
He was introduced to poetry through the prayers his mother taught him: ''Angel of God, my guardian dear,/ to whom God's love commits me here. . .'' ''My first attraction was acoustic,'' he said. ''I knew sounds had great magic.''
Mr. Lynch attended Catholic schools and his religion remains important to him, though he says he attends Mass irregularly. He went on to Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., where one of his teachers was the poet Michael Heffernan. Until he met Mr. Heffernan he didn't think that he could be a poet, that ''to be a poet you had to be a hippie,'' Mr. Lynch said. But he saw in Mr. Heffernan, who had a Buick, a mortgage and a family, ''an ordinary citizen writing poems.''
In 1980 Mr. Lynch sent a poem over the transom to Poetry magazine. It was called ''A Death,'' and it was about a childhood friend who died of a brain tumor at 32. The poem was accepted. Then Mr. Heffernan suggested that he send his poems to Gordon Lish, an editor at Knopf. Knopf accepted them and Mr. Lynch's first book, ''Skating With Heather Grace,'' was published in 1987.
Another collection followed, ''Grimalkin and Other Poems'' (1994). In 1997 came the National Book Award nomination for a book of essays, ''The Undertaking,'' which was followed by another collection of poems, ''Still Life in Milford'' (1998).
Mr. Lynch, who was divorced in 1985, has four children from that marriage: Thomas, 26, a fishing guide; Heather, 25, a law student; Michael 22, a community college student; and Sean, 20, who works at Lynch & Sons. When Mr. Lynch and his first wife separated in 1984, their youngest child was 4. The divorce left him with primary custody of the children. In his new book, he describes the moment the marriage ended: ''I knew she had arranged to meet her lover. I sat on a log on the beach with the children, watching the lake and knowing it was finished. I got a sinker from my tackle box and, with a bit of shoelace, fashioned it into a kind of necklace. When she returned from her assignation, I asked her to walk with me down the beach. I gave her the little necklace and said she'd convinced me'' that the marriage had to end.
From the break-up also came the poem ''For the Ex-Wife on the Occasion of Her Birthday'': ''Tumors or loose stools/ blood in your urine, oozing from any orifice/ the list is endless of those ills I do not pray befall you.''
In 1991 Mr. Lynch was remarried, to Mary Tata, a designer. In ''The Nines,'' his epithalamium, or marriage poem, for Ms. Tata, which was published in The New Yorker, a man reckons how many years of happiness he has left with his beloved: ''Darling, I reckon maybe thirty years,/ given our ages and expectancies./ Barring the tragic or untimely, say,/ ten thousand mornings, ten thousand evenings,/ please God, ten thousand moistened nights like this.''
The next year, Mr. Lynch's father, by then a widower, died while he was with a girlfriend. ''The doctors tell him 'Easy Does It, Ed -- /six weeks, six months, who knows,'' Mr. Lynch wrote of his father's death. ''It's up to you./ Avoid excitement, stimulation, sex/ with any but familiar partners.' ''
In another poem he imagined his father's ghost appearing to him: ''He lets me hold him, hug him,/ weep some, wake repaired again,/ says he'll take my kisses home to her,'' his dead mother.
Mr. Lynch and his brother prepared their father's body for burial, embalming it themselves, just as one day, he says, his brother will do for him.
These days Mr. Lynch is in great demand as a speaker at conventions of funeral directors. Many funeral parlors are being bought up by large companies, and he worries that this will bring about a reduction in the services offered the bereaved, the gestures and ceremonies that help people mark the death and life of those they loved.
''The funeral has changed from an intergenerational to a narcissistic thing,'' he said. ''It used to be a thing given by the living to the dead. Now it is by the dead to the living. We're going to save time and money, the bother of the funeral, you won't have to take a day off from work. Just use your gold card and disappear!''
Funeral directors, like poets, are an endangered species, Mr. Lynch says. ''Whenever funeral directors get together they talk about the fact that no one likes funerals,'' he writes in his book. ''Whenever poets get together they talk about the fact that no one likes poetry.''
Yet the work of the funeral director and the poet are the mark of a civilized society, Mr. Lynch argues, bringing form and scrutiny to the dangerous questions. ''Both press our attention to the existentials, the adverbials,'' he writes, ''the sensual and overwhelming questions, the mysteries and certainties of life and death.''Continue reading the main story
The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade3.94 · Rating details · 2,281 Ratings · 363 Reviews
Every Year I Bury a Couple Hundred of My Townspeople. So opens the singular testimony of the poet Thomas Lynch who like many poets is inspired by death, but unlike the others, he is also hired to bury the dead or to cremate them and to tend to their families in a small Michigan town where he serves as the funeral director.
In the conduct of these duties he has kept his eyeEvery Year I Bury a Couple Hundred of My Townspeople. So opens the singular testimony of the poet Thomas Lynch who like many poets is inspired by death, but unlike the others, he is also hired to bury the dead or to cremate them and to tend to their families in a small Michigan town where he serves as the funeral director.
In the conduct of these duties he has kept his eyes open, his ears tuned to the indispensable vernaculars of love and grief. Here is the voice of both witness and functionary.
Lynch stands between the living and the living who have died with outrage and amazement, awe and calm, straining for the brief glimpse we all get of what mortality means to a vital species....more