A few years ago, Thomas Lynch spoke at a professional conference in Ireland. The venue — 800-year-old Dublin Castle — has “history oozing from its stones,” he says, and it got him thinking about mortality. What will be said of him when he’s gone? It’s a gloomy thought, but perfectly natural. Lynch has devoted his working days to death. It’s reasonable that he’d spend some time considering his own.
Lynch has been an undertaker in Michigan since the 1970s. He’s been an acclaimed writer for almost as long. His latest book, “The Depositions,” is a wry, poignant collection of his best and newest essays. It’s packed with penetrating observations about faith, family, work, art and, yes, death.
Taken together, these pieces form an episodic autobiography of a man whose day job has immeasurably enriched his creativity.
Lynch has always excelled at fusing the intellectual and the personal. Consider his essay about preparing his father’s body for burial. A moving eulogy, the piece also explains how embalming works, reflects on notable books about the funeral trade and advances an elegant theory of bereavement: “Mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions.”
Devoted readers know that Lynch, who’s also written several volumes of poetry, was one of nine children in an “Irish-American, postwar-baby-booming, suburban family.” He’s written insightfully about his dual careers, his struggles with alcohol and his reverence for secular and spiritual texts. He returns to these themes in his new essays.
Though he was hesitant to join a Bible study group, three decades later, Lynch is still a member. Recalling that he “first encountered prayer as poetry,” he finds reasons to behold “the language of faith as an outright gift,” even if it describes a “God I hardly believe in anymore.” In another observant piece, he compares scriptural imagery with a scene from a Seamus Heaney poem.
His essays about being an undertaker are reliably thought-provoking. The “amalgam of corporal and spiritual works” that coincide with a funeral is what “separates humanity from the other animals,” Lynch writes. Unfortunately, some of his new writing on the subject relies on sentimental clichés. “The ties that bind” shows up often.
He’s as irreverent as ever, though. The self-described recovering “alkie” says he likes having an elderly Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. “You can tell him anything and he’ll likely forget,” Lynch jokes, blending dark humor with a sensitive account of watching a friend lose his memory.
As a funeral director, Lynch has learned “that people in need are glad to see you coming and gladder still to see you gone.” That may be so, but on the page, he’s company you want to keep.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
By: Thomas Lynch.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 342 pages, $27.95.