Sunday, March 11, 2001
Milford, Mich. Thomas Lynch stands in the coffin room, calmly explaining the tools of his trade.
Mahogany with sleek and curved lids. Plain, rectangular, wooden.
"There's simple maple, there's simple pine, there's a simple cardboard box," he says, pointing to the caskets that fill the chilly, bright room. "$79 to $12,000. That's the range. What you decide is your business. My job is to tell people these are boxes."
He's dressed in black ï¿½ black jacket, black slacks, black shoes. The uniform of his trade.
Well, one of his trades.
His other trade is directly related: essays and poems about death that have won him critical acclaim.
Lynch is the author of three books of poetry and two collections of essays, including "Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality," published last June.
His first book of essays, "The Undertaking: Life Studies in the Dismal Trade," won him an American Book Award and made him a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award in 1997.
His latest work has drawn praise from critics, too.
"Lynch brings a vast accumulation of life-and-death wisdom to the table, and he makes connections between art and mortality that reverberate in the mind. Few readers will walk away from this volume less than stunned and grateful," says reviewer Jay Parini of "Bodies in Motion."
Making the transition from undertaker to writer was an easy one for the 52-year-old Lynch, who had been in the family mortuary business for years. He's an avid reader who includes Irish poet W.B. Yeats among his favorites, and he's a self-taught writer.
"Writers are just readers who go karaoke," he says. "I've always read and I've always written."
In 1980, Lynch got serious about it, though, and he set out to get his poetry published. His first try was a success.
"Actually, it came back with a nice note about bad punctuation. He could have just sent it back. Instead he sent back a letter saying 'Is this your style?"' Lynch says.
He turned to essays only after an editor asked him for a prose contribution and suggested he write about his trade. Similar requests followed, and the funeral business soon began to flavor his work. His essays have appeared in such publications as Harper's, The Paris Review, Esquire and The Irish Times.
His death themes, he says, make an easy schtick for interviewers and assignment editors.
"I think, in a sense, all writers are writing about sex and death. I mean those are the big themes," Lynch says. "And mortality is the full stop, the exclamation point, the question mark. It is the end punctuation to which we measure most of life."
As a mortician, Lynch takes 3 a.m. phone calls from people whose relatives have just died. He goes to the morgue, picks up the body, readies it for burial. It's all part of his job.
And when friends and family members die, Lynch and his brothers have to prepare the bodies ï¿½ Lynch and Sons is the only funeral home in town.
"We buried a priest the other day, a good friend of my father's ... and I kept thinking, 'I wish we didn't have do this.' But I wouldn't want anybody else to do it. In a sense, it was an honor," Lynch says.
In the "Undertaking," Lynch writes about preparing his father for burial.
"When we got to the funeral home they had taken him to, taken his body to, the undertaker there asked if we were sure we wanted to do this ï¿½ our own father, after all? ... It was something we had always promised him, though I can't now, for the life of me, remember the context in which it was made," Lynch writes.
Another essay details a violent suicide that Lynch was called to clean up in his early days as an undertaker. The story reflects on the difficulty that people have with the idea of death.
"When you have to look at your own morality most days, it can't help but bring perspective," says Mary Tata, Lynch's wife of nine years. The two grew up not far from Milford. "There's not a big jump from who Tom is as a funeral director and who Tom is as a person."
Mary Jo Gillett, a local poet who has taken workshops taught by Lynch, says, "It's a voice that's familiar and colloquial and yet there's a scope of experience and wisdom.
"It's interesting to read essays that sometimes touch on his family business. ... He brings humor to subjects that we sometimes avoid."
'Just what I do'
Lynch decided to become a mortician when he was in his early 20s, attending a convention with his father, who also was a funeral director.
"I really admired my father and I sort of envied the connection he had to the families that he served ï¿½ the admiration they had for him, the gratitude they bore him," he says. "There are many returns that you can't take to the bank. The trust of your townspeople is something that's worth to me a great deal of money."
Of his eight siblings, all but two are in the business. Two of his four children also joined the family trade. With so many family members becoming morticians, Lynch's father had to acquire more funeral homes. They came to the Milford site in 1974.
"It's not only a living, it's been a way of life for us," says Lynch, who graduated from Wayne State University's department of mortuary science, a non-degree program.
Little, decorative headstones and a model hearse share space with family photographs and books on the shelves of Lynch's funeral home office. Next to his desk is a prayer bench.
Lynch doesn't rely only on mortality as the source for his material. He argues that his writing reflects a love of language, and less an obsession with death.
"Everything influences me," he says. "Everything is fodder for what you write. I'm not writing to work some neurosis, other than the normal craziness that everybody has. It's not therapy for me, it's just what I do."
In "Y2Kat," an often humorous piece in his latest publication, Lynch addresses the issue of his divorce and the dilemma he thinks divorcees with children often face in having negative feelings for their children's other parent. The essay is mostly about the family cat, which leaves when Lynch's first wife does but returns when it no longer fits into her new life.
"I even tried to pet it once. It rose and walked out of the room, sneezing as it went, as if it were allergic to me. Its indifference I could tolerate. ... But the cat seemed to bear toward me a malice quite inexplicable considering that I housed it, fed it, paid for its vaccinations and grooming," Lynch writes.
As for his next projects, Lynch is working on another poetry volume and a book about the changes in Ireland over the last 30 years. The work stems from the time he spends at his house in West Clare, Ireland, which belonged to his great-grandfather.
Back in Milford, writing takes second stage to his career as an undertaker.
"I'll be a funeral director. At the end of the day, this is where I'll be," he says. "This is what I do. I mean, it's work, of course. But I'm really good at it."