The dead’s favourite poet

The funeral industry’s poet laureate Thomas Lynch on life, death and the beauty of the words in between.

Thomas Lynch poet and funeral director
Thomas Lynch has continued his father's legacy with Lynch & Sons [Photo courtesy of Thomas Lynch]

“I don’t worry about death but I try to stay out of it,” says Thomas Lynch. “I try not to drive at night, I hold the rail going down the stairs, I’ve eaten more kale in the past couple of years.”

Lynch is a second-generation funeral director and renowned in the industry for his writing and poetry.

His award-winning book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, was distributed to the cast of television series Six Feet Under by writer-director Alan Ball as a reference point for how they should view the profession.

“We had a little correspondence when Six Feet Under was coming out. He [Alan Ball] wrote to me at one point that he had landed on the formula for his filming. He said, ‘I know you know of this, I think I may have stolen it. Once you put a dead guy in the room, you can talk about anything’. Which is exactly the way it works.

“I do think what he wanted to say is consistent with what the poet, Yeats, said, that the only things a studious mind considers are sex and death.”

Frances Conroy, who won several awards for her portrayal of the family matriarch in the series, has been quoted as saying, “It was a very good book for all of us to read because it shows that death is not a ghoulish business.”

Death in the family

Continuing his father’s legacy under the name Lynch & Sons, Lynch makes a point about his sisters’ involvement in the business.

“We called the funeral homes ‘Lynch & Sons’ because the sons were licensed, but my sisters controlled the money … they were the bookkeepers. We curried their favour in order to get paid.”

“It was, I think, a good division of labour. We did things as a family.”

WATCH: Death in the Family

Although he is now “retired”, he says, with emphasis on the quotation marks, Lynch, with his son in tow, handles between 350 and 400 calls to direct funerals a year, servicing southeast lower Michigan. This number triples if all separate Lynch & Sons entities, belonging to different siblings and family members, are also taken into consideration. 

But aside from familial obligation, how does the funeral industry draw people into the fold?

“My father regarded his calling to the funeral service in much the same way as the reverend clergy felt called to their service,” Lynch says.

“I had been thinking I really wanted to write, and I thought most of the writers I knew were teachers. I thought maybe I would be a university type. But actually, my father was the most admired man in my circle. He was a really good human being. People would send him letters thanking him for his kindness to them during a death in their family.

“They were writing these quite effusive letters about how good he was to them, how they couldn’t have done it without him, etc. I thought, that’s not a bad thing, to be appreciated and needed. It was at odds with the cultural sense of what funeral directors were.”

Funeral directors oversee the various facets of a funeral, whether a burial or cremation, but their role almost always begins, often in the middle of the night, with collecting the dead and transporting them to the funeral home.

Meetings with the family of the deceased come next. There is never a predictability to these, Lynch explains.

“This is where our services took on a binary nature – serving the living by caring for the dead – and the variety of possible responses made every family ‘the same but different’ from every other family,” he adds.

One of the constants, however, are the stories and little intimacies bestowed upon a funeral director.

“I can’t remember now who said, ‘Every family is dysfunctional in their own interesting ways,’ or a version of that. I just find that people sort of hand me that trust. I do treasure it.

“People might tell their neighbour and friends that Johnny just slipped away, but the death certificate will tell me exactly what happened to Johnny. Whether the family does or not.”

Taking care of the dead to care for the living

Over the past two decades, family-owned businesses have increasingly struggled to survive as larger, often less-personal and more profit-driven corporations looked to take over, Lynch explains. But, he says, how a funeral home conducts itself and the service it provides are what sets it apart.

“The marketplace says to funeral directors, ‘Take care of the sales, and the service can take care of itself.’ My father was just the opposite. He used to say to us, and he was not ambiguous about this, ‘Take care of the service and the sales will take care of themselves.’ The living have to be taking care of their dead in order to get what the living can get out of a good funeral.

“Mortality is not our invention, but mortality is a place where we intervene in a family’s little history. If we do our job well, then we assist them. If we don’t, then shame on us because it does damage. It does damage to the community and the species.

“People hold us accountable by the way we conduct ourselves as humans, not as Christians or Republicans or Caucasians or heterosexuals or males. Dead weight is dead weight and, to the extent that we help lighten the lift, our communities have entrusted to us the care of their dead and living.”

READ MORE: Death at the dinner table

A funeral director is sometimes also asked to write an obituary or speak at a funeral service. Although Lynch’s fascination with writing was born before his foray into his family funeral home, in his role as a funeral director, it has proved enlightening.

“I always was seduced by language and the power of it to be both weaponised and to be consoling. I do see the great power in language. I think talk can be very healing, and it can be crippling, as well. At a funeral service, you’re listening to a lot of talk that doesn’t take place every day. The chips are down, there is a corpse in the room in most cases. When there isn’t, I lose interest in it; why bother? You could meet these people in the coffee shop. You could be part of the Starbucks circle, you know?”

Does a deep involvement with death alter a funeral director’s views about the end of life?

“Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about the death of his mother. He talks about silence beyond silence listened for. I’m guessing that’s what death will be about. Or what Robert Ingersoll said when he was burying a little kid in Washington one winter: ‘Every cradle asks us ‘Whence?’ and every coffin ‘Whither?””

“What’s on the edges of our birth and our death? What is that oblivion out there? I think it has to do with silence, in the sense that it’s full of something-ness or nothingness.

“In either case, I expect to be gobsmacked. I think I’ll be hushed by it. Hushed by whatever is or isn’t.”

Source: Al Jazeera