Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade is an examination of death and life through Lynch’s experiences as a funeral director. The book is structured as a collection of essays which range from a meditation on toilets to embalming his father to an essay against assisted suicide to instructions for Lynch’s own funeral. Throughout the book, Lynch asserts that funerals and all the things that people do surrounding death are really for the living.
The book is strongest when Lynch goes deeply into his own personal experiences. The experience of actually embalming his father and sorting out his own father’s funeral is a poignant one, which resonates deeply with the reader. Likewise, Lynch’s instructions for his own funeral, in which Lynch tells us “It’s yours to do – my funeral – not mine” (199), acts as a parting gift from Lynch, a reminder to be good to each other and that the details of the funeral – in February on a cold day, with no party – are really not the dead’s concern. It is also strong when it is being most straightforward – describing the processes surrounding death or the details that the living don’t think about. The route to the cemetery and why this matters, for instance, gives the reader a lot to think about in terms of how we think about death and its relationship to life and ourselves as individuals.
The Undertaking strives to look at the acts and ideas surrounding death in order to come to greater insights about life. This is a very ambitious goal and, unfortunately, many of the essays in this book fall short of that. The topic of death is so deep and meaningful and is ripe for insight and universal truths, especially considering the level of knowledge that Lynch has on the subject. I was so ready to love this book. However, instead of sticking to personal experiences and embracing the questions surrounding life and death, Lynch nudges his essays toward the pulpit. Some of the best books leave their readers with questions to ponder and things to ruminate on. Lynch is not shy about answering the questions he brings up.
Lynch takes the tone of a curmudgeonly old man as he bemoans kids these days and their technology and the way that they think about death. Instead of allowing the reader to come to the insight about how and why old ways were important, Lynch jumps straight to insulting possibly young readers by attacking the way things are done nowadays. He uses an incredible amount of “we” and “you” phrases assuming that his reader is on the same page with him. This reader certainly wasn’t and so these turns of phrase became incredibly alienating.
It was difficult not to question Lynch’s uses of other people’s names and stories in the book. The death of a loved one is an incredibly sensitive and intimate thing. Throughout the essays, Lynch tells the frightful details of the deaths that he’s undertaken, sometimes naming names and often giving enough detail to know who he must be writing about. I found myself wondering time and again if he had permission to write about people in this way.
It was especially egregious in his essay Uncle Eddie, Inc. in which he uses the gory details of a grizzly suicide to begin a rant against assisted suicide and abortion. This is, for me, was the point at which Lynch really lost me as a reader. He gives the details of the widow, who was suspected of having an affair, waking up to the spray of her husband’s blood covering her. He gives plenty of detail for the townspeople to know who he is writing about, but seems unsympathetic toward the widow, who he seems to think must have had it coming anyway. He uses this messiness to assert that assisted suicides should not be legal, because they, like abortions, are humans trying to play god. Lynch seems to think that it is fine for humans to play god by extending life, for he’s not against medication, but not shortening it. It’s hard for me not to commiserate with the widow in this story, to think of the way it would feel reading the details of her husband’s death for all the world to know, these details being used for a political essay, and then to even possibly wish that assisted suicide had been an option for the husband, instead of the terrible way that things had gone. Whether or not you agree with Lynch’s stance, the way it is written about feels off. It is hard to imagine that Lynch had permission to talk about this death in that way and for those purposes. It made him a questionable narrator, for sure.
There are moments in the book where Lynch certainly hits his mark, where the details and meaning that he makes about death and funerals give the reader new insights about life. However, these moments are so overshadowed with Lynch’s politics, his arguments and over-explaining, and the way that it feels like he’s using people that they lose their poignancy. The Undertaking is definitely a lesson in thinking about the assumptions that we make about our readers and as well as a lesson in the ways that we treat people as subjects.
*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers. This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.