The edge of oblivion

By Bill Castanier

Life, death and poetry with Thomas Lynch

There are celebrity chefs, celebrity fitness instructors and, yes, even celebrity duck call manufacturers. But there is only one celebrity mortician.

Thomas Lynch of Milford, Mich., has been a mortician for nearly four decades as director of Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors. And for almost as long he has also been a poet, essayist and lecturer, gathering national and international awards and accolades for his writing.

Lynch was a National Book Award finalist for his 1997 nonfiction book, “The Undertaking: Life Studies of the Dismal Trade.” In 2011, he revisited one of his favorite characters, Argyle, in “The Sin-eater: A Breviary,” a collection of poetry. Last year he co-authored “The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care” with theologian Thomas G.Long, which focuses on contemporary funeral practices and their modern idiosyncrasies.

Adding a delight to the 25 poems in the “Sin-eater” is a collection of photographs by his son Michael Lynch, who is also a funeral director. Thomas Lynch said the book was written as a guide for seminarians, clergy, morticians-in-training and funeral directors, but it has also garnered a wider readership outside the profession of death.

“The single most evident thing we’ve lost (in modern funerals) is the welcome we extend to the corpse,” Lynch said in a recent phone interview. “These celebrations of life are noted for fine finger food and everyone is invited. What is missing is the dead guy.”

Lynch said he traces the unraveling of funeral traditions to Jessica Mitford’s stinging 1963 book, “The American Way of Death” (which she updated in 1998) and the 1965 dark comedy film “The Loved One.”

“Mitford had a lot to do with it,” Lynch said. “And frankly, there was a lot to laugh at.”

Lynch comes from a family of morticians that included his father and six brothers and sisters. He said he strongly believes that too many funerals have become “a kind of performance art.” Although he has an entertaining way of criticizing modern funeral practices, Lynch is deadly serious when he says modern funerals lack the gravity of the graveside service where mourners contemplate their own mortalities.

“We talk about the dead in terms of bike rides and long walks,” Lynch said. “We’re burying hobbyists, not Methodists,” he said.

He particularly thinks that the corpse must be present at the ceremony of death.

“We wouldn’t go to a baptism without the baby or a wedding without the bride,” he said. “Too many dead are put away by cell phone and credit card, when we should go … to the edge of oblivion and ask ourselves serious questions.”

In the last 13 months, Lynch traveled twice to that edge of oblivion — which also entailed two trips to Ireland — for the funerals of two of his friends and fellow poets: Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, who died last August, and Dennis O’Driscoll, who died in December 2012. Lynch said he was there on both occasions as the caskets were lowered into the ground.

He sets his poems in varying locations in Ireland, providing a vicarious excursion across the verdant landscape.In his introduction to the poetry collection, Lynch tells stories of his family and the many superstitions his ancestors brought with them to America. The myth of a sin-eater is one of them. It was believed that a sin-eater takes on a dead person’s sins by eating a loaf of bread and drinking beer in the presence of a corpse. Through Lynch’s character Argyle, he pillories his religious training and beliefs. In “Sin-eater” he writes, “I was raised by Irish Catholics. Even as I write that it sounds like ‘wolves.’” Lynch describes the sin-eater in an autobiographical sense as his “mouthpiece for my mixed religious feelings” and calls himself “seriously devout and devoutly lapsed.”

Lynch admits that poetry has moved him closer to his religious upbringing, where as a young boy he was thought to have a vocation. The funeral director still greatly admires the “priest, or pastor, rabbi or imam” whom he describes as the “infantry and holy corpsmen in the wars long waged between faith and fear.” In the introduction, he writes “the church has long suffered from mostly self-inflicted wounds and mostly at the hands of upper echelon sorts.”

When Argyle sits with the dead, he questions his complex being, which clearly Lynch believes “is us.”

“An Evening with Thomas Lynch”

Old Town Poetry Series 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23 The Creole Gallery 1218 Turner St., Lansing $5 suggested donation (517) 267-0410