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Books: The Undertaking

I can't recall exactly what possessed me to place a hold on The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. But apparently I wasn't alone in wanting to read it, as it took over six months for my library's to scare me up a copy. The author, Thomas Lynch, is a man of many hats, including those of "Funeral Director" and "Poet," both of which were firmly perched upon his head when he penned this lyrical little book. In fact, the author does a pretty good job of demonstrating that excelling in undertaking requires the same mindset as poetry: a love of the living, a respect for the dead, an attention to detail, a willingness to ponder the unthinkable, and the understanding that passion and humor are not mutually exclusive.

Undertaking starts out as a treatise on the profession of funeral direction -- a book to to serve as a counterbalance to American Way of Death, I suspect -- but sashays into the realms of autobiography and philosophy by the midpoint. While not the most consistent book in tone or subject matter, it's an excellent read all the same. Since most of us only think of death in terms of it being Something We Don't Much Want To Experience, Lynch, having of necessity put a lot of thought into this subject, has come to many conclusions that we might not have the wherewithal to come to ourselves. For example, Lynch remarks on all the folks who approach him and announce that, when they die, they just want to thrown in the cheapest of pine boxes and buried without pomp. "You won't be swindling my relatives out of their hard earned money!," these people tell Lynch. "I'm going to the grave as the model of minimalistm" But as Lynch points out, none of these people live their lives according to this anti-consumer philosophy -- oh no. Instead, they have decided to wait until they are dead -- wait until they no longer care, in other words -- and then become the poster-child for simplicity. It's nothing but a last-ditch effort to be remembered for virtues you never actually possessed, and to do so my denying those do care -- the family and friends -- the chance to see you off in a manner that would best aid them in the coping of thier loss. Far from demonstrating selflessness, this common desire is selishness taken beyond the grave.

Remarkably, "The Undertaking," while not exactly a pick-me-up, manages not to unduly depress. There's something refreshing about a guy who just comes right out and says "look, friend: you're gonna die and there's nothing you can do about it. But here's a thing or two you might like to know about the process before it actually comes to pass." It makes you wish that more things in this world were as certain as your own demise.

I got my copy of The Undertaking from the Seattle Public Library.

Posted on April 15, 2002 to Books