“A consultation with the undertaker” probably ranks pretty low on the list of encounters you’d want to have. But when the undertaker is poet and essayist Thomas Lynch and the consultation consists of his wise and gentle insights into life and death, it becomes something else entirely.
Lynch has been the subject of two award-winning documentaries — PBS Frontline’s “The Undertaking” (2007) and the BBC’s “Learning Gravity” (2008) — and his writing, including the National Book Award finalist essay collection The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade, helped provide creative inspiration for the popular HBO series “Six Feet Under.”
This semester, Lynch has joined Emory University’s Candler School of Theology as the McDonald Family Chair, and he’ll deliver the second of two free public lectures during his residency, “The Feast of Language,” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church.
ArtsATL recently spoke with Lynch about his unusual combination of careers, our culture’s take on death, and the inspiration behind “Six Feet Under.”
ArtsATL: How does one decide to become an undertaker? It’s probably not one of those things that most little kids dream of becoming when they grow up.
Thomas Lynch: When I went into mortuary school in the early ‘70s, it was fairly typical for the majority of students to be what they call legacy students. In other words, their parents or an uncle or someone in the family had a funeral home, and they went to work for them and they wanted to make a career out of what was a high school job or something like that. In my case, it was because my father was a funeral director when I was growing up in Michigan.
I just really admired my father. Of his nine children, three of his sons got licenses as funeral directors. All of his daughters have worked in some capacity at different funeral homes. I think we just admired the work he did and saw the difference he made in the lives of surviving families. It’s very seductive when you’re 16 or 17 years old and working the door of a funeral home at night, just taking coats and moving flowers and helping people through the maze of a funeral home, when at the end of the evening, the widower or widow or surviving child takes you by the shoulders and says, “I couldn’t have done this without you.” That was very attractive to feel like I was making a difference. All I had to do was show up and do my part. It wasn’t brain surgery. It was simply humanity.
ArtsATL: In some places I see you referred to as an undertaker, and other sources call you a funeral director. Is there a difference? Are they synonyms?
Lynch: I think they practically are. For me, the word “undertaking” has a great deal of importance because it has that element of a pledge or a promise. The occupational group that cared for the dead in England in the 18th and 19th century were called undertakers.
When I was a kid, I always thought that meant my father took people under. I always wondered why it wasn’t “under-putters.” The actual meaning has to do with making a pledge to get a job done. I like that aspect of it. When a family calls you in the middle of the night and you show up, you become really important to them. The line of people going out to the house when someone has died is a short one. The word “undertaker” applies there.
ArtsATL: You probably get asked this a lot, but how do you think your work as an undertaker informs your work as a writer? And vice versa. Do you feel your work as a writer informs your work as an undertaker?
Lynch: It’s a question that’s always interested me. For a long time, I felt like I had this hyphenated life, like a cop who sings opera or a wrestler who becomes governor. But in fact, language is the key to so much of what funeral directors do. When a death occurs, people are looking for a language to describe what happened. We are trying to address through language things that are unspeakable, things we don’t have a ready vocabulary for. I think poetry makes an effort to address larger issues in ways we don’t normally. And a funeral in some ways is trying to do or say something about an unspeakable event in a family history, that someone has died. I see aspects of metaphor and ritual and symbol working their way through the funeral process in the same way I see them working their way through paragraphs.
ArtsATL: One of your lectures at Emory is called “The Good Funeral.” That implies that there’s a “bad funeral.” Are there good funerals and bad funerals?
Lynch: The term “good funeral” is sort of oxymoronic. It comes from a lot of different sources. My dad used to come home from work when we were kids, and he’d sit down at the dinner table and he’d talk about how he’d had “a couple of good funerals” that day. By which he meant, it got the dead where they needed to go and the living where they wanted to be. That became for me a sort of rule of thumb: a good funeral gets the dead people where they need to go.
You ask, “Can there be a bad one?,” and I have to say yes. I’ve been to some. Either they miss the existential moment at the end by trying too hard to entertain or perform, or they’re just ugly because of the circumstances. It’s the same with stories: there are good ones and there are bad ones. There are poems that really work and poems that miss by a mile. When you attempt a funeral — and every culture attempts them — either you get it right or you get it really wrong. There’s usually not just a little bit wrong. It’s usually off by a mile. I’ve been to all sorts of commemorative events. Some work and some don’t, and when they don’t it’s not a little degree of error, it’s huge.
ArtsATL: You mentioned funerals that seem to miss by a mile. Do you think that can be a sign of a widespread cultural misunderstanding about death?
Lynch: I do. I think our culture has gone a little ritually adrift in the past 50 years. The standard trope nowadays is a “celebration of life.” It sort of insinuates in the ear of the hearer that everyone should be grinning a little bit more than they do at funerals. These celebrations of life are notable for the fact that the food is good and the merlot runs freely and the homiletics aren’t too heavy-handed and the music is contemporary or designed to be uplifting. Everyone is welcome to participate — it’s a kind of funeral karaoke — everyone is welcome to be there, except the dead guy.
I think that’s the single notable change in the past 50 years. For the first time in the history of our species, it seems we are trying to accomplish this Humanity 101 — what do we do about death? — without the dead guy. It seems to be missing an essential portion in much the same way as if we tried to do a baptism and left the baby at home or went to a wedding at which the bride and groom were missing. We’d automatically notice the mistake in that type of arrangement, but we go forward with these sort of bodiless funerals, thinking, “Isn’t this nice?” I just think it’s a sign that our culture has become less able to belly up to the bar of human mortality and what it means.
ArtsATL: I was surprised to read that you were the inspiration behind the HBO series “Six Feet Under.”
Lynch: That has the sound of hyperbole about it. I can tell you this: Alan Ball, who was the creator, writer and director of “Six Feet Under,” required his cast and crew to read two books of essays I’d written: one called The Undertaking and the other Bodies at Motion and at Rest. He was very generous in interviews saying that the books that made the most difference to him and the books that he used to set the tone of his show were my books, which I took as high praise. And we had a nice email correspondence going for a couple of years. But like any artist, he has inspiration coming from many places at all times.
But I did see in the early episodes, and he has been frank in telling me, that Old Man Nate Fisher, the ghost that inhabits all those early episodes, came from my descriptions of my father in The Undertaking. David Fisher embalms his father after his father is hit by a bus on his way to the airport. It comes from a story I wrote about my brother and I embalming our father when he died down in Florida in February of ’92. I knew immediately when I saw the first episode of that series that Alan Ball was playing in a different league than most people who had depicted funerals. That first episode was really asking, “How come? Why do we do this and others don’t?” Also, “What should we do when someone dies? What’s authentic and what’s silly?” Those are important questions.