Summary: Thomas Lynch, author of 'The Undertaking', addresses Last Acts group, explores the rituals of death and what they mean for the living. Excerpt of an article I wrote for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Last Acts Campaign in 1998.
Thomas Lynch, an essayist and poet whose book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade was nominated for the prestigious National Book Award, addressed the Last Acts regional conference near Boston.
Now a columnist for Beliefnet, Lynch was selected to speak from a cultural perspective about end-of-life issues, because a culture that denies death is part of the problem in trying to improve care. Indeed, Lynch told the Last Acts group that "you are among the ever-decreasing number of people for whom suffering does not make you run and hide."
And yet his talk was chock full of humor and irony. He comes from a family of undertakers. "The general rap on funeral directors is that 'they're all crooks,' except mine."
"My writer friends think I'm odd,...and [other] funeral directors think I'm off the charts." But his poet friends recognized that his day job gave him a "special resource" as an observer and communicator.
"Being a writer helps me to be a better funeral director because it makes me think in language about what I do and with whom I do it," says Lynch, who works full time as an undertaker in Michigan. "And by the same token, having to deal with people at a very difficult intersection in their family history gives me a rich set of resources to draw upon for writing."
He said people should not make funeral arrangements in advance in order to avoid becoming a burden to their children. "Let me remind you that your children were a burden to you." Bearing the burden of parenting "has made me feel alive, engaged, useful and human," he said. "Being an emotional burden is good duty, not hard duty." And "grief is what happens when people love."
Assisted suicide, he said, "is an oxymoran, kind of like 'assisted masturbation.'" Citizens must not let the politicians "take care of this issue for us." It's not just a medical or political or legal issue--"it's a moral issue and a human issue." We are all obligated to talk to our families about end-of-life issues.
The Undertaking won the 1997 Heartland Award for non-fiction, sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. The book "transcends matters of time and place with literary, socio-historical and reportorial excellence," the Tribune's Connie Lauerman wrote in the newspaper. The book has received rave reviews from both national and regional press as well.
The 12 essays in The Undertaking range from satire to a serious reflection on the rituals of death while preparing to embalm his father's body.
In a recent essay in New York Times magazine, Lynch writes, in part, about the "growth industry" of death and dying, a theme he touched on at the Last Acts conference. His son says he wants to be a funeral director like his dad, and "he wonders if I'd ever sell to S.C.I. -- Service Corporation International, the Barnes & Noble of the funeral biz. They're buying up firms like ours across the globe....They are aggressively positioning themselves for the baby-boom years, the next 20 or 30, when the number of annual deaths in the United States will grow by a million compared with today. The boomers' presence is already being felt, of course -- some are dying, many more are buying funerals for their parents.....
"The generation now in the market for mortuary wares is redefining death in much the same way that, three decades back, it redefined sex and gender..."
"Hence, more and more, we boomers care for our own dying. More and more we are making up new liturgies to say goodbye. More and more we seem willing to engage fully in the process of leave-taking. We rise early to watch the televised departures of princesses and modern saints. We read the obituaries every day. We eulogize, elegize and memorialize with vigor. The trade is brisk in wakes and funerals that offer a personalized touch.
"My father's generation did copper and concrete and granite memorials. We do biodegradables, economy models and ecofriendly cyberobsequies. He sold velvet and satin and crepe interiors. We do urns that look like golf bags and go to cemeteries with names like golf courses. You can buy a casket off the Internet, or buy plans for a self-built ''coffin table'' or one that doubles as a bookshelf until you ''need'' it. There's a push for ''do it yourself'' funerals -- as if grief were ever anything but. Cremated remains can be recycled as memorial kitty litter, sprinkled on rosebushes, mixed with our oil paints to add texture to fresh masterpieces."
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