The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

Lynch, Thomas

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Collection (Essays)

Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney
  • Date of entry: Oct-16-2000


A 199-page collection of twelve essays by undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch, superficially about his mortuary trade, but actually about much more--life and death; the process of mourning; how we human beings pass though our common lives with grace or desperation; how the graveside ritual serves memory, family, and society. In the preface, Lynch says that early on he came to understand that the undertaking trade he would inherit from his father had little to do with what was done to the dead, but everything to do with how the living responded to the deaths of loved ones, neighbors, and friends.

Particularly outstanding essays include "The Undertaking," in which Lynch divulges the practical and emotional secrets of his trade as he buries Milo, a man who owned a Laundromat; "Crapper," a humorous, rollicking essay that demonstrates our modern society's inability to deal either with the thought of dying or the actual dead body; "The Gulfatorium," a flight of fancy about building a graveyard in a golf course, but really about the nature of suffering and the afterlife; "Mary & Wilbur," about neighbors, about our fear of death and our impulse to memorialize; "Uncle Eddie, Inc.," about an uncle's "clean-up service" that sanitized rooms after messy suicides and about the natural order of life and death and the moral implications of our manipulation of that order through assisted suicide, abortion, and genetic manipulation. My personal favorite is the final essay, "Tract," in which Lynch says how he wants his own death and burial to be managed, how he, a witness to our final rituals, wants to be witnessed.


Lynch is an extraordinary writer, weaving ideas and complex moral questions into essays about his trade. His privileged point of view as final body tender and escort into the afterlife give authority to his musings on the living, those left behind to contemplate what death means and what our society does both to hasten the dead out of sight and to hold the dead in memory forever.

Individual essays range from religion, to food, to heritage, to love and family, to the gross and human details of our messy or medically-controlled passings. Reading these essays, one is always aware of one's own pending demise, curious about what will take place around us when we are no longer able to see, hear, participate or protest.


This collection won the 1998 American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.



Place Published

New York

Page Count