The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade
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The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

4.01 of 5 stars 4.01  ·  rating details  ·  1,427 ratings  ·  242 reviews
'Every Year I Bury a Couple Hundred of My Townspeople.' So opens the singular testimony of the poet Thomas Lynch. Like all poets, inspired by death, Lynch is, unlike others, also hired to bury the dead or to cremate them and to tend to their families in a small Michigan town where he serves as the funeral director. In the conduct of these duties he has kept his eyes open,...more
Paperback, 224 pages
Published September 1st 1998 by Penguin Books (first published March 27th 1997)
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Loren
Thomas Lynch is an undertaker and a poet. Unsurprisingly, one occupation interests me more than the other. When he tells the tales of things he has seen -- the late night “removals” he's performed, the children he buried while his own kids grew up, the bedrooms he painted so the surviving spouse wouldn’t sleep beneath the shotgun’s evidence -- those stories are riveting.

Some of what he has to say comes perilously close to testifying: he has seen our futures and it’s later than we think. One essa...more
Mere
Dec 03, 2013 Mere rated it 5 of 5 stars Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Mere by: PBS/Frontline
Wow...I mean wow. A poet & an undertaker - a sensible combination, Thomas Lynch writes with such grace and clarity I often found myself rereading passages or laughing out loud. I didn't always agree with the Lynch's religious or political views, nor the way in which he expressed them, but accept my lens is a little thicker. It never ceases to amaze me how our culture deals - or doesn't - with death...a subject that has, does or will affect and effect us all. wow.

OOO - also, if you are/were...more
Fred
I had hoped for much more from this book. It received good notices and won the American Book Award. But there were a few aspects of the book and the writing that put me off, and I quit at the halfway point.

First, I would very much like publishers to stop putting out essay collections that appear to be continuous narratives. Such a form can be done well (Atul Gawande's BETTER achieved a continuity with a consistent theme and editing that reinforced it, despite the fact that it was clearly a colle...more
April
I really liked parts of this one but at times it seemed too disconnected a set of essays and other times I thought it seemed very preachy and judgemental. The author ended up fulfilling several baby boomer stereotypes that I had a hard time ignoring. He is a good writer and story teller overall and has some excellent arguements and discussions about our outlook on life and death so I still recommend the book, but while I was in the middle of it I found myself not wanting to pick it up much and w...more
Diana
The most beautiful thing I've read in a long time. Lynch explains his dual vocations-- undertaking and poetry-- in ways that reveal the preciousness of ritual far better than any liturgical textbook. He is reverent and wry, and tells his truth.
My only caveat: Lynch is frank-- both with imagery and opinions-- that may not be welcome, particularly on the subject of suicides.
Jenny
Oct 11, 2007 Jenny rated it 5 of 5 stars Recommends it for: anyone
Although The Undertaking includes a plethora of examples of the experiences Lynch has seen throughout his years as an undertaker, the book is really more a book about life than it is about death. Woven in essays throughout the book, Lynch engages in reflective consideration about death and expresses his wisdom and humor with a poetic meticulousness.

I found the book to be beautiful and mesmerizing, drawing me slowly into the issue of how death affects life. This book is probably one of the best...more
Autumn Marie
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Ginny
I read this book for MAC's book of the month club, and one would think that reading about death and the field of undertaking would be macabre but it was truly an inspirational read. Thomas Lynch presents prose with insight, humor and a use of language that keeps one reading. His comparisons of opposites and how they attract yet repeal was cleaver and entertaining. Once one is born, the certainty of death is always present; the true heart of the story is to live life to the fullest, become what w...more
Kathy
Jul 02, 2013 Kathy rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Kathy by: Ronan Kavanaugh
A beautifully crafted book, written in a rhythmic prose about a dark subject. The author describes some of his experiences of more than thirty-five years as a funeral director, weaving the life of his town of Milford, Michigan and his ancestral home in Ireland within the stories. He touches on a philosophy of living illustrated by the fact of dying. I'd have given it five stars had he not waxed on and on regarding his personal feelings on abortion when two pages would have better served his purp...more
Frances Mican
I thought this book was kind of a snooze. And then I got towards the end - he starts talking about abortion in a really stupid way, including such archaic gems as "Or is it one of those Women's Issues men are supposed to keep quiet about, the way they were told to about abortion, as if it were the gender, not the species that reproduces." Uhhh... what? Go back to your cave, bro. And write something more interesting the next time you come out. Douche.
Mark
I had great hopes for this book when I bought it. I was vaguely familiar with the poet undertaker and had heard a lot of praise for his prose. The book is uneven. Lynch is very good when discussing some of the details of his trade, his family and his hometown, but incredibly boring when reporting on his life as a minor poet. I was also disheartened by his gratuitous swipes at Jessica Mitford, who wrote an important book regarding the funeral industry.
Mike
What? Huh? Not only does this guy not really tell any story, he spends far too much time either degrading any generation other than his own or not really telling us why he thinks abortion is bad. BOREEEENG. The only reason it's not 1 star is because there are a few excellent decent quotable sentences and perspectives. Otherwise, pretty flat.
daysgoby
Feb 16, 2008 daysgoby rated it 3 of 5 stars Recommends it for: Schmutzie
Beautiful and lyrical, this book sucked me in from the second page and wouldn't let go. More about the impact of being the undertaker in a small town than the actual business, it was written by a poet/undertaker in a small town in Michigan who uses words like darts to exactly indicate his meaning.
Claire
Uch. Starts out charmingly enough, but Lynch quickly becomes abrasive. The lack of feeling here, of emotion, of individualization is what really got to me. Lynch is interesting enough when talking about the specific, but his rampant generalizations about death are tiresome and irritating.
Gerry Wyatt
I appreciate this book most because Thomas Lynch is an amazing wordsmith. I found myself taking notes because one day I might need the inspiration of his phrases. I don't agree with all of his opinions, but too much of this book reached right in to my heart.
Caitlin
Thomas Lynch's writing--in this book and others--is fantastic. I read this many years ago, but have been thinking about it again recently, and would like to re-read it. He writes about a very delicate subject with insight, compassion, and, amazingly, humor.
Jan
Very interesting book. Some parts he was a little wordy. I wondered if he was completely off his subject, but then he would bring whatever he was talking about back around to the main subject. Gives a litte insight into the life of an undertaker.
Lisa Pletz
Lynch is my new favorite author. I should say "poet," because that's what he does in his other job. His prose just drips with poetry. He writes the way that I wish I could. Don't miss his work.
Ben
An one-time therapist of mine recommended this book when my dad died. I enjoyed it, he can write, but it didn't make me feel any better. Leaving that therapist did though.
Hal
Fairly interesting viewpoints from a funeral director. Not surprisingly he's in favor of big funerals with conservative Christian views of birth and death.
Ann
Makes me think of Six Feet Under - what a great series.
Darlene
The Undertaking:Life Studies from the Dismal Trade is a collection of essays by Thomas Lynch. I was aware before starting the book that Mr. Lynch, along with his brother and father before him, is a funeral director but I also discovered that Mr. Lynch is also a published poet. This turned out to be an interesting combination! These beautiful essays were WERE written in that unmistakeable lyrical voice of a poet.

There is no real theme in this collection of essays... they are simply Mr. Lynch's m...more
Nathan Eilers
Apr 18, 2009 Nathan Eilers rated it 4 of 5 stars Recommends it for: anyone
Recommended to Nathan by: Jen
This is a thought-provoking and compelling read, especially for nonfiction. Lynch is an undertaker (hence the pun in the title) and a poet (hence the pun in the title) whose musings and reminisces about death and dying are extremely rewarding and challenging to read. No one likes to think about death, and that's exactly why The Undertaking is so valuable to read. It is a necessary book.

Lynch has a lot to say about dying and funerals. He contrasts modern conveniences and the corresponding shoddy...more
Sara
I wasn't sure what to expect here, but I'm glad that I trusted the high reviews of a few friends. The Undertaking resists categorization: Lynch is a published poet, but doesn't include much of his poetry in this book. It doesn't feel like a memoir as the chapters are only loosely connected and some of them aren't very personal at all. I guess I'd call it a collection of essays heavily influenced by the author's day job.

First off, I was relieved to discover that Lynch takes his undertaking serio...more
Deanna Rittinger
This is an excellent book of essays on what he's learned about life from the prospective of an undertaker, dealing with what's left over after life has fled the scene. He treats the subject with reverence and respect, while still adding his own brand of humor that had me bouncing between tears and laughter.

I read this book on the recommendation of my sister-in-law who had beta read my as yet unpublished novel, Echo. The main character in my book shares the same profession as Mr. Lynch and she k...more
Nick
Richard Bernstein said that, "Mr. Lynch emerges as a cross between Garrison Keillor and one of the Irish poets." This seems like a good description to me, though my experience with both is fairly limited. Lynch puts his poetry skills to good use, turning phrases, intertextualizing, crafting and coining new verbs ("kevork...the verb form of kevorkian, which proceeds from the infinitive "to kevork" should observe the usage guides applied, in practice, to the other high-volume verb of our generatio...more
Linda
While searching for another book I came across this title and immediately remembered it with reverence. So, I checked it out at the library and re-visited the pages. What a book! Every word is a jewel; every page is a treasure. Well, maybe not the part about golf, which I hate, but oh well. Thomas Lynch is an undertaker. He is also a poet so he chooses his words with care. I love/loved his take on death and his careful detailing of the rituals of death combined with his deeply religious, or for...more
Tabitha Blankenbiller
The style and organization of The Undertaking is unique and thoughtful. The book follows no chronological narrative structure, but you do feel led thoughtfully on a journey through the author’s musings. It starts and ends with mirroring essays. The first, The Undertaking, explains the circumstances that led to Lynch’s profession and lets us in on a few basics that will help us keep up with him on the journey. Primarily his assertion that “the dead don’t care” and the reminder that death is a 100...more
Kristine


The best thing: I was able to read it in one night.
The next best thing: I'd never read a memoir by an undertaker before.
The worst thing: it was a memoir of an undertaker.
The next worst thing: the book was organized in what felt like essays, but the essays seemed disconnected from each other-- sometimes in tone and topic both.
A slightly positive thing: the topics touched upon by the author might spur various interesting reactions from different readers, creating an opportunity for group di...more
Juan Valera
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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Thomas Lynch's stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Granta, The Atlantic, Harper’s, the Times (of London, New York, Ireland, and Los Angeles), and elsewhere. The Undertaking was a finalist for the National Book Award; he is also the author of Still Life in Milford, Booking Passage, Apparition & Late Fictions and Walking Papers. Lynch lives in Milford, Michigan, and West Clare, Ireland.
More about Thomas Lynch...
Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality Apparition & Late Fictions: A Novella and Stories Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans Still Life in Milford: Poems The Sin-eater: A Breviary

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“Whatever’s there to feel, feel it – the riddance, the relief, the fright and freedom, the fear of forgetting, the dull ache of your own mortality. Get with someone you can trust with tears, with anger, and wonderment and utter silence. Get that part done – the sooner the better. The only way around these things is through them.” 14 likes
“The advance of our technology is coincidental with the loss of our appetite for ethical questions that ought to attend the implications of these new powers. . . In the name of diversity, any idea is regarded as worthy as any other; any nonsense is entitled to a forum, a full hearing, and equal time.” 5 likes
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