Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade” as Want to Read:
The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

3.95  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,957 Ratings  ·  314 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,
Paperback, 224 pages
Published September 1st 1998 by Penguin Books (first published March 27th 1997)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Undertaking, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Undertaking

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
Frances Mican
Mar 11, 2012 Frances Mican rated it did not like it
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.
Dec 03, 2013 Loren rated it liked it
Shelves: morbid-books
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
Dec 03, 2013 Mere rated it it was amazing
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
Adam Swift
Apr 27, 2014 Adam Swift rated it liked it
As far as Lynch's way with the written word, and even the subject matter, this book deserves close to five stars.

However, as the streak of Conservative Irish Sentimental Paternalism and Misogyny became more of a wide river throughout the book, it became harder and harder for me to stomach. Yes, let's reflect on how things were better before there were things like indoor plumbing and reliable birth control for women. Lets put things from the "modern world" in quotation marks.

By the time it got to
Aug 14, 2009 Fred rated it it was ok
Shelves: abandoned
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
Jun 20, 2011 April rated it liked it
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
Mar 05, 2009 Mike rated it it was ok
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.
Oct 27, 2010 Claire rated it did not like it
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.
Sep 24, 2014 Nilchance rated it did not like it
Shelves: unfinished
I got as far as the second to last chapter, convinced that the book might eventually be about funeral homes. Then the author made a slippery slope argument about how reproductive choice leads to the children of baby boomers euthanizing their parents for convenience. Hahaha nooope.
Thomas Lynch is a second-generation Irish Catholic that grew up in the midwest into the family tradition of undertaking. He has quite a way with words, being a published poet, and these short biographical stories infused with lessons and ideals have a beautiful poignancy that made even a common story seem somewhat profound. However, I found that he focused a lot more on his personal life and religion rather than his career in the funeral business than I expected and since the main reason I wante ...more
Apr 17, 2014 Diana rated it it was amazing
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.
Rebecca Foster
Thomas Lynch is a poet of proud Irish extraction, as well as chief undertaker of Milford, Michigan. His talk at Greenbelt Festival in summer 2012 was one of that year’s highlights for me. This book is not so much an account of the undertaking profession as a brilliant set of essays about life and death, perfectly balanced between humor and pathos. Despite the often horrific nature of his work – even small-town Michigan seems to have its fair share of grisly murders and suicides – and the constan ...more
Oct 11, 2007 Jenny rated it it was amazing
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
Autumn Marie
Jan 21, 2009 Autumn Marie rated it did not like it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jul 15, 2011 Ginny rated it really liked it
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
Jan 13, 2016 Gordon rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio
There is much to like about this book. As a poet, Lynch is an excellent wordsmith. However, sometimes his wordplay exceeds his message and becomes distracting. At points the book is more clever than profound, but at other points the book is profound and important. The book was obviously written when Jack Kevorkian was prominent in the news as there is a portion of the book that is an impassioned argument against the oxymoron (his observation) "assisted suicide." I would rate the book much higher ...more
Jan 23, 2015 Matt rated it it was amazing
I have wanted to read this book for years and after finishing Caitlin Doughty's _Smoke Gets in Your Eyes_ last year, I finally got ahold of it. It shares a lot with Doughty's book: deep philosophical insight into death and many of life's other milestones, a lyrical tone, and a way of making the unfamiliar familiar. I loved this book. Many of the stories blend anecdotes about quotidian cares or travel or leisure with anecdotes from what Lynch calls "the dismal trade." I was captivated by all but ...more
Karon Luddy
Jun 09, 2014 Karon Luddy rated it it was amazing
Karon Luddy
May 20, 2004

The Undertaking

This is an exquisite obsidian of a book.
The literary equivalent of a funeral—for a funeral.
It’s about how life and death spend all their time rubbing up against each other. Essentially, the book explores a truth we try to forget in our every waking moment: It’s in our nature to die. My emotional response to this sublime book is that it cheered me up considerably. Ironic, huh?
The title is perfect. Works on at least three levels: undertaking as a profess
Jul 02, 2013 Kathy rated it really liked it
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
Elizabeth Nelson
Mar 07, 2016 Elizabeth Nelson rated it it was ok
This started out with a really engaging premise - a poet and undertaker uses both his professions to explore Life, Death, and Love in a series of essays. And at the beginning I really enjoyed it, and Mr. Lynch shows a wonderful compassion for both the dead and the grieving.
About halfway through I started to notice a few themes that hadn't bothered me when I was just starting out, but he laid them on really thick: We're all losing sight of the old ways and traditions, and the more modern convenie
Apr 27, 2014 Brandon rated it it was ok
Books make their way to my shelf for a variety of reasons: they've been a bestseller, they've been recommended by friends, the author had an interesting profile written about them, or the book just seems like something quirky and fun to read. Since "The Undertaking" was written in the late 1990s, I'm guessing that I didn't notice it on a bestseller list or read any recent press about it. So, it probably made it's way to my shelf based on the "quirky and fun" criteria. I was expecting a few hundr ...more
May 08, 2010 Mark rated it it was ok
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.
Feb 23, 2016 Jeff rated it it was amazing
This review is from my blog (May 2006):

I heard Thomas Lynch speak a few weeks ago and decided I needed to read some of his work. Although it may not be an official title, Lynch is the Poet Laureate of Undertakers. He followed his fatherâs footsteps into the family business and his children continue the trade. But heâs also a well-known poet in both the United States and Ireland. Lynch repeatedly reminds his readers that a poetâs two main topics are sex and death. Heâs certainly qualified to tal
Nov 26, 2014 Ray rated it liked it
Shelves: 2014-books-read
A friend recommended this memoir by a Michigan Funeral Director- a Remembrance of Things Past and Getting Rancid, if you will- and it varied for me. Beginning and end, which talked more about the subject at hand, were nicely done. Middling the two were some tangents into the author's Other Life as a sometime published poet, sometime Irish resident, sometime experiencer of divorce and disappointment in and around his life. I'd leave that part out of the service.

Since his Michigan haunts are near
Herr Bellerophon
Mar 16, 2016 Herr Bellerophon rated it really liked it
This book is an oddly welcoming meditation on modern burial rights, or sometimes the lack thereof, and modern grieving, but an acquaintance expressed the thesis of the book much better when he said (about this book), "A society that does not respect the rites of the dead most likely does not respect the rights of the living either." Or, you could say this book says to you, "Tell me how you treat your dead, and I will tell you who you are." Lynch's book is strikingly poetic, at times a bit sentim ...more
Jul 03, 2014 Andrew rated it really liked it
Not at all what I expected - less anecdotal and more philosophical - and I must say I quite enjoyed this thought-provoking and exquisitely worded offering from a mortician/poet?

While I didn't always agree with the philosophy, and while maybe a couple of the essays wander a bit...far afield?'s near-brilliantly crafted prose you don't necessarily have to agree with to appreciate.

The advance of our technology is coincidental with the loss of our appetite for ethical questions that ought to att
Jan 31, 2016 Holly rated it did not like it
Deeply disappointed by the conservative judgements tucked in between an otherwise well written book.
Feb 16, 2008 daysgoby rated it liked it
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.
Sep 07, 2013 Gerry rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adult
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.
Dec 30, 2012 Caitlin rated it it was amazing
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.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 99 100 next »
  • Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial
  • Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America
  • The American Way of Death Revisited
  • When We Die: The Science, Culture, and Rituals of Death
  • Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death
  • The Hour of Our Death
  • Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear
  • Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial
  • The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End
  • The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses
  • Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies
  • Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death
  • The Best American Essays 2005
  • Postmortem: How Medical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths
  • The Best American Essays 2003
  • The Victorian Celebration of Death
  • Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training
  • This Will Kill You: A Guide to the Ways in Which We Go
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...

Share This Book

“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.” 17 likes
“The flush toilet, more than any single invention, has 'civilized' us in a way that religion and law could never accomplish.” 8 likes
More quotes…