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

3.96 of 5 stars 3.96  ·  rating details  ·  1,814 ratings  ·  295 reviews

A chronicle of small-town life and death told through the eyes of a poet who is also an undertaker.

"Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople." So opens this singular and wise testimony. Like all poets, inspired by death, Thomas 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
Kindle Edition, 224 pages
Published (first published March 27th 1997)
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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.
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 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
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
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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
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
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 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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.
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
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
Feb 16, 2008 daysgoby rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
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.
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.
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.
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.
Andrea Janes
Could. Not. Finish. Thomas Lynch is an undertaker by trade. I can only assume his plan is to bore people to death with this book so he can turn a profit burying them. I couldn't stomach another word by this bloated gasbag, sorry.
Essays various about dealing with death by the living. Considerations of dealing with suicide, arguments about how funerals help cope with grief, admonitions to follow the dead all the way through to burial or cremation as a way of finding emotional completion.
The essays were fine, the style elegant and thoughtful, and sometimes mordant. I did not like it as much as I recall liking "Bodies at Motion and at Rest," but I am going to re-read that to see if it holds up.
I will remember seeing him in
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.
Laura Lee
The opening line was very promising:
"Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople."

The notion of looking at the funeral business with a poet's eye is promising. There were a few good lines in it. Yet he has a fear of sentimentality and often, for my taste, ruins a lovely sentiment with a joke at the end.

Somehow the observations did not seem surprising enough. Funerals are for the living, not the dead seems to be the main premise. This is not a stunning revelation.

For a book with this pr
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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 Walking Papers: Poems

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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.” 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
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