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

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  2,289 Ratings  ·  363 Reviews
Every Year I Bury a Couple Hundred of My Townspeople. So opens the singular testimony of the poet Thomas Lynch who like many poets is inspired by death, but unlike the others, he is 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 eye
Paperback, 224 pages
Published September 1st 1998 by Penguin Books (first published March 27th 1997)
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Frances Mican
Feb 23, 2012 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.
Apr 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essays
'The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade' is a collection of essays... a memoir of sorts by Thomas Lynch. I was aware before beginning this book that Thomas Lynch.. along with his brother and father before him... is a funeral director, an undertaker, if you will. I also became aware that Mr. Lynch is also a published poet; and these beautiful essays WERE written in that unmistakeable lyrical voice of a poet.

There is no collective theme in this book of essays.... the writings are sim
Adam Swift
Apr 27, 2014 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
Mar 10, 2011 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
Feb 14, 2008 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
Aug 12, 2009 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
Oct 09, 2010 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.
Late in this collection, in the essay "Jessica, the Hound and the Casket Trade," Thomas Lynch begins to go predictably off on a tangent when discussing the perception the general public has of undertakers - generally negative. But, unlike in some of his essays, he reels himself in fairly quickly. When he begins to examine public perceptions of politicians and lawyers, he writes, "But back to caskets and bodies and funerals." Yes, please.

In a number of essays, that is precisely what I was thinkin
Feb 23, 2009 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
Feb 17, 2009 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.
Mar 19, 2014 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.
Jan 31, 2016 rated it did not like it
Deeply disappointed by the conservative judgements tucked in between an otherwise well written book.
Nov 11, 2007 rated it really liked it
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.
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
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 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 15, 2009 rated it did not like it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jul 03, 2011 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
Jun 15, 2013 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
May 06, 2010 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.
Apr 17, 2014 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.
Dec 30, 2012 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.
Andrea Janes
Oct 14, 2014 rated it did not like it
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.
Sep 07, 2013 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.
Jan 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This poet undertaker reminds us that funerals are for the living. The dead don't care. In this book he is looking for meaningful voices in life, in love and death with a lot of irreverence and candor. It affirms life's mysteries. Highly recommend.
Jess Van Dyne-Evans
Feb 14, 2008 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 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
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.
I read this book several years before my father passed, and later on, it was something that I kept coming back to in my ruminations on death.
Lisa Pletz
May 29, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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.
Mar 09, 2010 rated it liked it
Fairly interesting viewpoints from a funeral director. Not surprisingly he's in favor of big funerals with conservative Christian views of birth and death.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
  • Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial
  • Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear
  • Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America
  • The Hour of Our Death
  • The American Way of Death Revisited
  • The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End
  • The Best American Essays 2005
  • Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death
  • When We Die : The Science, Culture, and Rituals of Death
  • Postmortem: How Medical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths
  • The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses
  • Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training
  • Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies
  • The Victorian Celebration of Death
  • Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death
  • The Best American Essays 2003
  • Mortuary Confidential: Undertakers Spill the Dirt
  • Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial
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...

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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.” 18 likes
“The flush toilet, more than any single invention, has 'civilized' us in a way that religion and law could never accomplish.” 13 likes
More quotes…