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Death & Dying

by Thomas Lynch
WW Norton, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 16th 2003

Bodies in Motion and at Rest

Those familiar with Thomas Lynch’s excellent book The Undertaking will find many of the same themes repeated in this collection of essays.  Indeed, they have all been published previously in journals, magazines and newspapers or broadcast on the radio, and there is a good deal of overlap between them.  Lynch is a poet and an undertaker, although he is probably now most well-known for his writings on the topic of death.  His opinions are thoughtful and make a great deal of sense.  He defends the importance of his profession against criticisms from those influenced by Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, and indeed, one of the pieces here is a review of the revised edition of the book, The American Way of Death Revisited, ironically published just after her own death.  He argues that it is important to commemorate the passing of our loved ones, especially because it enables people to understand and better accept their loss.  He argues that funerals are for the living, and what’s more, going against the trend for prearranged funerals so that parents should not be burdens to their children, Lynch suggests that his children should have the burden of disposing of his remains when he dies. 

“My funeral will belong to them and they will be paying for it emotionally, financially, actually. Since they have to live with the decisions, why shouldn’t they make them?  If I’ve done my job, then they’ll know what to do.  If the burden of my death, borne honorably, makes them feel as capable as bearing the sweet burden of their births has made me feel, I can do them the favor of leaving well enough alone.” (p. 183)

Lynch also is suspicious of the increasing corporatization of the mortuary trade, in which family businesses are bought out by large multinational companies such as SCI, Loewen, or Stewart Enterprises.  He refers to them disparagingly as McFuneral.  He notes without regret in a later essay that this trend seems to be coming to an end, and that the stocks for these companies has been falling precipitously.  His is proud of his family’s tradition of service to his local community in Michigan.

However, Lynch’s essays on newer topics are the more interesting parts of this book.  There’s a short piece on the ethics of abortion.  Lynch is a Catholic, yet defends a woman’s right to decide whether to end her pregnancy.  He also argues that men should be part of the decision-making process, and he regrets the words people use to talk about these issues, arguing that the decision is a personal one, requiring intimate language.  In a short piece on deaths that have particularly gained public attention, such as Princess Diana and John Kennedy, Jr., he suggests that the great response to these deaths derives from an incomplete mourning of people’s more personal losses, which they tend not to face squarely on. 

Lynch is at his most absorbing when he writes about the alcoholism in his family,  in the essay “The Way We Are.”  His father had been an alcoholic, but died after twenty-five years sobriety.  Lynch himself became dependent on alcohol after his divorce, and started attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, which he found very helpful, even if the simple sayings and slogans of AA are galling to him.  He writes about his son’s addiction to alcohol and drugs very movingly.  His son started using in his freshman year of high school and at the time Lynch wrote this essay, his son, now in his twenties, was still using, and Lynch lives with the constant knowledge that his son’s life is in real danger.  It hurts Lynch to be unable to save his son, but he has to face the awful truth that there is only a limited amount that he can do.  He says that he has learned to pray to God, not asking for help, but giving thanks, and in doing so, finding things to be thankful for.  This may not be a solution available to all parents of alcoholics, but it’s noteworthy that it is helpful to anyone.  Lynch writes powerfully and intimately about his life and the world around him, and these essays are rewarding reading.

 

© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.