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