Spirit & Place interview: Thomas Lynch 

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Thomas Lynch is one of three participants — with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anita Diamant — in the Spirit & Place Public Conversation, which will cap off 10 days of S&P events pertaining to the theme of the body. The free conversation is Sunday, Nov. 13, at 5:30 p.m. at Congregation Beth El-Zedeck.

Thomas Lynch isn't quite sure how word got out that he'd retired. The funeral director, poet and essayist has been working out of Milford, Mich., for 38 years, and has no intention to leave behind either of his trades, neither of which he's ever thought of as part time.

Lynch has written five books of poetry and three essay collections; his work has inspired the HBO series Six Feet Under; and he's been the subject of two documentaries, including a Frontline special. His latest poetry collection, The Sin-Eater: A Breviary (2011), unites 24 of his “Argyle” poems in a sort of fallen Book of Hours. Argyle is a sin-eater, a scapegoat present in English and Scottish culture until, perhaps, the 20th-century who would eat the sins of a deceased soul in the form of a crust of bread and bowl of beer.

NUVO: I understand that you've officially retired...

Lynch: No, I don't know how that word got out. I'm not retired at all; I don't expect I'll ever retire. Funeral directors tend not to retire unless they make it into their advanced years, and that would be exceptional.

NUVO: How do you balance writing and your job at this point?

Lynch: The division has become more agreeable. I have two sons and a very fine group of colleagues here at the office, so I do have more time that I can make my own schedule, rather than being entirely responsible for whatever happens here. I live right next door to the funeral home, so I'm involved with what's happening here. I've just never thought of either them — being a writer or a funeral director — as being a part-time job. I do them both as the need arises.

NUVO: Why is it that funeral directors tend to live nearby — or in — their funeral homes?

Lynch: Speaking for myself, I think we feel entrusted with the care of the dead. The custody of the dead body is something that's given us by the community's trust. For example, I live next door to the funeral home; my son lives behind the funeral home; another one of our colleagues lives half-a-block away from the funeral home; my son, Sean, lives on Main Street, within a quick walk of the funeral home; and we have someone living in the apartment in the funeral home, a young apprentice from the university.

NUVO: And why do you think that funeral directors tend not to retire?

Lynch: Well, it seems like the longer that you're in a community, the more obligations you have to the community, in ways that probably ABC Warehouse and Bennigan's don't feel an obligation. The name on our sign really does mean that we are accountable to the communities we serve, so that, if we do our jobs correctly, we can be ignored by name. And, if we ever don't do our job correctly, they can seek redress by name; they know who to blame for this. I think that that sort of one-on-one accountability to the community is a good thing; it keeps everyone on their toes. But I know the longer you live in a place — and I've been in Milford, I guess, 38 years, coming up — I just feel more connected to the families we serve now; so, even though I may not do all the heavy lifting I once did, I still feel it's my obligation to be present to what's going on.

NUVO: How do you divide your time between Michigan and Ireland at this point? When were you most recently overseas?

Lynch: I was just there for the month of June for a literary festival. I usually try to time it according to literary jobs that I get there, or I've spoken to the Irish funeral directors on several occasions, and sometimes they sponsor my travel. So I try to attach residence in our little house there to some kind of obligation that I have, some kind of gainful labor.

NUVO: So it's not just a retreat for writing — there's a kind of practical aspect...

Lynch: Well, there again, I've been going there over 30 years, so I have some obligations to my neighbors. There's a short list of people for whom I'd make the travel, and I'd expect them to do the same for me. Except for feeding jackasses and hanging around with horses and cows, I don't have any obligations, so I do write there, yeah.

NUVO: I wonder about your attitude towards, specifically, the book The American Way of Death, and more generally, a sort of activism against the American funeral industry, with respect to the advent of grief counselors and the like.

Lynch: I think Mitford was, of course, a very fine writer; I think it's honorable work, muckraking and advancing a case, whatever the case may be. I read that book when I was 15; my father gave it to me and said, "Read this and tell me what it's about," because he was very busy doing funerals. And, in many ways, one of the reasons why I write so much about what funeral directors to, and one of the reasons why I spend so much time speaking to funeral directors, is because the image of funeral directors that Jessica Mitford gave in The American Way of Death and what I knew to be the case with my father — with whom I had spent my life, including a lot of time around the office...I knew that he was not this kind of cartoonish charlatan that she sold five million copies telling everybody about. Which is not to say that there were not excesses and abuses in the mortuary marketplace; but in some ways, she's almost guilty of the same sort of missed focus.

What she accuses funeral directors of is being so focused on the cost of caskets, but once you read her book carefully, if you read her book at all, you find out most of her book is about the math of caskets. So her focus is on anything but the dead. It's almost entirely about the accoutrements and accessories; none of the essential. I might be the only person on the planet who's read every words she's ever written or published. So I read both volumes of her autobiography. But it was in neither of those volumes of her autobiography that I got any news about her own life, in which the deaths in her family were handled so much differently than what she regarded as the American funeral.

The sub-text of her book, I think, was that it did the culture a disservice because, in the effort to get rid of the boxes in funerals, her point was just get rid of the bodies. In that sense she changed in the culture in a way that I don't think serves its purposes well. I do think that we have been set ritually adrift by getting rid of the dead body and its own obsequies. I don't care much about the boxes; if you wanted to decide old tabletops are better for transporting the dead than Batesville caskets, I'm willing to sell old tabletops. I'd sell them with the standard furniture market the way we sell caskets, but that's just the difference between wholesale and retail. For me it's not about the box; it never has been. I think the focus of her book missed the boat, in a sense, by focusing so much on the box, which is not to say that there aren't people in the mortuary marketplace that are entirely focused on the box — and they missed the point. For me the obligation of a funeral is to get the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be, and the rest of it is sort of accessory to that.

NUVO: So what's the importance and what's problematic about the disappearance of bodies from funerals?

Lynch: It has the same kind of impact — socially, ritually, spiritually, emotively — as if you remove babies from baptism, or brides from weddings. It sort of takes the core obligation out of it. One of the essential elements of a good funeral to me seems to be the dead guy. And once you get rid of the dead guy, you've removed one of the central manifests, central obligations, of a funeral: to get the dead where they need to go. Everybody can deal with the concept of death, but ours is a species who deals with it by dealing with the dead; by making that sort of transition with the dead, from the place of death to the place of disposition, whether it's a fire or a tomb or the sea or cyberspace, you've got to go the distance with them. But if you dispose of them in private, without ritual or rubric or witness, it's just like missing the point. If everybody gathered in a nice garden and had a ritual to celebrate the nuptials of Hank and Henrietta, and Hank and Henrietta were not there, somebody might broach the topic of what might be missing here. It's much the same when we attend the memorial service to which everyone's invited except the dead guy. You come away with the notion that something might be missing here, and what's missing is the sort of essential obligation of the funeral.

NUVO: What of non-traditional memorial services that might have a body but are different in other aspects — say, green burial?

Lynch: A memorial service that includes a body is what we call a funeral. Take the body out of it, and you can call it whatever you want, but it's probably not a funeral because what a funeral does is get the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be. Usually it's by the latter taking care of the funeral that this kind of chemistry occurs. If the living have to tend to their dead, it is by tending to their dead that they realize that the death has occurred and respond to it, whether it's ethnically, spiritually, religiously, culturally, socially — however they want to do it. It is by doing those little jobs — digging a grave, building a fire, singing a song, making a casserole, shoveling the dirt, shifting the body — all those things bring with them a payoff in terms of what Geoffrey Gorer used to call "grief work." Everything else — the finger food, the music, the dove release, the bagpipers — these are nice add-ons, but they're not essential; they're all accessories, as is the funeral director. When he is assisting with essential work, he's essential, or she is. Same with the clergy; they're accessories, unless they're assisting with essential matters, and the burial of the dead, or the burning of them, is essential. So when the clergy show up to add their witness and faith, they're doing essential work. But they are, as a class, accessory to what's going on.

NUVO: So we could think of the sin-eater as essential to Scottish culture of another time?

Lynch: The sin-eater is a functionary at funerals that there's meagre documentation about in the literature; but they would be, I would say, to the extent that they are accompanying the dead and the living. They show up for the living on behalf of the dead. To that extent, they are accessories, but they find themselves in an essential venue, because they're always showing up around the corpse, and I thin that is where the ante gets up. It's like Alan Ball said to me once when he was doing Six Feet Under: "I finally found out the formula: Once you put a dead guy in the room, you can talk about anything." He was exactly right about this: The presence of the dead ups the essential ante of whatever it is you're going to do about it. The sin-eater, as a figure, is one who's always interested me, because people had these hugely ambivalent feelings about them. They were glad to see them coming, but gladder still to see them go.

NUVO: And I love the way you capture that feeling in the first lines to the "The Sin-Eater," the first poem in your collection. ["Argyle the sin-eater came the day after— / a narrow, hungry man whose laughter / and the wicked upturn of his own eyebrow / put the local folks in mind of trouble."] There's this ambivalence on the part of the townspeople, but he serves a function, kind of like the funeral director.

Lynch: They do want him there, because they've got a problem that he can fix, or they reckon he can. And that's the same thing: at three o'clock in the morning, when there's somebody dead in your house, whoever answers the phone and comes on the run is pretty essential to you! Now whether that's the funeral director or the pastor or the rabbi or the imam or the soothsayer or the poet; whoever shows up in those times: good company.

NUVO: You cite a source on the sin-eater in the introduction to The Sin-Eater. I wonder if you did further research or if there's really a paucity of documentation about that tradition.

Lynch: Well, I cite Puckle, who was cited by Habenstein and Lammers, from my original resource, The History of American Funeral Directing. But I have read Puckle on this, and because Puckle was a British historian and anthropologist and scholar, he fixes the sin-eater in a whole tradition of scapegoats, beginning in the Old Testament. We're full of scapegoats: Abraham's Isaac was a scapegoat; Jesus was a scapegoat. So the notion that we sacrifice somebody to bear the sins and punishment that accrues to sin is not news. But the sin-eater is interesting because they were so obviously a down-market form of the reverend clergy, doing with bread and beer, and for six pence, what the clergy intended to do with bread and wine for 10 percent of your fields and flocks and holdings. That's why there was the great sense of outrage among most of the clergy with sin-eaters. I just love the figure because the image of this clearly secular person in a, as you say, deeply essential place is of interest to me. People find themselves in those predicaments when there's a death in the family, and they rise to the occasion.

NUVO: You first came up with your character in the poems [in The Sin-Eater], Argyle, in the '80s.

Lynch: Yeah. I saw this made-for-TV movie based on a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. But Argyle sounded like Argyle socks and "our guilt" and "our guile." I knew it was situate in the British isles, so that worked for me. But I just started writing about this free man, and, in time, I began to identify with him a great deal, because of his connection to the dead, the ambivalence people felt towards him — and because he has a religious life, even though it's devoutly lapsed, and I find that to be similar to my own. While I'm in church probably more than most humans are, I come away with a sense of wonder and awe and irreverence, as I'm sure most people do.

NUVO: Is there ever any antagonism between yourself and clergy?

Lynch: Well, no. I think there's antagonism between people who are authentic and those who are not. If you come up against a person masquerading as a funeral director who is really just a casket salesman, have at him, I say. Same with the reverend clergy: to the extent that you find amongst the ranks of the clergy authentic men and women of faith, who are willing to serve in difficult times, to ante up their humanity in hard times, they become to me local heroes; but to the extent that they're using people's religious impulses as a pretext for disabusing them of their money and property, or filling them with guilt and shame for things that they oughtn't feel shameful about, then I just think the same ways as I feel about people masquerading as funeral directors — or doctors, or attorneys, or politicians, or journalists, or any other crowd. There's always a distinction between the real and the phony.

NUVO: Have you considered why there's been so much interest in your writing and your trade?

Lynch: Well, as far as my written work, I still think I fall far below, say, Sarah Palin's sales numbers, so I'm always a little bit shocked by the fact that people have read my work and do respond to it in positive ways; it's very flattering, humbling and it makes me feel good. But, in relative terms, the chances of anyone reading a book of mine are still, like, the chances of the bungee cord breaking when you jump; it's still a fraction of a fraction of one percent. I do, however, think that the interest in death is sort of a counter-veiling human interest to the interest in sex, and Woody Allen and Willam Butler Yeats and Seneca, for all I know, basically said the same thing: Sex and death are the principle studies of most serious humans, and there is a point in one's own personal history when sexuality gives way to mortality, in terms of its more prurient interests. But, in most cases, and I think the young and the old are alike in this: They wonder what does it all mean, what is it all about; to the extent that death is the sort of punctuation for life, it comes in for a lot of consideration. But it's not just mortuary topics: The current interest in vampires and the walking dead is, I think, curious, and in some ways, one of the upcroppings from a couple generations who have been doing funerals without bodies now for about forty years, even since Mitford.

NUVO: And there's an increased behind-the-scenes interest because of the absence of bodies from funeral ceremonies.

Lynch: Exactly. So we kind of virtualize the notion of bodies and blood and all that carnality stuff, in the same way that the more porn there is, the less sex there actually is.

NUVO: You mention in the introduction to The Undertaking that there was a distinction between sex and death when you were growing up in the '60s — and, then, sex was informed by death by the '80s.

Lynch: Well, only because, in my generation, when people suggested you had protected sex, they meant you were being protected against new birth. Now when they talk about protected sex, you're being protected against disease and death. So that to me suggests a seismic shift in the way people conduct themselves. But coincident with this was that we were the first generation that could have sex with reliable birth control. For my generation of women, this changed this algebraically compared to their mothers and grandmothers.

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