In a world of hyphenated descriptors, Thomas Lynch has to have one of the oddest: mortician-poet. An author of three collections of poems and two books of non-fiction, including the American Book Award winning The Undertaking, Lynch is also the owner of Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors in Milford, Michigan.
I interviewed Lynch for the program at the Telluride Film Festival, where a documentary about him and his work—Learning Gravity—was entered in the festival.
Dean Rader: Being a mortician, like being a poet, demands an attention to aesthetics. In a poem like “Couplets,” these two vocations merge beautifully. Are there other overlaps in the Venn diagram for you? Does the poetry business ever influence the mortuary business?
Thomas Lynch: To the extent that they both traffic in myth, metaphor, symbol, cadence, images, wordplay. Handy too, I suppose, that the fashionable color for both is black.
Rader: You write in a number of different genres. Do you approach genres in different ways? Is the poetry-Lynch a different bird than the prose-Lynch?
Lynch: Well poetry happens acoustically to me first, whereas prose -- both fiction and nonfiction happen intellectually first. Fiction in particular has more of a visual trigger: I'll see someone and want to get them in a story, imagine their history and future, all the particulars flash sometimes first. Truth told, they all are chasing metaphors around, trying to make connections.
Rader: Traditionally, both poets and morticians live on the margins of mainstream society. Do you think this helps them with their work, or does it merely provide yet another distancing mechanism?
Lynch: I think in both enterprises there's a good deal of waiting around for something to happen, someone to call, some necessity to press itself into your schedule. I suppose the culture regards both with great ambivalence: we're glad for funeral directors to be "on duty," in the way we approve of poets and oncologists. But both the reading of poems and being at funerals fall nearer the root-canal end of our favorite things.
Rader: My father worked in a funeral home all through junior high, high school and into college, where he studied mortuary science. He remains a profound believer in death with dignity, despite the fact that important specialists like Sherwin Nuland suggest this is a myth. Is there such a thing as a dignified death? If not, then what is death?
Lynch: Well, as oxymoronic as "the good death" sounds, I think I've seen some versions of it. And I've surely seen some clumsy, miserable, meaningless ones. So I think you're father's on the right track. Dignity is possible, even grace, and all of the opposites.
Rader: Do you still drive the Dead Wagon? [Lynch's term for his hearse]
Lynch: We still have one, but I don't drive it as much.
Rader: What’s the funniest experience you’ve had as a mortician?
Lynch: I don't think I've had it yet, least ways nothing comes to mind, though the dear knows I've spent more time laughing than crying so far.
Rader: What profession elicits the oddest response—being a mortician or being a poet? Have you ever been tempted, when meeting someone new, to “bury” your work as a mortician?
Lynch: Few people are shocked by anything anymore. Life is full of hyphenated types: the wrestler-governor, the belly-dancing colo-rectal surgeon, the cowboy-president. And no, I've never been tempted that way.
Rader: Most of us have anxiety dreams about our work now and again. What is one of your recurring mortician dreams?
Lynch: I don't think I have one...and now I'm feeling a little left out. Sometimes I dream I'm in a bar with my hands on a glass of Irish. It's always Mrs. Egan's Marble Bar on O'Curry Street in Kilkee. She's long dead, the bars gone, (turned into a gourmet chipper); I've not had a drink in going twenty years. I always wake up with a dry mouth, a cold sweat, in a panic -- which is a lot like what happened in my drinking days. Always glad it's only a dream.
Rader: In The Undertaking, you write about how often poets write about death. Coming at this from a different angle, do you think that death (or morticians) have anything to say about art?
Lynch: Death is demonstrably mum on this and other subjects. Morticians will, of course, hold forth on any theme. The real thing though -- art -- mostly leaves us all a little gobsmacked and dumbstruck.
Rader: Is there a great film about mortuary science?
Lynch: Aren't they all? Sex and death: the themes between which all the others seem to fall in line?