Lynch to speak in Lansing Michigan 7:30 p.m., Thursday September 23 at Creole Gallery, 1218 Turner Street.
There are plethora of celebrity chefs and to some extent celebrity duck hunters, but there is only one celebrity mortician. Thomas Lynch of Milford, Michigan has been a mortician for nearly four decades as director of Lynch & Sons Funeral Home and almost as long he has been a poet, essayist and lecturer gathering national and international awards and accolades for his writing. He speaks what has been called the language of mourning.
This past year, was a sad one for Lynch burying two of his great pals and fellow poets Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll, both from Ireland where Lynch traces his roots and now owns an ancestral cottage in Moveen, County Clare.
In his career, Lynch who was a finalist for the National Book Award has repeatedly returned to write about what he knows-death-as he did in “The Undertaking: Life Studies of the Dismal Trade”. This past year was no different, revisiting one of his favorite characters Argyle, a sin eater, in “The Sin Eater: A Breviary”, a collection of poetry and co-authoring “The Good Funeral” a book on contemporary funeral practices and their modern idiosyncrasies which Lynch and his co-author, Thomas G. Long, a theologian, feel “have gone astray”.
Lynch said the book was written as a guide for seminarians, clergy, morticians-in-training and funeral directors, but it has also garnered a wider readership outside the profession of death.
“The single most evident thing we’ve lost (in modern funerals) is the welcome we extend to the corpse-the dead guy,” Lynch said. As anyone knows who has been to a funeral lately the corpse is often absent burned up earlier leaving us with scrapbook photos and accolades all around.
“These celebrations of life are noted for fine finger food and everyone is invited. What is missing is the dead guy,” he said.
Lynch said he traces the unraveling of funeral traditions to Jessica Mitford’s stinging (and very funny) 1963 (updated 1998) book “The American Way of Death” on funerals and the subsequent, 1965 dark-comedy movie “The Loved One” co-written by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood.
“Mitford had a lot to do with it and frankly there was a lot to laugh at,” Lynch said.
The Milford mortician who comes from a family of morticians which included his father and six brothers and sisters strongly believes that too many funerals have become “a kind of performance art-karaoke-and funeral lite.”
Although Lynch has an entertaining way of criticizing modern funeral practices he is deadly serious when he says modern funerals lack the gravity of the graveside service where mourners wonder what’s going to happen to them in death.
“We talk about the dead in terms of bike rides and long walks and we’re burying hobbyists not Methodists,” he said.
He particularly thinks that the corpse must be present at the ceremony of death.
“We wouldn’t go to a baptism without the baby or a wedding without the bride,” he asks rhetorically.
“Too many dead are put away by cell phone and credit card, when we should go there (the gravesite) to the edge of oblivion and ask ourselves serious questions. He himself travelled half across the world to attend funeral services for O’Driscoll and Heaney where he watched the casket being lowered into the ground.
In another form, through Argyle, the irreverent sin-eater, Lynch pillories his own religious training and beliefs. In “Sin Eater” he writes “I was raised by Irish Catholics. Even as I write that it sounds like “wolves”.
In his “Introit” or introduction to the poetry collection Lynch tells stories of his own family and the many superstitions his ancestors brought with them to America. The myth of a sin eater is one of them and it was believed that a sin eater by eating a loaf of bread and drinking beer in the presence of a corpse takes on that person’s sins. A funeral goer should keep that in mind the next time he sits down for a post funeral luncheon.
Lynch describes the sin eater in an autobiographical sense as his “mouthpiece for my mixed religious feelings” and calls himself “seriously devout and devoutly lapsed.”
Through the voice of Argyle, in the poem “He Consider Not the Lillies but Their Excellencies”, he questions “the intentions of the Episcopal vexations: their excellencies, eminences and graces, red cassocked dandies and mitered wankers…For all their vestiture, rings and unctions, preaching to bishops, like farting at skunks, was nothing but a mug’s game to the sin eater.”
Lynch admits that poetry has moved him closer to his religious upbringing where as a young boy he was thought to have a vocation. The funeral director still greatly admires the “priest, or pastor, rabbi or imam” who he describes as the “infantry and holy corpsmen in the wars long waged between faith and fear.”
He says in the Introit in “Sin Eater” that “the church has long suffered from mostly self-inflicted wounds and mostly at the hands of upper echelon sorts.”
Throughout the collection of poetry, Argyle when he sits with the dead questions his own complex being which clearly Lynch believes “is us.”
Adding a delight to the 25 poems in the “Sin Eater” is a collection of photographs by Michael Lynch who like his father and grandfather before him is a funeral director. The elder Lynch has also placed his poems in varying locations in Ireland providing a pleasant excursion across the verdant landscape of what he calls “Holy Ireland”.
Lynch will be a guest of the Old Town Poetry Series at Creole Gallery, 1218 Turner St., Lansing Michigan 7:30 p.m., Thursday January 23. There is a suggested donation of $5, $3 for students.