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One foot in the grave

10 August 2012

Thomas Lynch, an award-winning author, poet, and funeral director, makes his début at the Greenbelt Festival this month. He talks to Jo Browning Wroe


IT IS not unusual for successful writers to practise other trades. It is well known that T. S. Eliot worked in a bank; perhaps less so that Harper Lee was an airline reserva­tion clerk. Both Anthony Trollope and William Faulkner worked for the Post Office: Trollope, it is said, dipped into the lost-letter box for ideas.

Thomas Lynch is an inter­nationally acclaimed poet, essayist, and short-story writer who also has another job. What makes him unsual, though, is how committed he is to that other trade, and how highly regarded he is for it. Lynch is also a funeral director.

The form and content of Lynch's writing is evidence that he is the master of two distinct professions. Yet so inextricably linked are they in the heart and mind of Lynch, that, in conversation with him, it is almost impossible to talk about one without the other.

"A good poem and a good funeral have a lot of similarities," he says. "When you mess with a poem or a funeral, it's really awkward. People know right away when you go to the wrong cemetery, or have a too easy rhyme. They both depend so utterly on metaphor and symbol, and acted-out things rather than said things; so I think of them as the same impulse to address the un­speakable things."

At 12 years of age, Lynch's father received his calling to be a funeral director. A powerful calling it must have been, too; for its echoes were heard decades later by his son, and subsequently by his grandsons. In the prologue, or "Introit", to The Sin-eater: A breviary, Lynch's latest poetry collection, he describes the moment.

As a young boy, his father sees his uncle, a Roman Catholic priest, dead on the mortuary table, being attended to by the morticians. "Then they carefully lift the freshly vested body of his dead uncle from the white porcelain table into a coffin. Then turn to see the boy at the door. Ever after, my father will describe this moment - this elevation, this slow, almost ritual hefting of the body - as the one to which he will always trace his intention to become a funeral director."


THIS location of the moment of such a calling is clearly held dear by Lynch and his family. Was there a call of this kind to writing?

"I've always thought there's something about the experience of reading that makes you want to take part in a conversation, because there's such a powerful sense of voice in any book," he says. "It's not the writer's second-best effort. Usually, by the time it gets to be a book, it's been so properly polished and sharpened it comes as close to the voice of the author as it possibly can.

"When we engage with really good writers, what we engage with is a very good conversation. So I do think that writing - the sense that you should participate in a conversation - follows on from reading. There is an ongoing conversation between people that use language that way. Other people use music, or visual arts, or architecture, or mathematics, but for those people who are called to writing, I think it's the voice of other writers that does it."

In 1974, Lynch graduated from mortuary school, and took over the family business in Milford, Michigan. But he was also listening to those well-honed voices, preparing to enter the literary conversation.

"I suppose it was in the early 1980s when I purposefully decided to start writing poems. After I'd written some, I wanted to see how they compared with other writers. So, I called writers I knew.

"Specifically, I called a former teacher of mine, and said: 'Where would you send these poems if you wanted to find if they were any good?' He gave me some addresses of magazines, and I sent them out; and, for better or worse, I met with some success, which was more than I needed by way of encouragement. So I kept going forward with that."

AND forward he has gone, faithfully following his two callings, and meeting more encouragement along the way in both. The Undertaking: Life studies from the dismal trade has won the Heartland Prize for non-fiction, and the American Book Award. It was also a finalist in the National Book Awards, and has been translated into seven languages. Bodies in Motion and at Rest won the Great Lakes Book Award.

His poetry collection Skating with Heather Grace won the Knopf Poetry Series. Meanwhile, Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors is the only firm in the United States to have received the highest awards for excellence from the National Funeral Directors Association, the Cremation Association of North America, and the International Order of the Golden Rule.

Lynch talks to me from his second home in West Clare, where he spends a portion of each year. And here is the third strand in the densely woven twine of Lynch's life - as much a part of him as the writing and the funeral directing - Ireland.

In 1970, he crossed the Atlantic, to find his family, and read William Butler Yeats and James Joyce. He now owns the small cottage that was the home of his great-great-grandfather, given as a wedding gift in the 19th century. Lynch divides his time between continents as well as professions - fuelled, it seems, by a need to be forever returning.

"I think I'm trying to replicate the feeling I got some 40 years after I came here, that first very deep sense of having come home. It helps me understand my parents, grandparents - the culture I grew up in, in middle suburban America.

"Rural Ireland in 1970 seemed almost primitive by comparison. There were no tractors, no telephones, or toilets. It felt I was going into a different century rather than a different country, and, for me, that was very, very useful.

"My cousin Nora led me into the little bedchamber that had been prepared for my arrival in this house, newly wallpapered by a neighbour, and she said: 'You see, Thomas? Just like America. The same, but different.' And I thought, how very wise. I've loved that Irishness ever since, because everything is the same, but different."

 We are talking on the telephone, but I can hear the smile in his voice, as he seems to experience anew the truth of it. "It is! It is the same, but different, and, coming back here, I keep marvelling at how this is different for me, but it still feels like coming home."


LYNCH's latest poetry collection follows the outer and inner journey of a man called Argyle, also in search of home. He is a "sin-eater", a common practice at 18th- and 19th-century funerals in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. By eating bread and beer over the corpse of a body, saying sorry, and receiving a payment, sin-eaters took on the sins of the dead person, enabling their souls to find rest. Lynch contem­plates how much of his story is in Argyle's.

"He has no family; I have a huge family. He's skinny; I'm fat. His life is marked by privations; I've had relative comfort. But the notion that people are ambivalent about him is one that I do identify with. They're glad to see him coming, better still to see him going; an outlier, and isolated by his own work. I get that part of it.

"The other thing is Argyle's general sense that his religiosity proceeds from mighty nature, as he would call it, the physicality of life. For me, that holds more truth than the Magisterium."

Lynch and Argyle both have to work in tandem with the clergy. Lynch, who was raised an Irish Roman Catholic, has a natural disinclination towards dogma and legalism, considering the behaviour of what he calls the "management class" of the Church of his up­bringing a shocking disappoint­ment. In terms of the individual clergy he works with day to day, however, he is more positive.

"They're my heroes, I think it's heroic to show up with nothing but your faith in that deep end of the pool, where there's corpses around. It's easy enough to speak of faith when there's a baby to be baptised, or a young couple are requiring nuptials. But when you show up when there's a dead guy on the floor, and say something like, 'Behold, I show you a mystery,' you're liable to get hit, or asked to leave quickly.

"I think it takes particular courage and bravery and faith to do that, and the men and women whom I've seen do that over the years - and there have been lots of them - are heroes to me."


AS A poet, Lynch relishes paradox and mystery. Too much certainty about matters of faith seems to him almost sacrilegious. As a funeral director, he knows more than most about the mortal flesh-and-bloodness of humanity, and also that, when confronted with the limits of our physical existence, we inevitably ponder the nature of our souls. Curiosity and doubt are ingredients, not enemies, of faith.

"In my imagination, all the religious impulse of the species began with questions, and questions notably around the corpse. I think of the first Neanderthal widow wakening to the dead lump of a guy next to her, who's been a serviceable mate for 20 or 30 years. Suddenly, she wakes up and finds him still in a way she's never found before; she knows after a while she's got to get rid of the corpse, because he begins to rot.

"So, she begins looking for some oblivion - a ditch or a cliff or a pond or a fire - some way to get rid of him. And I think it is looking into that oblivion, whatever it was - the grave, the tomb, the fire, the sea, the scavenger birds, the breeze. Looking into that is when she asked herself the signature human questions, and this is, to me, incipient religiosity. Faith begins with questions."

Lynch's conversation roams across literature, faith, and rites of passage; the transition from writing poetry to short stories; the paucity of cremation ritual in the US; and grave-digging in West Clare, where rummaging among the bones of the newly dead's ancestors gives rise to "some Shakespearean moments".

His poet's eye and ear, combined with the practical compassion of a sleeves-rolled-up disposer of the dead, make him someone who merits careful listening. Able to articulate the things that render most of us inarticulate, and willing to gaze steadily on life's brief and passing nature, Lynch, it seems to me, could not be the master-craftsman of either of his trades without the other. And, somehow, the strong ties with Ireland, home of his forebears, ground him in both.

When asked recently to speak at an international conference of "mortuary sorts", held this year in Ireland, Lynch was flattered to see, on his name tag, "Thomas Lynch, Poet and Author, Ireland". "In Ireland, poets and authors are regarded as doing something every bit as useful and as gainful as being a funeral director. It's the first time I've had to say, 'By the way, I also direct funerals.'"

The Sin-eater: A breviary, is published by Salmon Poetry at £10 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-1-908836-04-5.
Apparition and Late Fictions is published by Jonathan Cape at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-0-224062-19-0.
Walking Papers is published by Cape Poetry at £10 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-224-09006-3.
Free p&p on UK online CT bookshop purchases throughout August.

The Greenbelt Festival takes place on 24-27 August at Cheltenham Race Course. www.greenbelt.org.uk


Argyle the sin-eater came the day after -
a narrow, hungry man whose laughter
and the wicked upturn of his one eyebrow
put the local folks in mind of trouble.
But still they sent for him and sat him down
amid their whispering contempts to make
his table near the dead man's middle,
and brought him soda bread and bowls of beer
and candles, which he lit against the reek
that rose off that impenitent cadaver
though bound in skins and soaked in rosewater.
Argyle eased the warm loaf right and left
and downed swift gulps of beer and venial sin
then lit into the bread now leavened with
the corpse's cardinal mischiefs, then he said
"Six pence, I'm sorry." And the widow paid him.
Argyle took his leave then, down the land
between hay-ricks and Friesians with their calves
considering the innocence in all
God's manifold creation but for Man,
and how he'd perish but for sin and mourning.
Two parishes between here and the ocean:
a bellyful tonight is what he thought,
please God, and breakfast in the morning.



The body of the boy who took his flight
off the cliff at Kilcloher into the sea
was hauled up by curragh-men, out at first light
fishing mackerel in the estuary.
"No requiem or rosary" said the priest,
"nor consecrated ground for burial,"
as if the boy had flown outside the pale
of mercy or redemption or God's love.
"Forgive them, for they know not what they do,"
quoth Argyle to the corpse's people,
who heard in what he said a sort of riddle,
as if he meant their coreligionists
and not their sodden, sadly broken boy.
Either way, they took some comfort in it
and readied better than accustomed fare
of food and spirits; by their own reckoning:
the greater sin, the greater so the toll.
But Argyle refused their shilling coin
and helped them build a box and dig a grave.
"Your boy's no profligate or prodigal,"
he said, "only a wounded pilgrim like us all.
What say his leaping was a leap of faith,
into his father's beckoning embrace?"
They killed no fatted calf. They filled the hole.

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