“The dead don’t care.” So responded Thomas Lynch following his public reading on February 23 in Colgate University’s Ho Lecture Room. The question? “What do you want your obituary to say?”
Reading poems and excerpts from his essays, Lynch regularly wows crowds with his balance of humor and seriousness. After a line like “Preaching to bishops is like farting at skunks,” Lynch brings us back to earth with “The poor cousin of fear is anger.” His words flow so perfectly that it is difficult to tell where the reading ends and the monologue begins. Lynch’s perverse response to that single question-“the dead don’t care”-is, to those who have read his 1997 collection of essays, not just a smart-ass response.
In that essay collection, which ist itled The Undertaking-Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Lynch exhumes experiences from his thirty years as a funeral director in the small town of Milford, Michigan. Piecing together the blank faces of suicides and homicides, he professes to aspire to open caskets and the execution of “good” funerals. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece called “Left Behind,” Lynch expressed a commonality that he found between the assumption of his profession and that of our current president. The president “does leadership of the free world; I do mostly local funerals.”
Although Lynch might be accused of gallows humor, his works give new life to those on a slab before him. Through his poems and essays, he gives breath again to the many deceased people he knew when they were alive, as if they were a Lazarus. He brings us a young girl named Stephanie who was killed by one hundred pounds of irony when a tombstone, dropped from an overpass, shattering the windshield, crushed her in the back seat. Before he died, Eddie Lynch asked his son to write about the family business. Eddie’s epitaph, Thomas’s “undertaking,” is the embodiment of that promise fulfilled. But it is more than that. It expresses Thomas Lynch’s belief that although the dead are beyond caring; while alive, they care about the reality of their own death and the deaths of those around them.
It is in the closing essay of The Undertaking, however, Lynch reiterates the assertion that “the dead don’t care.” Obviously, he is right-they don’t care. It matters not if they are celebrated or mourned, buried in July or February. It matters not to them, that is. To Lynch it does matter. He wants to be buried in February. “I want it cold,” he writes. This does not reverse the statement that “the dead don’t care.” Rather, Lynch makes the point that the living care about their dead selves. Why then dismiss the aforementioned question?
When asked last December by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, “What would you like your obituary to say?” nominee John Roberts responded, “I don’t know what it will say, but I hope it begins with ‘He was confirmed…'” Oddly, Lynch, who has asked others that question, was caught without an answer for himself.
Although I was unsatisfied with Lynch’s response, I left Lawrence Hall feeling alive. Hearing the readings of a successful writer inspired me to continue my pursuit of a career that is not often glamorous. Just as an undertaker is alone when attempting to cover jaundice with makeup, a writer sits alone during the long hours of revising and editing, editing and revising. For all the effort, the results are short-lived. A good-looking corpse is buried in dirt and a good book is buried in the shelves with other books-some of them bad. Despite the unrecognized labor, the products, although temporary, can have a lasting effect. Like the bereaved appreciating a good corpse, I am thankful to Mr. Lynch for his words.
On Tuesday, April 13, Janet McAdams will conclude the English Department’s Reading and Lecture Series. For those who have yet to attend one of these lectures, I strongly recommend it. The Humanities Colloquium Series also features upcoming events that are equally rousing.
*Apologies to John Donne