Discussing the process of death with author Thomas Lynch


We are in a time when lawn signs have replaced graduation, Zoom is a preferred wedding venue, kids are having drive-by birthday parties and we are saying goodbye to our friends and loved ones on Facebook and with posts on funeral home web sites.

Poet, essayist, undertaker and philosopher Thomas Lynch has been quarantined in northern Michigan since the coronavirus struck. Lynch is the author of numerous books of poetry and essays and a highly regarded book on funerals, “The Good Funeral.”

Lynch calls it his “gilded quarantine,” but it hasn’t stopped him from writing poetry and thinking about life and death.

“All I do is read and type,” he said in an interview from his cottage where he spends time with his dog, while sitting on the front porch.

One bit of typing he did was for an article in the June issue of The Atlantic on funerals in the age of the coronavirus. The article, titled: “We need time and space to grieve. The pandemic denies us this,” draws attention to that loss.

Lynch firmly believes that how funerals are being conducted in the coronavirus world is showing us what we are missing from burial services — the body and the mourners.

He believes the last 50 years of living and dying have changed funerals and burials of our loved ones. However, Lynch believes people are “catching on to the mystery of mortality.”

“I buried many friends of mine during the pandemic,” he said.

He recalled telling a long-time friend, the husband of the deceased, that he would have to limit the number of mourners. As Lynch detailed the large number of family members, he told his friend the “arithmetic of funerals and the more the merry does not apply.”

Countless obituaries have run this past four months starting with the statement “due to.” There are no massive funeral processions with car after car displaying a little white flag and only two handfuls of mourners have been allowed at graveside.

“The sense to gather is essentially human; we traffic together. This makes is human together. Funerals are the expansion of humanity,” he said.

Lynch recently watched the funeral of George Floyd and, for him, it recalled the funeral processions of Abraham Lincoln, Bobby Kennedy and Rosa Parks.

“One of the essential elements is to get the dead where they need to go — to ground or fire, tomb or sea. They, the dead, don’t want to smell up the place,” he said.

“Life is a pilgrimage and the funeral cortege reenacts that pilgrimage,” Lynch said.

However, the pandemic has been further separating the corpse from the mourners.

The poet said, in his experience, we have been moving away from religious services and there is the growing trend to cremate the dead.

“This has led to a disconnection between the dead and the loving family.” he said.

Lynch said when he began working in the family business more than 50 years ago, 95 percent of the dead were buried. Today, two-thirds are cremated.

“Few people have been to the crematory which are stuck out in industrial sites,” Lynch said.

He said he’s often heard the phrase, “When I’m dead just cremate me. I don’t want my family to grieve.” “Cremation is not an alternative to grieving, it is an alternative to bother,” he said.

Lynch firmly believes mourners should visit the crematory and “they should bring the matches.”

“Funerals can change lives,” he said, vividly recalling one of the eulogies for Rosa Parks given by Civil Rights activist Joseph Lowery.

“It felt like the hand of God came down,” he said.

He said he believes that the funeral of George Floyd might be one of those transformative moments.

“Al Sharpton rose to the occasion. He was under-credited,” Lynch said.

He contended that contrary to public belief funeral services do not provide closure. “It can’t be proclaimed. It has to be done, you can’t call it over and move on. Grief continues and gradually there will be more good days than bad days; and what makes you weep now will make you grin.”

“The only way around death is right through it,” he said.

In his article for The Atlantic, Lynch writes: “Death steals everything, wrote Jim Harrison, the poet, fictionist, and gourmand, before he died writing a poem four spring times ago, except our stories.”

He continues, “The fear of death, of ceasing to be includes the fear that our stories will die with us and won’t be told or will be told incorrectly. Or that they will be overwhelmed by what erased us from time — famine, pestilence or the horrors of war … How unimaginable that our deaths could go unremarked on and unremarkable.”

But that is what happened to so many during the age of the coronavirus, where we have been deprived even of retiring to the pub, or as Irishman Lynch calls it “the public house,” to tell stories about our departed ones.


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