I recently finished the book The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch. Lynch is both a poet and an undertaker by trade and has remarkable insight on the human condition as it applies to the living, the dead, and the living who are in the midst of dealing with the dead. There are a few different things I want to address from my reading of this book, hence the title of this blog is The Undertaking I. Part II and III will eventually follow, if I don’t completely lose my train of thought (not that that would ever happen…).
However, before I embark on all the things Mr. Lynch has brought to my attention, I want to share the beautiful ending of this book. Lynch ends the book with a short chapter on how he wants his own death to be handled. I know it sounds morbid and you might be wondering to yourself why on earth I decided that you’d be interested in it, but just hear me out. I love the way he insists that his death – and his life – be recognized as important events; that he doesn’t tell everyone not to grieve, but to do what must be done be it grieving, forgiving, remembering, forgetting. I love the way that even in his own death he recognizes that death is not about the dead – it is about the living who remain. It is dark, but it is beautiful. Dark & beautiful. Honestly, the two occur together so frequently it is often difficult for me to distinguish them. Lynch does beautiful work with the dark and the beautiful; the morbid and the practical; the living and the dead.
What I leave you with today is simply that last chapter, titled Tract. It’s a few pages long, so it may take some effort on your part. I promise you, it’s worth it.
I’d rather it be in February. Not that it will matter much to me. Not that I’m a stickler for details. But since you’re asking – February. The month I first became a father, the month my father died. Yes. Better even than November.
I want it cold. I want the gray to inhabit the air like wood does trees: as an essence not a coincidence. And the hope for springtime, gardens, romance, dulled to a stump by the winter in Michigan.
Yes, February. With the cold behind and the cold before you and the darkness stubborn at the edges of the day. And a wind to make the cold more bitter. So that ever after it might be said, “It was a sad old day we did it after all.”
And a good frosthold on the ground so that, for nights before it is dug, the sexton will have had to go up and put a fire down, under the hood that fits the space, to soften the topsoil for the backhoe’s toothy bucket.
Wake me. Let those who want to come and look. They have their reasons. You’ll have yours. And if someone says, “Doesn’t he look natural!” take no offense. They’ve got it right. For this was always in my nature. It’s in yours.
And have the clergy take their part in it. Let them take their best shot. If they’re ever going to make sense to you, now’s the time. They’re looking, same as the rest of us. The questions are more instructive than the answers. Be wary of anyone who knows what to say.
As for music, suit yourselves. I’ll be out of earshot, stone deaf. A lot can be said for pipers and tinwhistlers. But consider the difference between a funeral with a few tunes and a concert with a corpse down front. Avoid, for your own sakes, anything you’ve heard in the dentist’s office or the roller rink.
Poems might be said. I’ve had friends who were poets. Mind you, they tend to go on a bit. Especially around horizontal bodies. Sex and death are their principle studies. It is here where the services of an experienced undertaker are most appreciated. Accustomed to being personae non grata, they’ll act the worthy editor and tell the bards when it’s time to put a sock in it.
On the subject of money: you get what you pay for. Deal with someone whose instincts you trust. If anyone tells you you haven’t spent enough, tell them to go piss up a rope. Tell the same thing to anyone who says you spent too much. Tell them to go piss up a rope. It’s your money. Do what you want with it. But let me make one thing perfectly clear. You know the type who’s always saying, “When I’m dead, save your money, spend it on something really useful, do me cheaply”? I’m not one of them. Never was. I’ve always thought that funerals were useful. So do what suits you. It is yours to do. You’re entitled to wholesale on most of it.
As for guilt – it’s much overrated. Here are the facts in the case at hand: I’ve known the love of the ones who have loved me. And I’ve known that they’ve known that I’ve loved them, too. Everything else, in the end, seems irrelevant. But if guilt is the thing, forgive yourself, forgive me. And if a little upgrade in the pomp and circumstance makes you feel better, consider it money wisely spent. Compared to shrinks and pharmaceuticals, bartenders or homeopaths, geographical or ecclesiastical cures, even the priciest funeral is a bargain.
I want a mess made in the snow so that the earth looks wounded, forced open, an unwilling participant. Forego the tent. Stand openly to the weather. Get the larger equipment out of sight. It’s a distraction. But have the sexton, all dirt and indifference, remain at hand. He and the hearse driver can talk of poker or trade jokes in whispers and straight-face while the clergy tender final commendations. Those who lean on shovels and fill holes, like those who lean on custom and old prayers, are, each of them, experts in the one field.
And you should see it till the very end. Avoid the temptation of tidy leavetaking in a room, a cemetery chapel, at the foot of the alter. None of that. Don’t dodge it because of the weather. We’ve fished and watched football in worse conditions. It won’t take long. Go to the hole in the ground. Stand over it. Look into it. Wonder. And be cold. But stay until it’s over. Until it is done.
On the subject of pallbearers – my darling sons, my fierce daughter, my grandsons and granddaughters, if I’ve any. The larger muscles should be involved. The ones we use for the real burdens. If men and their muscles are better at lifting, women and theirs are better at bearing. This is a job for which both may be needed. So work together. It will lighten the load.
Look to my beloved for the best example. She has a mighty heart, a rich internal life, and powerful medicines.
After the words are finished, lower it. Leave the ropes. Toss the gray gloves in on top. Push the dirt in and be done. Watch each other’s ankles, stamp your feet in the cold, let your heads sink between your shoulders, keep looking down. That’s where what is happening is happening. And when you’re done, look up and leave. But not until you’re done.
So, if you opt for burning, stand and watch. If you cannot watch it, perhaps you should reconsider. Stand in earshot of the sizzle and the pop. Try to get a whiff of the goings on. Warm your hands to the fire. This might be a good time for a song. Bury the ashes, cinders, the bones. The bits of the box that did not burn.
Put them in something
Mark the spot.
Feed the hungry. It’s good form. Feed them well. This business works up an appetite, like going to the seaside, walking the cliff road. After that, be sober.
This is none of my business. I won’t be there. But if you’re asking, here is free advice. You know the part where everybody is always saying that you should have a party now? How the dead guy always insisted he wanted everyone to have a good time and toss back a few and laugh and be happy? I’m not one of them. I think the old teacher is right about this one. There is a time to dance. And it just may be this isn’t one of them. The dead can’t tell the living what to feel.
They used to have this year of mourning. Folks wore armbands, black clothes, played no music in the house. Black wreathes were hung at the front doors. The damaged were identified. For a full year you were allowed your grief – the dreams and sleeplessness, the sadness, the rage. The weeping and giggling in all the wrong places. The catch in your breath at the sound of the name. After a year, you would be back to normal. “Time heals” is what was said to explain this. If not, of course, you were pronounced some version of “crazy” and in need of some professional help.
Whatever’s there to feel, feel it – the riddance, the relief, the fright and freedom, the fear of forgetting, the dull ache of your own mortality. Go home in pairs. Warm to the flesh that warms you still. Get with someone you can trust with tears, with anger, and wonderment and utter silence. Get that part done – the sooner the better. The only way around these things is through them.
I know I shouldn’t be going on like this.
I’ve had this problem all my life. Directing funerals.
It’s yours to do – my funeral – not mine. The death is yours to live with once I’m dead.
So here is a coupon good for Disregard. And here is another marked My Approval. Ignore, with my blessings, whatever I’ve said beyond Love One Another.
All I really wanted was a witness. To say I was. To say, daft as it still sounds, maybe I am.
To say, if they ask you, it was a sad day after all. It was a cold, gray day.
Of course, any other month you’re on your own. Have no fear – you’ll know what to do. Go now, I think you are ready.