A dig at the reaper

THE UNDERTAKING: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch, Cape pounds 9.99

WE NEVER know when it's going to happen, but dying should be the last great hurrah, our release from fevers and frets. Instead it has become the final taboo. The Victorians shunned their bodies, but they knew how to give a good funeral. Today death is banished to the secret, private space of the hospital. The Undertaking is a timely reminder of our mortality and a minor classic of black comedy.

Anyone feeling a bit like death should read these 12 superb essays. Thomas Lynch is humane and funny, satirical and elegiac on the business of dying. For 25 years he has been a funeral director in a small Michigan town: "Every year I bury a couple of hundred of my townspeople." Death runs in the family, too. Three of the author's five brothers are undertakers, and his father was a Digger.

Gladstone said one could judge a civilisation by the way it cares for its dead. This is Lynch's view. But, as he knows too well, cemeteries no longer occupy an important place in the collective sensibility. They have become hidden, like death itself, bone orchards perpetuating an obsolete cult of mortality. The draped urns and keening angels of the Victorians were a rich means of expression when faced with the mystery of life's end. Now we let our antique cemeteries go to ruin; sycamores rooted in shattered tombs, the lead lettering bored out by ivy. Some would like to bulldoze them for golf courses, Lynch comments ruefully.

Undertaking is not the awesome trade it used to be. Our dwindling belief in the afterlife - the consolation that we might ever join our loved ones - can take the life out of a funeral. What's the point of all the pomp? We only turn to mulch. Baroque representations of a scythe-wielding skeleton (the woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger) would be unthinkable today: they were born from contemporary developments in anatomy, hence all those portraits of aristocrats next to opened cadavers. Thomas Lynch believes passionately in caring for the dead. He disagrees with Jessica Mitford in The American Way of Death that fussing over a corpse is barbaric. Relatives want to see their loved ones returned to a semblance of how they looked in life, before they vanish forever; it's a cathartic process.

Lynch has had to patch up faces mangled by a suicide's shotgun blast. He writes movingly of the child funerals he has had to arrange. "The grief has no borders, no limits, no known ends and the little infant graves that edge the corners and fence-rows of every cemetery are never quite big enough to contain that grief."

Mostly, however, The Undertaking is darkly comic. Lynch explains how embalming became de rigueur (cue horrible laughter) in the US during the Civil War when young men died far from home. There are erudite disquisitions on cremation, on our fear of premature burial, and the possibility that our junk-food era may change the shape of coffins (after a lifetime of fries and burgers, many Americans are no longer snugly coffin-shaped).

Characters from Lynch's Michigan home move in and out of focus, but this is no twee Garrison Keillor in small-town America. Lynch finds terminal comedy in death but his morbidity is generous and, on the whole, unaffected. Like Samuel Beckett (who could divine the skull beneath the skin in the corns that pained his feet), Lynch is moved by all things dismal. It's his trade, after all. He wants to show us that the meaning of life is everywhere connected to what it means to die. And this is a curiously life-affirming book. A respected poet as well as a funeral director, Thomas Lynch writes a lapidary prose. The Undertaking is wise and compassionate, reminding us that the Digger awaits us all. "At suck first fiasco," quipped Beckett, who knew that birth is really the death of us.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution