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.

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