Filling a need and an awful lot of holes

Geoff Dyer on the slick and the dead

The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, Cape, pounds 9.99

Much of what is interesting in this little book is reducible to the opening sentence of the first essay: "Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople." Thomas Lynch is an undertaker; more specifically an undertaker who is also - as he modestly puts it - an "internationally unknown" poet. Dying, claimed Sylvia Plath, "is an art, like everything else", but for Lynch and his father it's a business - like anything else. The father kept asking Thomas when he was going to write a book about funerals and this is the task he has undertaken. We all have some idea of what lawyers get up to but most of us have had little chance of satisfying our curiosity about "the dismal trade".

Lynch is not the first to work this particular hustle. In his Notes of an Anatomist, specifically the essay on "The Dead as a Living", F Gonzalez- Crussi wondered what effect his "death-related occupation" might have had upon his own personality. "Corpse handlers, like pathologists, morticians, or embalmers, are viewed with distrust," he notes. "An honest reply to the question of what one does for a living is bound to break the conviviality." Lynch, though, is nothing if not convivial, and has come up with his own solemn kind of conviviality. His style combines the vaguely archaic - "oftentimes", "assemblage" - with denim-ish slang: "Listen up", "go piss up a rope". The undertaker's job might oblige him to appear tunelessly grave, but that professional gravity exists in a specific world of cocaine problems (his brother's) and teenage suicides committed to a Kurt Cobain soundtrack.

Lynch's take on this world is at once nostalgic and unsentimental. Thus there seems to him, in his lifetime, "an inverse relationship between the size of the TV screen and the space we allow for the dead in our lives and landscapes". At the gas station, meanwhile, you can get "tampons and toothpaste but no one comes out to check your oil, nor can the insomniac behind the glass wall fix your brakes or change your wiper blades". Like that novelistic opening sentence these sharp observations are worthy of an on-form (it's been a while) Updike.

Lynch is less impressive when gnawing away at ethical issues like abortion, assisted suicide, capital punishment and what-not. The fact that he's in the business gives him an automatic authority, I suppose, but various versions of the same point - taking care of the dead is a way of caring for the living - emphasise that, when it comes to intimations of mortality, vocational training is of only limited value. Especially once the novelty of that tone of reverend jauntiness begins to pall.

Lynch would be a much funnier writer if he served up his puns deadpan instead of highlighting them: "Years back before the cremation market really - I can't help this one - heated up"; "embalming got to be, forgive me, de rigueur during the Civil War"; "a cemetery/golf-course combo - a Golfatorium - seems, fetched only as far as, you will excuse, a nine iron". That cemetery-golf course riff goes on for pages and becomes less funny the harder he tries to squeeze every last drop of satirical juice out of the idea.

The best joke comes when Lynch observes that "the temptation to drop names, well known in the world of letters and epicures, is nearly unavoidable. But I was better raised than that." This is from a silly piece about "my friend the poet Matthew Sweeney" in which Lynch is keen to display his inside-track knowledge of London's eateries (Wagamama is "the ultimate noodle bar", apparently).

For sheer, ear-reddening embarrassment, however, you should turn not to the essay in which Lynch and his poet pal Don Paterson go for a curry but to the piece about serendipity and contingency, otherwise known as the one about "my friend and editor, the poet Robin Robertson" (twice!) and "my friend and mentor, the poet Henry Nugent" (three times!). It's a benchmark piece: the first time a writer has undertaken the bold feat of giving his editor head in print.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine