Death and the poet and the WPC

Robert Hanks the week on radio
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The Independent Online
For a taboo subject, death seems to be getting talked about an awful lot just now, and not just in hushed tones and circumlocutions. Two recent radio series have been offering the chance to hear professionals in the field of mortality discussing freely and frankly the process of dying and the many processes (legal, cosmetic, sanitary) that flesh is heir to once it has given up the ghost.

On Radio 3 all this week, Thomas Lynch has been reading from his book The Undertaking, meditations on his twin professions of poet and mortician, both jobs that involve him intimately with death. You may not think this applies to poetry; Lynch cites Seamus Heaney, who, asked why so many of his poems were elegiac, posed the counter-question: what other kinds of poem are there?

As far as undertaking goes, it turns out that Lynch is very ambivalent about his professional status. Perhaps a certain ambivalence goes with the turf. On Monday, he began by laying out his background, explaining that he's the only undertaker in a town in Michigan, with a turnover of close to a million dollars in a good year. Immediately you wonder, what does he count as a good year? Presumably 1348 would have been an excellent year in undertaker's terms, what with the Black Death, but less good by other criteria.

Because he is the Grim Reaper's sole agent in the area, Lynch said, people credit him with a special knowledge of death; this he denied having. If he really had no special knowledge, of course, there'd be little point in this programme. But at the very least death is familiar to him in a way it isn't to most of us; and he has had more time and more reason to think through its ramifications. So he does have acute things to say, some of them dismissive of death, familiarity having bred indifference, some of them moving - to analyse the sadness of the death of children without being offputtingly analytic or, just as bad, tritely moving is not easy; Lynch managed it.

As for his other vocation, however, that of poet, Lynch seems to have no doubts: poets are there, you gather, to dig up meanings, spot ironies, notice serendipities, and to do it all in an even tone of wearily resigned humour, sadness tempered by an appreciation of the absurdity of it all, and you do wish that he'd just let brute facts be as they are.

If you do want your death stripped of metaphysics, the place to turn is The Coroner (Radio 4, Wednesday). Admittedly, Susan Mitchell's documentary series does set a needlessly dramatic tone with its theme tune (mournful horn over the muted wail of sirens) and John Waite being schoolmasterish - stern-yet-compassionate. But any discomfort this causes is easily outweighed by the personalities of her two heroes: James Turnbull, 23 years a coroner for West Yorkshire and humane in a very dry, understated way, and coroner's officer Cate Foster, a rather softhearted policewoman.

Each episode follows the investigation into one death - an 11-year-old boy who fell through a roof while burgling a warehouse; a DJ found dead at the bottom of a Spanish ravine, with the local authorities apparently reluctant to release any details of what may have caused it; a man who burst into flames in a hospital waiting-room. In each case, Turnbull takes it as his function to provide a story that will satisfy both the bereaved and the demands of the state.

This is death without added meaning, reduced to the bare bones of fact and grief. And it may be that radio is the only place where it can be explored so coolly and fully - where physical distress is removed, mortality disembodied. In The Coroner the dead are brought to life in ways that are bearable; and like any kind of resurrection, it has its miraculous side.