Our Near-Death Experience
Death is a big part of Thomas Lynch’s life. In his role as undertaker serving the small town of Milford, Michigan, he deals with death everyday. Lynch is also a poet; and as a poet/undertaker he’s uniquely equipped to observe and comment upon the rituals that accompany death in this country. He does it so well that his musings regularly grace the op-ed pages of the New York Times.
In his essay “Our Near-Death Experience” he comments on how funerals have changed in the 40 years he’s been doing them, and how he interprets the significance of those changes:
“I came up burying Presbyterians and Catholics, devout and lapsed, born again and backslid. Baptists, Orthodox Christians, an occasional Zen Buddhist and variously observant Jews. For each of these sets, there were infinite subsets. We had right old Calvinists who drank only single malts and were all good Masons and were mad for the bagpipes, just as we had former Methodists who worked their way up the Reformation ladder after they married into money or made a little killing in the market. We had Polish Catholics and Italian ones, Irish and Hispanic and Byzantine, and Jews who were Jews in the way some Lutherans are Lutheran – for births and deaths and first marriages.
My late father, himself a funeral director, schooled me in the local orthodoxies and their protocols as I have schooled my sons and daughter who work with me. There was a kind of comfort, I suppose, in knowing exactly what would be done with you, one's ethnic and religious identities having established long ago the fashions and the fundamentals for one's leave-taking. And while the fashions might change, the fundamental ingredients for a funeral were the same: there is someone who has quit breathing forever, some others to whom it apparently matters, and someone else who stands between the quick and dead and says something like 'Behold, I show you a mystery' or 'Do not be afraid' or 'Goodbye.'"
But now the death business has changed, and in Lynch’s opinion, not for the better:
“Instead of dead Methodists or Muslims, we are now dead golfers or gardeners, bikers or bowlers. The bereaved are not so much family and friends or fellow believers as like-minded hobbyists or enthusiasts. And I have become less the funeral director and more the memorial caddy of sorts, getting the dead out of the way and the living assembled for a memorial 'event' that is neither sacred nor secular but increasingly absurd – a triumph of accessories over essentials, stuff over substance, theme over theology. The genuine dead are downsized or disappeared or turned into knickknacks in a kind of funereal karaoke – bodiless obsequies where the finger food is good, the music transcendent, the talk determinedly 'life affirming,' the accouterments all purposefully cheering and inclusive and where someone can be counted on to declare 'closure' just before the merlot runs out. We leave these events with the increasing sense that something is missing.
What’s the “something” that is missing?
"For many Americans, however, the wheel is not just broken but off track or in need of reinvention. The loosened ties of faith and family, of religious and ethnic identity, have left them ritually adrift, bereft of custom, symbol, metaphor and meaningful liturgy or language.”
It seems death has a way of revealing the flaws in one’s worldview.
I recommend Thomas Lynch’s essay to you. If you like, you can read some of his poetry online, too, at poetry foundation.