Book Review Wednesday: “Bodies In Motion and At Rest” by Thomas Lynch

24 January 2007

In the interests of full disclosure, in addition to being the funeral director in Milford, Michigan, Thomas Lynch serves as adjunct professor of English at the University of Michigan.  Your servant received his graduate degree in English from the same University, but never met Lynch while there.
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When we read an essay or a book about death, it usually involves the author personally: the dead are usually parents, spouses, siblings, friends, children, or other loved ones.  Rarely is the author as intimately familiar with it as Lynch is.  He is an undertaker.

Lynch’s first foray into essay-writing was The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade; it garnered him a finalist’s nod for the National Book Award.  In this volume, Bodies in Motion and at Rest, Lynch continues his work as the 21st Century’s gentleman-

The essays are often about death or the mortuary business, but they are never merely about that.  Relating how his father “taught him caskets” —the ins and outs of selling a casket to the bereaved—, Lynch muses about how parents teach their children, and how someday he will have to “teach his children caskets” too.

Lynch is darkly wry and caustic; any of us who have frequented a bar have known that over-educated, middle-aged man at the end of the bar drinking Laphroaig and smoking unfiltered Camels.  This is Lynch, even though Lynch himself is sober.

In one essay, Lynch hates a cat, but I mean hates a cat.  Not all cats, mind you.  Just this one, and he hates it with ungodly passion.  In another, he attempts to rehabilitate his friend Matthew Sweeney from his hypochondria, unsuccessfully at first by apprenticing him to an undertaker.

Lynch is lovable curmudgeonly while emparting some genuine perspectives on life, family, death, one’s job versus one’s work, vocation.  The one drawback is Lynch’s tendancy to verbal and linguistic tics.  Most of his essays have at least one stretch where a paragraph or two cynically compiles a catalog of details, often exposing the faults or foibles of contemporary America.  Although we all have our stylistic calling cards, Lynch uses the same peculiar phrases to describe the same thing repeatedly in the book.  This is not a dig that should sink the book, but a shortcoming.  In a collection of 20 essays, finding a scattering of phrases or paragraphs that echo each other can give a sense of continuity and connection; when they become a score, it begins to feel repetitive.

Still, Lynch is a satisfying author to read.  Erudite and locquacious, he makes the reader feel smarter.  Friendly and jovial, especially for an undertaker, he takes most things in stride.  Lynch is a mentally, emotionally healthy author, and he can be a Virgil guiding us through the seeming Inferno of the mortuary, divorce, or just everyday life.


One Response to “Book Review Wednesday: “Bodies In Motion and At Rest” by Thomas Lynch”

  1. Thanks for these great book reviews Jorge, I still have the Undertaking on my shelf and not read it yet. I do love good writing about death though, especially in our death-denying culture. Sounds like I need to pull it off the shelf so I can read his next one too!
    Blessings, Christine

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