Thomas Lynch is an essayist, poet, and funeral director in Milford, Michigan, where he has served since 1974 when he took over the trade from his father. Thomas speaks honestly about life and death and mortality from what he’s learned, standing so close to the edge.
In this episode, Kate and Thomas discuss:
I don’t know quite how to express this, but holy crap. This is one of the best conversations I’ve ever had. I can’t wait to hear what you think.
CW: suicide, death
Thomas L Thomas Lynch is an American poet, essayist, and undertaker. Lynch went to university and mortuary school, from which he graduated in 1973. He took over his father's funeral home in Milford, Michigan in 1974, a job he has held ever since. He is also the author of five collections of poems and four books of essays. Including, The Good Funeral - Death, Grief & The Community of Care, co-authored with theologian, Dr. Thomas G. Long. Lynch's work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. Lynch’s work has been the subject of two film documentaries, PBS Frontline's The Undertaking and Cathal Black's film, Learning Gravity, produced for the BBC. He has taught with the Department of Mortuary Science at Wayne State University in Detroit, with the graduate program in writing at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and with the Candler School of Theology, and Emory University, Atlanta, GA.
Read his gorgeous book of essays, The Undertaking.
PBS’ Frontline filmed an Emmy-award winning documentary about Thomas, called “The Undertaking.”
“Like politics, all funerals are local” is a line from Thomas Lynch’s poem, “Local Heroes.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, reach out and talk to someone with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988 or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Listen to Kate talk to co-Author Rev. Dr. Tom Long about Number our Days. Dr. Long and Thomas Lynch wrote A Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and Community of Care.
Kate Bowler: Oh hey! No Cure For Being Human (and other truths I need to hear), is coming out in the paperback edition. So if you want, you can pick up a copy wherever books are sold.
Kate: Hello, my dears. My name is Kate Bowler and this is Everything Happens. Thanks so much for listening in every week as we tackle topics that people don’t necessarily say discuss at dinner parties. And today’s episode is no different. We’re talking about death, but I promise this conversation is one that you’re going to feel better after listening to. I wanted to talk to somebody who really understands the necessity of honesty around our losses. So I asked someone who, for the last 50 years has served as a funeral director in a small Michigan town to talk about the kind of wisdom you can only have by standing so close to the edge with the living with the dead, helping people be shepherded through the process of loving and letting go. And he is funny and wise and has the economy of a poet, which makes sense because he’s one of those too. You are going to love this one. This is one of my favorites. Here we go.
Kate: Thomas Lynch is the author of five collections of poems and four books of essays, including one of my new favorites. I am completely in love with it. It’s called The Undertaking: Life Studies from a Dismal Trade. His work has been the subject of two award winning documentaries, PBS’s Frontlines The Undertaking, which won an Emmy and a film produced for the BBC called Learning Gravity. Thomas Lynch’s essays, poems and stories have appeared in publications like The Atlantic, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He lives in Milford, Michigan, where he has been the funeral director since 1974. Mr. Lynch, I’m sort of already obsessed with you, so you’re going to have to tolerate that for the next bit. Thank you so much for doing this with me today.
Thomas Lynch: Well, thanks for your interest, Kate. You’ll get over the obsession, I promise.
Kate: So what kind of response do you normally get from people when they find out that you’re a funeral director?
Thomas Lynch: Well, for years it was always, you know, well, somebody’s got to do that, I suppose, you know? But when you’re when you’re a funeral director in a small place, people are, on the one hand, very glad, and that you answer the phone at night because they only call with trouble. And that’s emergent trouble. You know, it’s something has to be done right away. And then they’re glad to see you gone. You know, so they say things like, I hope I don’t have to see you again for a long time because everybody understands, you know, the math of the attachment is usually when some bad thing has happened. So they don’t call me because of, you know, the graduation parties and that type of thing, although I get plenty of those. And and I think, too, there’s the notion that I must know something that they want to know. And I don’t. I mean, I was frightened witless as the next guy is but I do show up in the middle of the night or somebody and my employee will show up in the middle of the night if you call. We’ve been answering the phone for a long time, so.
Kate: It’s so funny that proximity to death does lead people to, like, wonder about secret knowledge. I remember even just being, well I was busy trying not to die for a bit, and every now and then someone would say things like, What’s heaven like? I was like, Oh, no, no, no, no. I’m. I’m still alive. I’m.
Thomas Lynch: Yeah, yeah.
Kate: I’m just. I’m just close to the edge of things.
Thomas Lynch: Yeah. Even a toe in the door of mortality, which we all have, by the way. I think it it frightens people. They think it’s contagious, which of course it is, because I mean, it really has caught on. The numbers are convincing. Roughly 100% of the people who are born die. And and you can try this at home. It’s always going to add up to about 100%.
Kate: So, yeah. And what does that mean, the act of undertaking?
Thomas Lynch: Well, that’s a great question because I you know, I used to think when I was a child, I used to think that it meant you took them under you know, you put them under the ground. I thought, you know, it had to do with excavation mostly. And but in undertaking, it turns out, is a sort of a pledge to get a job done. And in that sense. The undertaking in the case of a funeral director is the agreement between you and the community you serve that you’ll show up and do your work when the need arises, not when it’s convenient for you. One of the character flaws I have among many is that I never understand you know having to make an appointment with a doctor that’s three weeks in the future, you know, because I can never say, you know, yes, we’ll take care of that on Saturday when I’m feeling better about waking up at three in the morning. You know, when someone calls, we have to respond now. And the clock is running from the time the call for assistance, the call for help comes and when we show up and there’s a real sense that our commitmen, now when I when I moved to Milford in 1974, I knew that I was not going to get a promotion. I was going to be the undertaker in Milford until the day I stopped. I live up north on the lake now, and my son catches the phone at night and does all the daily work. And I’m, as he says, not retired but not required. So like today, I’m writing obituaries for a couple of my friends who died this past week, and their funerals are in later this week. So I’ll drive downstate and attend those funerals and be part of the direction of those funerals. But mostly I just stay up north and type and read and, you know, take care of Carl, you know, the dog.
Kate: I’m sorry about your friends, Tom.
Thomas Lynch: Oh, yeah. Well, thank you. I mean, one was 98 and the other I think 97. So they had a good long haul, both of them. But it also means that my attachment was habitual and I had come to the conclusion. And this is coincident with the queen dying at 96. You know, we had come to the conclusion or we had come we had nursed the impression that they would be there forever, you know, because they’d been there forever, you know.
Kate: You said something so beautiful about the feeling of grief, loving someone at the end of their life and the grief of someone at the beginning. I tried to remember your exact phrase, but it was something like. But like friends and old age give us memories but children give us dreams.
Thomas Lynch: Well, in the in the sense that, you know, yeah, children are our expectations. The old are among other things, our vexations. You know, when you live a long time, you live long enough to be truly human, which is to say imperfect in ways that are unique, you know. So, some people will kind of roll their eyes. Others will smile and grin. But they’re their character flaws. You know, they’re the indignities of age that play themselves out. We talk too loud. We whinge too much about things that we should be grateful for.
Kate: I had forgotten that word. Whingeing. That’s such a great, word about the spiraling of a great complaint. Yeah, that’s good.
Kate: This is something I’ve thought a lot about. Non abstractly, I suppose. But what makes a funeral a good one in your mind?
Thomas Lynch: Well, I’ve thought about this all my life, Kate. I’m glad you’re asking, because for me, a good funeral is when by getting the dead where they need to go, the living get, where they need to be. So the one thing I had, I’ve had to identify as sort of part of the human condition, not part of the Irish Catholic or Orthodox Jew or Polish American, but the human condition is that ours is a species that deals with death. You know, the big idea of it, by dealing with our dead. The thing itself. So. For me, a good funeral has to include the essential elements. You have to have a corpse. Someone has to agree to quit breathing forever. You don’t have to ask for volunteers. Every day in America, about 6500 or 6800 of our fellow Americans will cease to be whether we want them to or not. So. But we need a corpse. And we need people to whom the corpse matters. Mourners. That’s very important. And we need a story. And the story can’t be. Oh, Grandma, really liked chocolate chip cookies or Pop-pop always cheated at golf. That’s not sufficiently nimble a story to handle the mystery of mortality.
Kate: It doesn’t incur our souls.
Thomas Lynch: Yeah. That’s a good way to say it. It doesn’t explain what it is we’re doing here and what the difference between being and ceasing to be. Where that traffic conducts itself. So the story might be religious or esoteric. Or spiritual or superstitious, it doesn’t matter. We need a story to say this is what made this. This is how this person came to be the ones they are. And this is where we think they’ve gone. And if you can get that story told in a funeral, you’ve done people a lot of good. You’ve basically got, you know, what do they say that journalism is the first draft of history? In the same way, obituary the first draft of biography. You know, if we take as best we can a measure of someone and say, in addition to how they came to be the ones they are. But how do you reckon they got to where they’re going now? That’s a good story. And then the last thing and this is particularly apparent in the Queen’s funeral is transport. We have to get them the hither and yon, but we have to get them from there to here or here to there. And wherever we leave them, we leave them. We go back to life itself. We leave them in some place where the dead are. And these will kind of rhyme. Corpse, mourners, story, transport. Those four things. Whatever else, those are the essentials. You don’t have to have a casket or a coffin. You don’t have to have mum plants or roses. You don’t have to have a clergyman or an undertaker. But you do need either a hole in the ground or a fire or a hole in the wall, or a sea to cast the corpse into. You need some of this to consign the dead to. So all those things, you know, the accessories are the things we get stuck on. It’s much the same with weddings where we worry more about the photography and the and what the menu is than we worry about the promises that these two humans are making about their most intimate lives. We never. That should take our breath away. She’s promising him what? And he’s promising what? We never get on to that we always are worried about the fashions, not the fundamentals. I say for funerals, the essentials are those four things. The rest is all accessory you can do with it or without it. You know, the charges will attend each one of them, you know. But we are the only generation. When I say we, I mean the last 50, 75, maybe 100 years is the first time in human history where a generation has steadfastly tried to do funerals without the dead guy there. Have you noticed this? We go to these ubiquitous celebrations of life.
Kate: The celebration.
Thomas Lynch: The celebration where everybody is welcome but the one who has died. They’ve been disappeared by someone like me who has your credit card numbers and your expiration date. You. Yeah, no pun intended. And, and I can, you know, I can disappear a body pretty quickly and have done and I regret because I think the real essential element of a funeral is getting the dead where they need to go.
Kate: And why is why is that? I, I mean, you’re talking to the right person because I study positive thinking and our culture obsession with optimism. So I feel like were you and I were born, to have this conversation about why only hitting the kind of high notes of celebration might not sort of play the whole song of this person’s life.
Thomas Lynch: Well, a celebration of life is a marketing tool. It’s much easier to celebrate a life than a funeral. I mean, because everybody rather celebrate. Usually there’s drink implicated and you get to smile more and tell jokey ittle anecdotes instead of remark on how broken your heart feels lately. And but it does say, come with your best smiles. Leave your acute grief at the door. And what I find is, having done this for 50 years, that people don’t need a good laugh when someone dies as much as they need a venue in which they can have a good cry. A good laugh feels good. A good cry, we don’t trust as much. It is just as good, but we’re not as willing to let ourselves go with it.
Kate: Yeah, it’s embarrassing. Vulnerable when people see me. What if it doesn’t stop?
Thomas Lynch: It feels like, you know, you’re breaking down, falling apart, going. It feels like a structual anomaly. We want people to bear up. We want them to hold it together. You know.
Kate: Is there a generational piece there, too? I’m just your descriptions of the kind of greatest generation’s stiff upper lip, kind of like let’s just get through, which is a powerful testimony to the survival of, you know, mass trauma. And then I imagine that approach had some drawbacks.
Thomas Lynch: You know, that might be above my pay grade, but I don’t know of any. I mean, we get one mom and one dad. I you know.
Thomas Lynch: I remember one New Year’s Day meeting with a family, four daughters of a woman who lived to be 104 years old. Died in the early hours of New Years Day after partying with her grandchildren and great grandchildren. And you know, she didn’t wake up on New Year’s morning. And I was meeting with her surviving daughters all in their seventies. And I remember saying stupid as I was and am. You all must be very grateful that your mother had this long and impressive and meaningful life. She watched the generations rise up around her. She lived in rude, good health right up until the end partied her way up until her last breath and lived to be 100, you must feel really grateful to God. And one of them said, Mr. Lynch, we don’t feel that good today, our mother’s dead. And I thought, Why didn’t I think of that? So the man whose funeral I’m going down a couple of them, but one of them’s 98 years old. Last time I saw him was a couple of weeks ago at his niece’s funeral. And, you know, I thought he’s going to be, he’ll make the 100. He didn’t by, you know, a little while. The guy flew 26 missions over Italy in World War Two as the tail gunner in a B-24. So he had ample chances to be shot down and killed outright. He drove 30 miles across Detroit to go to work every day and 30 miles back. He was married for 63 years to the same woman, which is risking your life. The way I count it, you know. But he did. He made marriage look really good. And he outlived her by ten years, which might have been the toughest years he had. I was talking to his son last night. And his son is just as heartbroken as if his dad was dead in his fifties.
Thomas Lynch: Because this is the man who he’s called every night for the last, you know, 30 years to see how he’s doing. How’s his golf game. How are his new knees, you know? How’s that ringing in your ears dad? So he’s been a fixture in his life, and now he’s not. And like every habit, it’s not broken that quickly. So he still gets out of the garage with the car in his dad’s garage thinking, I’ll ask Dad about this or that. And then catches himself to say, I guess I can’t ask dad anymore.
Kate: Hearing that is such a beautiful permission to I mean, I get this comment a lot where people feel like they can’t acknowledge the gravity of their loss because always simultaneously somewhere, it pales in comparison to the enormity of someone else’s grief or the world’s grief, like who is whose parental loss can compare against genocide or pandemics or terrorism or. But the you wrote something that stopped me in my tracks. You wrote, it was arguing against the idea that death is sort of impersonal and commonplace because it happens all the time. And you wrote like politics, all funerals are local.
Thomas Lynch: It’s true.
Kate: I thought that was so lovely.
Thomas Lynch: We only get one. Yeah. Yeah. I’ve had the good luck of being at a lot of them. And every time I think there’s a routine here, you know, I find that’s not the case. People surprise you with their capacity for standing up. I’ve always said that, you know, I’m I don’t know what I believe in. Some days I’m certain there’s a loving God in charge. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, not so much. Sunday, I take the day off and go to an AA meeting, but I’m as apostate as the next guy is. But when I see the parents of a child who’s died. Standing upright and speaking in sentences. Then I think, somebody’s in charge here. Because I couldn’t take that. I couldn’t ever possibly endure the death of one of my children. And I remember a man in the Lutheran church in Milford. Years ago, after his daughter died of some multi syllabic disease. And he he was trying to eulogize her. And he said. The thing you fear the most will hunt you down. Which if you scan is like a line of Shakespeare, it’s ten syllables, it’s iambic. And I immediately consigned it to a notebook and have waited to put it to some kind of use in a poem. I’ve not yet had that happen. But the thing you fear the most will hunt you down. I think turns out to be, you know a proper axiom. I know in my life as the pandemic began to rear its ugly head. My daughter in her mid-forties, long suffering from mental illness of a kind. Mental illness. Full stop. Leapt to her death off a bridge in California. And all I can think of was this man in the Lutheran church saying the thing you fear the most will hunt you down. Because here I thought I couldn’t possibly stand upright and speak in sentences after such a thing. But I am. And I have no one to credit with that or with the sense that I got to that I was more grateful for the 45 years that she was among us. Even as challenging as some of those times were. I’m more grateful for those than begrudging of however many years I will not have her in my life. I don’t think it’ll be 45 them. Unless I break some sort of land speed record for my race of people. But. And I can I can say really and truly that that’s the case.
Kate: I guess I spent so long being someone just because of being sick that people were a little bit nervous about being around that when I read your work, I feel so at home like you really expect the durability of all these acts and truth claims to stand up. It sounds like when you say, you know, I’m not really. Every second day, I’m not really sure what faith what big claims I should make, you know, about life after death or hope in the eternal or the coherence of a cosmic narrative. But you seem so simultaneously convinced that it helps us bear up the weight of our lives in a way that feels beyond us.
Thomas Lynch: You know, I and Kate, what a nice thing you say that it feels like home. We should get together, we’ll have dinner.
Kate: I would love that.
Thomas Lynch: I would too. But I can tell you that I haven’t a clue what comes next. But I do think that we are given glimpses. I think it was Bill Wilson, Bill W who said the spiritual life is not a theory, we have to live it. I think what he meant was the spiritual life was not a theory, we’re living it. And I have found and this has been I have to report all my life, I’ve had a sense. That the cloud of witnesses, as I think the Methodists call it, it’s a lovely term for this sort of space between the gone forever and the lately gone. But it’s as if there’s a mezzanine to heaven, some sort of middle ground. I always think of it as the like the balcony in To Kill a Mockingbird, where Scout and Jim are with the black citizens of that little town where injustice keeps happening and Gregory Peck is walking out and the kindly minister says, stand up, children, your father is passing. Well, I think somehow that we are all sort of happily haunted by the people that loved us and we loved. Or we argued with a lot. And contended with, but took seriously. And I think their lives and times and loves and foibles still haunt us in a way. I think in a sense, we bury our dead and then we become them. We become the characters in the town, bereft of its characters, you know?
Kate: Yeah. Yeah.
Thomas Lynch: Buck Wilson dies, and suddenly I begin to talk like Buck Wilson.
Kate: You’re like, somebody needs to complain about this.
Thomas Lynch: Exactly. We become the things we miss. And the ones we love. So I see my mother and my sisters all the time. And in my sisters daughters, I see their grandmother.
Kate: That’s lovely.
Thomas Lynch: And I can’t help but see my father in my brothers and my sons. And I assume the same holds true. I think, you know, my waking and my sleeping are both informed by the big spirits of my life, which include my dead daughter, who knows my heart now, which is something that I don’t think she ever did when we had each other near the end.
Kate: You know what a beautiful thought to be, to be fully known.
Thomas Lynch: It’s a comfort, isn’t it? Because I think that’s what we want with our intimates, with the people we love the most. We want to be known by them. We want them to know our intentions, our motivations, and our heart.
Kate: And our enormously powered loves.
Thomas Lynch: Which we can never quite communicate.
Kate: Yes, absolutely. It’s so inefficient. I always think of it like a light that just constantly producing too much heat when it was supposed to just make light.
Thomas Lynch: This is the part we can never get across, how much, how unspeakably in love we are. And how impossible it is to let you know. So the thing about the dead is they know our hearts. And the knowledge that they know our hearts is a spiritual conversation. A colloquy between, you know, the best and the godly in each of us, you know? So I do feel like. I’m one of nine sons and daughters of my parents. And I used what does a guy got a do to get a little attention in this house? I’m sure the same is true for people with one brother or one sister or only children must feel the same way. There’s probably a cat who needs more attention. But I think now I don’t have to fight for attention. They know my heart. And so I have to behave as if I’m known by people I admire.
Kate: Yeah. Oh, my gosh. Right. Bearing both the love and then the stories of others requires us to have a I guess you would say a legacy worth having. Maybe not everybody can relate to being a funeral director, but I think so many people can relate to the experience of having a profession where, you know, all the cracks in the foundation of the universe, you know, and then that awareness makes you sort of have to make decisions about the rest of life, like what you’re describing, where you you get the phone call in the middle of the night and, you know, that Thursday is different from Friday, you know, can be a universe can end for somebody. And then the rest of the time it’s, you know, cereal and groceries and errands, but flipping between apocalyptic experiences of time and then just ordinary, mundane time can be really surreal for professions where it it causes constant shifts in how we adjudicate risk and change. So I wondered if we could talk a little bit about how this awareness creates different relationships with fear. And your parents seem to have had two very different responses to having death be like a part of the family business. I wondered if you wouldn’t mind sharing a bit about how they they thought about fear.
Thomas Lynch: I think I think my mother’s faith was so scholarly. She knew her faith. I mean, when my mother said we were all God’s children, she was also saying that there were things that she was not in charge of. So that, you know, if her children outlived her, which they did, it was not because of her scrutiny or her parenting, although she was she was a very careful parent. But I don’t think she feared because her faith or whatever fear arose in her. Her faith took care of. She would just turn that over to whomever is in charge here. Now, she happened to know what was on the menu in heaven, her faith was very, very informed. You know, my father, I think, because of his work, was more wary. He saw the shit that happens. Often for no apparent reason. The absolutely chance horrors of existence. And I think he tried to communicate some of those things to his sons and daughters. He knew when he knew when to use the gas, when to use the brakes. He had a great sense of course, he was 19 and in fighting in the South Pacific in World War Two, he saw things that no doubt traumatized him. But his life as a funeral director, I think, made him, in my mind, the most sane person I ever knew. He was 25 years sober through the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous when he died. But for that and I had never seen him drunk, except once after his father died. But no, he was as sane a man, as I ever knew. And as grateful a man as I ever knew.
Kate: What do you think it is about being close to death that makes someone grateful?
Thomas Lynch: Well, apart from the obvious, I mean, yeah, I mean, I always say to someone, I’ve got more money than time and I don’t have a lot of both. So I think somebody wanted me to join the discount club at the drugstore I was just trying to get checked out. I’m not joining anything. I’m too old for that. I can’t take the time. I’ll pay whatever the price is. Give me the full price. I’ll pay it. The guy behind me said, You can use my card. I said I don’t want to, I just want to get out of here.
Kate: That’s so funny.
Thomas Lynch: Time is so precious, you know?
Kate: Yes, I. That was one of my first coherent thoughts. I remember. I was you know, I’d always been very respectful of my academic elders, like a lot of long lingering lunches, where 2 hours later you’ve still only asked the question. Tell me more about your research right now. And then I remember after I got sick one time in the middle of lunch. I just stood up and I was like, oh, I don’t think I have time for this. And apparently it turns out that I left in in the middle of a faculty meeting because I ran into the custodian this last week and she said, were you the were you the lady that was dying for such a long time? And I was like, Yes, that is me. And she was like, I’m so glad you’re okay. You know, I just remember you yelling, I don’t have time for this bullshit.
Thomas Lynch: It’s important to know that.
Kate: I was like that’s a good I guess that was a good moment, a moment of clarity.
Thomas Lynch: Yeah, it does, sort of, but it’s like good punctuation, isn’t it, Kate? You know.
Kate: Yeah, yeah.
Thomas Lynch: You know, you know, you know how the sentence ends and it makes the meaning of the words all that much more important, you know?
Kate: That’s exactly right. And there will be fewer ellipses. There will be fewer.
Thomas Lynch: And no parentheses.
Kate: There’s another response to death and grief I want to ask you about, because I’ve seen it in all the Mennonites that I grew up with and are in my family when they have some really lovely traditions around death, where immediately women just start cooking and there’s just nonstop fresh baked buns and every beautiful fried dough and huge marshmallow bars of things. And then and then men will make things. And sometimes, like, one of my cousins made his dad’s coffin with his brothers. And I thought that was such…
Thomas Lynch: Good work. Yeah.
Kate: Why does that feel so good to be useful?
Thomas Lynch: Well, because there’s nothing you could do to fix it.
Thomas Lynch: But you can do something to ameliorate the sense of helplessness.
Thomas Lynch: In a in a way, it is like an act of faith. You know, you. You can’t help but here. There was a woman in our town. I’ve told the story too many times about a Mrs. Crawford who as soon as she got word about someone in her circle dying, she would repair to the kitchen. And you would. And over time, you would get to understand how close her connection to the dead was by what she made. And, you know, she would make a tuna noodle casserole for your run of the mill Methodists, you know? And she, you know, she might make any number of a stew for someone on the block. But if she made Strawberry Rhubarb pie Kate, you were like this.
Kate: You want to get into the strawberry rhubarb zone.
Thomas Lynch: And she would bear that into the funeral home, like viaticum, you know, and say, is there a place to leave this for the family? I’d say, Oh, yeah, I would leave it right here on the desk. I’ll watch it, you know, because I know I’ll sample it. You know.
Kate: We both seemed to have a real penchant for pastor friends. That is that that is a good kind of friend to have my opinion useful in times of crisis. Hilarious with the anecdotes. But when they get up. My friend, Corey, she said Kate, anyone can marry people. Shaquille O’Neal can marry people. But. But who can have something true to say facing down a family? That was you have maybe some strong feelings about what makes a good pastor or priest?
Thomas Lynch: Well, showing up is, you know, showing up is because most of us run the opposite way, you know? I show up because they pay me, you know? And my name’s on the sign I have to go in. But pastors, you know, they can they have a few excuses. And but I find the ones that show up in times of trouble armed with only their own faith because in their faith. I think most pastors are more doleful than the rest of us are because they know more than we do about how man made all this blathermentia is. But. But they show up and they they do their part with only their own shaky faith to rely upon. I just think they’re heroic and because I’ve seen guys see things that I thought they’re risking getting pummeled because most people come to a death in the family with a fairly high level of spite and malice, you know, and a good deal of anger. And which is fear. And which is lack of faith, which is what you get once shit happens. You know, where were you, God? Why wasn’t God watching Tom Waite’s ass, you know. And so the the priests and rabbis and imams and pastors and, you know, pooh bobs that show up there. They’re gutsy, as far as I’m concerned, or they’re just stupid and I don’t know too many that are stupid. They couldn’t get through seminary. So they’re smart and gutsy. I really admire them for that reason. For some time now I’ve said I won’t talk to just funeral directors because they’re unteachable. And I know because I am one. But if they bring their clergy along, I’ll talk to them as long as they want to chat. Because they actually read books and think and they’ll change, you know, they’re they’re instructable.
Kate: Yeah. That is such a high compliment for anyone, isn’t it? Just teachable?
Thomas Lynch: I’d like to remain teachable. Yeah.
Kate: Thomas, this has been one of my very favorite conversations.
Thomas Lynch: Kate It’s one of my favorites, too.
Kate: Thank you so much for doing this with me.
Thomas Lynch: And I think we should probably continue to stay in touch.
Kate: I agree.
Kate: I was visiting Washington, D.C. with my family and I was walking around all those war memorials. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them, but they’re so stunning. I just love looking at the care with which we articulate what feels like private grief publicly. And I’m standing right by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which has this really beautiful wall full of thousands of names of all the service members of the armed forces who served in the Vietnam War. And so, as there often is around those memorial experiences, you have, you know, tourists and people just mulling about, taking in the experience. And then you see people that, you know, are not just people, but mourners, people standing next to a name on the wall that has special significance to them. And I was sort of taking in the gravity of the experience. And my friend who lives in D.C. and loves these things was explaining to me that what was so especially stunning about this memorial is that it’s below eye level. So all of this grief is, in a way, hidden from public view. And I immediately thought of this poem written by our new favorite person, Thomas Lynch. And so I pulled it up and I started to read it. And as I did, I didn’t notice how some of those mourners and people who were just milling about started to gather around and listen as I read. And we all had a really good cry. And you’ll see why.
Kate: Here’s this poem. It’s called Local Heroes by Thomas Lynch. Some days, the worst that can happen happens, the sky falls or evil overwhelms or the world as we’ve come to know it turns toward the eventual apocalypse, long predicted in all the holy books the end times of old grudge and grievances that bring each to our oblivion. Still, maybe this is not the end at all, nor even the beginning of the end. Rather, one more in a long list of sorrows to be added to the ones thus far endured through what we have come to call our history. Another in that bitter litany that we will, if we survive it, have survived. God help us who must live through this. Alive to the terror and open wounds. The heart torn. Shaken faith. The violent and vengeful soul. The nerve exposed. The broken body so mingled with its breaking that it’s lost forever. Lord, send us in our peril local heroes. Someone to listen, someone to watch, someone to search and wait and keep the careful count of the dead and missing. The dead and gone, but not forgotten. Some days, all that can be done is to salvage one’s sadness from the mass of sadnesses. To bear one body home, to lay the dead out among their people, organize the flowers and casseroles, write the obits, meet the mourners at the door, drive the dark procession down through town, toll the bell, dig the hold, tend the pyre. It’s what we do. The daylong news is dire, full of true believers and politicos, bull talk of holy war and photo ops. But here, brave men and women pick the pieces up. They serve the living, caring for the dead. Here, the distant battle is waged in homes. Like politics, all funerals are local. Bless you, my dears. All you heroes who walked the edge with the people we love who make the strawberry rhubarb pie or build the coffin or sit with families holding on to only shaky faith who show up no matter the hour of the day. This is our undertaking.
Catherine from St. Louis: Hi, Kate. My name is Catherine Cramer. I live in Saint Louis, Missouri. My youngest brother drowned in a swimming accident when he was 24. And my siblings and I, and with the help of our mom, wrote his obituary and all of it is so true and still resonates. But I would say the truest thing is we said his gentle spirit, selflessness, stories and laughter will be greatly missed by the many who loved him. And I would say seven years later, his laughter is the thing that I miss the most. It feels like a missing piece from so many joyful events that we’ve had since we lost him. Thank you for asking. I really appreciate it.
Kathy from Delta BC: Oh, hi, Kate. It’s Kathy Frances calling from Delta, B.C.. I’m calling to answer your question about have you ever written an obituary and what is the truest thing you wrote? My daughter, my eldest daughter died when she was 19. She had leukemia. She was brilliant. She was beautiful. And we miss her every day. At the last sign of her obituary, we wrote, Her living and dying were graced by dignity and courage. Thanks. Bye.
Catherine from Pennsylvania: Hi, Kate. My name’s Catherine. I’m from Pennsylvania. Three years ago, I wrote the obituary for my dad, and while I did fact checking for the resumé type information, the truest things that I shared in his obituary did not require any research. First, that he had intensely grieved the loss of his oldest daughter, who preceded him in death. Second, that more than anything, he loved God and his family and found joy and pride in all of us. And third, and perhaps what he was best known for was that he was zealous about supporting others in their journeys, that he always had time for people who were hurting and in need of help, and that he was a cheerleader for hope and self-improvement. That helped me heal, writing that and remembering my dad that way as he was. Thanks.
Kate: A really special thank you to our generous partners who make this work possible. Lilly Endowment. The Duke Endowment. Duke Divinity School and Leadership. Education. And to my wonderful team. Jessica Richie. Harriet Putman, Gwen Higginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Keith Weston, Jeb and Sammi. Thank you. And I would love to hear what you thought about this episode. Would you do me a favor and leave a review on Apple Podcasts? It really, really means a lot to us when we get to hear what we do well and also might even do better. You can also leave us a voicemail and who knows? We might even be able to use your voice on the air. Call us at 9193228731. All right, lovely. I’ll talk to you next week. But in the meantime, come find me online at KateCBowler. This is everything happens with me, Kate Bowler.
5 thoughts on “A Good Funeral”
Thank you very much. I have loved the writing and insights of this inspiring man. Your conversation was magical. I share your podcasts and blessings with friends in Wales UK and they are blessed too.
This was the best. Thomas Lynch is such a lovely man. I will read his essays. This conversation was gripping, inspiring, thought-provoking. Thank you, Kate and Mr. Lynch.
Such a good episode. Lots of things to think about. Thank you.
“This is the part we can never get across, how much, how unspeakably in love we are. And how impossible it is to let you know. So the thing about the dead is they know our hearts. And the knowledge that they know our hearts is a spiritual conversation.”
These words!!!!. And I LOVED this conversation so much. My dad died 3 months ago and I have 3 adult children and 5 grandchildren and more people and my love for all of them is so big and hearing that it is impossible for them to know how big my love is is a relief. They will know. Thanks❤️
What a wonderful episode. And unfortunately a timely one for my family. Thank you both so much for sharing your wisdom. Love the podcast. Great Job Kate.