Most funeral service personnel have probably, at some time in their career, heard of Thomas Lynch even if they have not actually read his work. Mr. Lynch is a poet and writer. He is also a funeral director and family funeral home owner in his town of Milford, Michigan. Not only has he become a rather formidable name with regard to his books of fiction and non-fiction, essays in magazines and journals, and poetry, he has also become a household name among embalmers and funeral directors who see him as an advocate and inspiration for the funeral service profession and those employed in what he refers to as “the dismal trade” in his award-winning and acclaimed book of essays titled “The Undertaking: Tales from the Dismal Trade.” Most folks have heard of Lynch most likely through precisely this book if not others. I’d like to share his personal website with those interested as well as a review I wrote at his request on one of his collections of poetry titled “The Sin-Eater: A Breviary.” If indeed he does not appeal to the layman because of the most common subject about which he writes – the funeral service profession – I believe it safe to say that most funeral service professionals interested enough about what we do on a daily basis for our brethren and communities will, at the very least, find him insightful and engaging.
Review of Thomas Lynch’s The Sin-Eater: A Breviary
Ten years ago, I was fulfilling my embalming internship in New Orleans, Louisiana. One evening, between embalming operations, I took refuge in the quietude of one of the empty parlors of the funeral home with a book of poems given to me by my mentor, turned to a random page, and read from a poem titled In Paradisum: “Sometimes I look into the eyes of corpses. / They are like mirrors broken, frozen pools / or empty tabernacles . . .” The collection : Still Life in Milford. The poet: Thomas Lynch. “Yes,” I thought, “that’s exactly what they are like – empty tabernacles.” Mr. Lynch has held my attention ever since.
Lynch is a formidable poet, essayist, and storyteller. He is also a funeral director in his hometown of Milford, Michigan. Having composed several collections of poetry (the most recent being Walking Papers), several books of essays (The Undertaking, Bodies in Motion and at Rest, Booking Passage, The Good Funeral), and a collection of short stories and a novella ( Apparitions & Late Fictions), his frequent appearances in the pages of some of the most reputable journals, magazines, newspapers, and a memorably graceful collaboration in an award-winning PBS Frontline Documentary The Undertaking (which I strongly and highly and unreservedly recommend to everyone in the funeral service profession), Lynch has not only become a sort of poetic-philosophic-legislator of sorts for those of us funeral directors who daily surrender ourselves body and soul to “the dismal trade,” but he has indeed established himself as one of the most poignant, relevant voices of contemporary letters. He does not disappoint his followers with Paraclete Press’ publication of his fifth collection of poems: The Sin-Eater: A Breviary.
Lynch opens his collection with Introit – a stimulating account of the inception and development of the sin-eater Argyle as well as his (Lynch’s) relationship to him. This fittingly serves as an entrance to the narrative poems themselves – introit being a part of the opening of the Mass: the Catholic Church’s liturgical celebration of the Eucharistic mysteries. Introit alone is reason enough to visit the book, but it will no doubt lure the reader into the actual poems – that is, into the fascinating world of Argyle himself. Although this world is unapologetically colored by Lynch’s Irish Catholic roots, The Sin-Eater speaks to anyone with an ear attuned to the connections and inevitable tension between faith and doubt, institutions (in Argyle’s case, the Catholic Church) and the individual, the incarnate realities of this life and the stuff of mystery, and ultimately the paradoxical relationship between life and death.
Argyle is a paradoxical figure. Indeed, he is a figure with whom many can easily relate. In poems such as “Argyle in Agony” and “Argyle’s Stone,” we learn that Argyle is an iniquitous man yet holy in his own way. He is a holy man but not a cleric. He is of God yet outside of the Church. Nonetheless, his vocation and ministry – one of absolution and redemption — does bear some resemblance to the mission of the Church, and, like the celibate, ordained clergy, it can be a lonely ministry as is illustrated in “Argyle’s Vapors.” Like the cleric, he is one well-acquainted with the earthly reality of sin and mourning yet he maintains the hope of redemption and the Beatific Vision. In spite of these shared characteristics with the clergy, there is no clericalism to be found in Argyle’s ministry. In fact, the shortcomings of the ordained clergy are directly addressed in poems such as “Argyle’s Ejaculations.” And we see that it is sometimes Argyle – not the institution of the Church – with whom the people can relate. In “Argyle Among the Moveen Lads,” for instance, the young men burying a fellow townsman are unmoved by the platitudes of the parish priest, but they clearly accept and welcome the wisdom and consolations of Argyle, who happens to be passing by. Argyle’s journey, however, is not one without its share of doubt. One can appreciate both the humor and profundity of his request for a sign, as in “Argyle’s Dream of the Churchdove,” that his ministry is a worthy one: he receives a divine sign of affirmation in the form of bird feces which falls upon him from on high.
Ultimately though, The Sin-Eater is not merely a narrative of oppositions and duality. Beautifully accompanied by the evocative photography of Michael Lynch and a compelling watercolor by Sean Lynch, Thomas Lynch’s sacramentally-charged language and rich imagery reminds us that all who seek meaning in life and understanding of our lives in this world and that to which we march steadily when death is upon us are sharing in a dramatic pilgrimage. We make our journey – like Argyle, like Lynch, and like the Church Herself – as fellow pilgrims seeking to understand however possible that which ultimately remains outside of the grasp of human reason.
I suspect that neither the professional philosopher nor the professional theologian is willing to admit Lynch into their venerable rank – leading me to believe that he is most certainly onto something.
Glenn J. Bergeron II