Bringing Out the Dead

FRONTLINE'S ‘THE UNDERTAKING'

For most of us, the profession of mortician would fall fairly low on a list of desirable employments. Choosing to handle dead bodies, to deal with grieving relatives, to confront mortality on a practical level, day in, day out-it’s hardly conceivable. We belong to a culture that idolizes youth and vitality-a fact made all too clear in advertising, with its trumpeting of high-tech moisturizers and its images of sleek, gorgeous, youthful people driving sleek, gorgeous, youthful cars. Burials and cremations seem to belong to another reality.

So it’s quite awe-inspiring to watch the Frontline episode “The Undertaking,” which focuses on the funeral home run by the author and poet Thomas Lynch. The program, which airs October 30 on PBS (check local listings), recognizes the minutiae of a funeral-home career-the nitty-gritty conversations about flower arrangements, the moments spent dealing with the crematory, and so on-but the producers have also allowed Lynch and his colleagues, several of them family members, to discuss the ethos of their work. The morticians speak of their responsibilities with a mixture of pragmatism and idealism, and their eloquence sometimes turns downright poetic, as when Lynch quotes from his well-regarded essay collection, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade.

In Lynch’s view, the mortician’s craft plays a key role in helping humans cope with mortality. “A good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be,” he asserts. In particular, he seems to think that a funeral has a kind of honesty and concreteness to it that make it far more meaningful-and perhaps more emotionally cathartic-than a memorial service. “We’re among the first couple generations for whom the presence of the dead at their own funerals has become optional,” he says. “And I see that as probably not good news for the culture at large.” Commemorations without corpses, he suggests, reflect the fact that, in our society, “we have in some ways become estranged about death and the dead.” The Lynch family evidently feels no such estrangement.

Watching them go about their tasks-driving hearses, welcoming mourners, applying makeup to the deceased-it’s hard not to think of the fictional tribe of morticians that gained renown on HBO not too long ago. On one level, Six Feet Under did acknowledge the workaday aspects of the profession-there were scenes set around the embalming table and so on-but it also contained a good deal of sensationalism. The sometimes macabre soap-opera-style narrative, freighted with details about the characters’ sex lives, had the effect of distancing viewers from the setting.

Television frequently sensationalizes death, of course, whether it’s a cop show reveling in crimes and C.S.I.-caliber forensics, or a drama treating the subject as melodrama. In the recent spate of supernatural-tinged offerings (NBC’s Heroes, for example), a demise may seem to fit into an eerie cosmic scheme that invites paranoid speculation. To judge by the schedule for the new TV season, the industry will not be toning down its approach to the subject anytime soon. One of the year’s biggest buzz-generators so far, the ABC series Pushing Daisies, views mortality through a tripartite lens of fantasy, crime, and comedy, with a plot about a young man who can raise the dead-and send them back to the great beyond-with merely a touch.

News programs, by contrast, can reduce the topic to statistics, eclipsing the human dimension. “The Undertaking,” for its part, lives at a calm remove from numbers and from hype. We see the quiet, carpeted corridors of Lynch & Sons, and we hear the ticking of one of the clocks. We watch Lynch himself stride through a green churchyard, a portly, bespectacled man in a black overcoat and wire-framed glasses. It’s hard to imagine a figure farther removed from the glamorous Fisher clan of Six Feet Under.

The Frontline producers preserve their matter-of-fact but sensitive tone as they document a few funerals: two of them, impressively enough, involving elderly people who contact Lynch in order to get their own obsequies squared away in advance. The show’s third case history-the saddest-follows a young couple whose infant was born with a rare medical problem. Even as they care for their two-year-old, husband and wife know he’s dying, and they prepare accordingly. This could be the stuff of tragedy, but tragedy draws on contrast and crisis. Here you get a sense of endurance: as the couple talk to the cameras, you can see the circles under their eyes.

“The Undertaking” doesn’t really touch on religion (a priest appears in a shot now and then), but it never loses sight of Lynch’s writerly vocation. The beautifully expressed essay quotations, usually sampled in voiceover, should help his publisher move a few dozen copies (though presumably this is not a case of product placement). Notably, Lynch has a fondness for puns that calls to mind Shakespeare’s sonnets and the poems of John Donne-for example, the title of this program refers not only to the mortician’s craft, but also to the idea of a project or commitment.

No doubt Lynch’s passion for literature is related in some way to his professional dedication. Poetry gains much of its effect from being measured out in lines, and in Lynch’s view, the same could be said for existence. As he puts it in one of the quotes that sets this program apart from most Halloween-season TV fare, “Where death means nothing, life is meaningless.”

Published in the 2007-10-26 issue: 
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Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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