Bringing Out the Dead


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...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.