Channeling the Sin-Eater

An Undertaker’s Calling

If, as Samuel Beckett wrote, all poetry is prayer, my devotions began in earnest thirty-some years ago when a habit of reading poems begat the practice of writing them.  Writers are readers who go karaoke—first humming along, then singing along, then making up plainchants that sound like their own.

Raised as a Catholic, I grew up associating food with forgiveness, confession with Communion, and I had taken up my father’s undertaking and ran the family mortuary. So among my earliest poems were those about a sin-eater—a functionary at funerals from a former time who, for his daily bread and a small fee, took unto himself the sins of the dead, and then, like the goat of the ancient Jews, escaped to the wilderness laden with the burdens of perdition. We had a lot in common: both catholic in sensibility, both Celtic at the margins and marginally pagan, both beholden to corpses and mourners to keep body and soul together, both here-today-and-gone-tomorrow sorts. Argyle, the sin-eater, did not bear my biography—I was a husband, father, Rotarian, an officer of the Chamber of Commerce—but we shared so much identity. I could never shake him. His episodes kept turning up in the manuscripts that became the books of poems I would eventually publish.

Argyle first came into being in the hard winter of 1984. My sons were watching a swashbuckler on TV, The Master of Ballantrae, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel about Scots brothers and their imbroglios. I was...

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About the Author

Thomas Lynch is a writer and funeral director. He lives in Michigan and West Clare, Ireland.