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 dozing in the wing chair after a long day at the funeral home, waking at intervals too spaced to follow the narrative arc.

But one scene I half wakened to involved a corpse laid out on a board in front of a stone tower house, kinsmen and neighbors gathered round in the gray, sodden moment. Whereupon a figure of plain force, part pirate, part panhandler, dressed in tatters, unshaven and wild-eyed, assumed what seemed a liturgical stance over the body, swilled beer from a wooden bowl, and tore at a heel of bread with his teeth. Wiping his face on one arm, with the other he thrust his open palm at the woman nearest him. She pressed a coin into it spitefully and he took his leave. Everything was gray: the rain and fog, the stone tower, the mourners, the corpse, the countervailing ambivalences between the widow and the horrid man. Swithering is the Scots word for it—to be of two minds, in two realities at once: grudging and grateful, faithful and doubtful, broken and beatified, caught between a mirage and an apocalypse. The theater of it was breathtaking, the bolt of drama. It was over in ten, maybe fifteen, seconds.

I knew him at once.

The scene triggered a memory of a paragraph I’d read twelve years before in mortuary school, from The History of American Funeral Directing by Robert W. Habenstein and William M. Lamers. I still have the first edition, by Bulfin Printers of Milwaukee, circa 1955. The paragraph at the bottom of page 128, in chapter 3, reads:

A nod should be given to customs that disappeared. Puckle tells of a curious functionary, a sort of male scapegoat called the “sin-eater.” It was believed in some places that by eating a loaf of bread and drinking a bowl of beer over a corpse, and by accepting a six-pence, a man was able to take unto himself the sins of the deceased, whose ghost thereafter would no longer wander.

“Puckle” was Bertram S. Puckle, a British scholar, whose Funeral Customs, Their Origin and Development would take me another forty years to find and read. But the bit of cinema and the passage from the book had aligned like tumblers of a combination lock clicking into place and opening a vault of language and imagination.

I was named for a dead priest: my father’s uncle. Some few years after surviving the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, that Thomas Lynch got “the call.” (“Vocations follow famine,” an Irish bromide holds. Famines and flus?) He went to seminary in Detroit and Denver and was ordained in the middle of the Great Depression. We have a photo of his “First Solemn High Mass” on June 10, 1934, at St. John’s Church in Jackson, Michigan, one block from the clapboard house he’d grown up in. His father, my great-grandfather, another Thomas Lynch, did not live to get into this photo of women in print dresses and men in straw boaters on a sunny June Sunday between world wars. He had come from the poor townland of Moveen on the West Clare peninsula, which forms the upper lip of the gaping mouth of the River Shannon—a treeless sloping plain between the ocean and the estuary, its plots of pasturage divided by hedgerows and intermarriages. He’d come to Michigan for the work available at the huge penitentiary there in Jackson, where he painted cellblocks, worked in the laundry, and finished his career as a uniformed guard. He married a Ryan woman, fathered a daughter who taught, a son who got good work with the post office, and now a priest—like hitting the trifecta for a poor Irish “yank,” all cushy jobs with reliable pensions. He never saw Ireland again.

In the middle of the retinue of family and parishioners posed for the photo at the doors to the church around their freshly minted, home-grown priest is my father, aged ten years, seated next to his father and mother, bored but obedient in his new knee breeches. Because the young priest—he has just turned thirty—is sickly but willing, the bishop in Detroit will send him back out west to the bishop in Santa Fe, who assigns him to the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Taos, in hopes that the high, dry air of the Sangre de Christo Mountains might ease his upper respiratory ailments and lengthen his days.

He is going to die just two years later, of pneumonia, at the end of July 1936. The Apache women whose babies he baptized, whose sons he taught to play baseball, whose husbands he preached to, will process his rough-sawn coffin down the mountains from Taos, along the upper reaches of the Rio Grande, through landscapes Georgia O’Keeffe will make famous, to the cathedral in Santa Fe, where Archbishop Rudolph Gerken will preside over his Requiem, and then send his body back to his people, COD, on a train bound for Michigan and other points east.

A moment that will shape our family destiny for generations occurs a couple of days later in the Desnoyer Funeral Home in Jackson. The dead priest’s brother, my grandfather, is meeting with the undertaker to sort out details for the hometown funeral at St. John’s. He brings along his twelve-year-old son (who twelve years hence will become my father) no doubt for the tuition in the way of things. While the elders are discussing plots and boxes, pallbearers and honoraria, the boy wanders through the old mortuary until he comes to the doorway of a room where he espies two men in shirtsleeves dressing a corpse in liturgical vestments. He stands and watches quietly. They carefully lift the freshly vested body of his dead uncle from the white porcelain table into a coffin, then turn to see the boy at the door. Ever after my father will always trace his intention to become a funeral director to this moment—this elevation, this slow, almost ritual hefting of the body. Might it have aligned in his imagination with that moment during the Masses he attended at St. Francis De Sales when the priest would elevate the host and chalice, the putative body and blood of Christ, when bells were rung, heads bowed, breasts beaten in awe? Might he have conflated the corruptible and the incorruptible? The mortal and immortality? The sacred and the profane?

We would often ask him why he didn’t decide to become a priest. “Well,” he would tell us, matter-of-factly, “the priest was dead.”

It was also true that he’d met Rosemary O’Hara that year, a redheaded fifth-grader who would become the girl of his dreams and who would write him daily when he went off to war with the Marines in the South Pacific, who would marry him when he came home and mother their nine children, and beside whom he’d be buried half a century later.

“God works in strange ways,” my mother would tell us, smiling wisely, passing the spuds, all of us marveling at the ways of things. And so these “callings,” such as they were, these summons to her life as a wife and mother and his to fatherhood and undertaking—a life’s work he would always describe as “serving the living by caring for the dead” or a “corporal work of mercy”—and to his sons and daughters and their sons and daughters, who now operate half a dozen funeral homes in towns all over lower Michigan, all these are tied to that first week of August 1936, when a boy watched two mortuary sorts lift the body of a dead priest into a box.

That was another received truth of my father’s nunnish upbringing and our own—that life and time were not random accretions of happenstance. On the contrary, there was a plan for each and every one of us, and ours was only to discern our “vocation,” our “calling,” our purpose here. No doubt this is how the life of faith—the wonder about the way of things—first sidles up to the curious mind.

When I was seven, my mother sent me off to see the priest to learn enough of the magic Latin, the language of ritual and mystery, to become an altar boy. Fr. Kenny, our parish priest at St. Columban’s, was a native of Galway and had been at seminary with my father’s uncle. He and my sainted mother had hatched a plan to guide me toward the holy orders. This, the two of them no doubt reckoned, was in keeping with the will of God—that I should fulfill the vocation and finish the work of the croupy and tubercular young man I’d been named after. I looked passably hallowed in cassock and surplice. I had a knack for the vowel-rich acoustics of Latin, and had already learned the accountancy of sin and guilt, shame and punishment, so central to the religious life. This instruction I owed to Fr. Maguire’s Baltimore Catechism and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who had prepared me in grade school for the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. I had learned to fast before Communion, to confess and do penance in preparation for the feast, to keep track of my sins by sort and number, to purge them by prayer and mortification, supplication and petition. To repair the damage done by impure thoughts or cursing at a sibling, a penance of Our Fathers and Hail Marys would be assigned. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa became for me the breast-thumping idiom of forgiveness and food, purification and communion, which are so central to the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” we Catholic school kids attended daily.

Introibo ad altare Dei is what James Joyce had “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” intone on the opening page of Ulysses, as Mulligan held a bowl of lather aloft. And years later, as I read that book for the first time, Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam still formed in my memory as the cadenced response. Irreverence seemed a proper seasoning by then, the grain of salt added to articles of faith. I’d come to love the sound of religion—its plainchants and Gregorians, the rhymed and metered and repeated prayers, the magic of Latin spoken and sung. But I’d begun to question the sense of it all—the legalisms and accountancy by which glorious and sorrowful mysteries were rendered a sort of dogmatic and dispassionate math. To be so certain about God struck me as sacrilege. Faith must be more than religious belief and obedience.

Argyle comes by his irreverence honestly. The animus borne against Argyle by the families of the dead—the “whispering contempts” amid which he performs his hungry offices—are replicated by the reverend clergy who regard him as an upstart and forger, a pretender to the throne of their authority. As purveyors of moral order and religious practice, churchmen quite rightly see sin-eating as unholy competition. What need has the sinner of the sacraments, if forgiveness can be so cheaply purchased? What need of tithing, if sin-eating can be got for a “pay as you go” stipendium of bread and beer and sixpence? Because both commoners and clergy hold him in low esteem, Argyle is banished to the hinterlands of the social and moral order. The wound of this estrangement, which works its way through the narrative of these poems in the resentments Argyle voices toward the authority of the church, is akin to the contentions that inform the history of schism, reformation, division, and denomination, about which St. Paul wrote to no avail to the Corinthians in the first century. We are all—every being in creation—hungry for the favor of our creator. We all believe that God is on our side. And yet all of us know the pain of not belonging, the cruel isolation of the shunned and excommunicated. Still, if begrudgery is contagious, so is gratitude. And Argyle concludes that to be forgiven we must forgive—everyone and everything. Grace is undeserved and abundant; and despite his foibles and those of his fellow sinners, Argyle comes to see them all as fellow pilgrims, at times ridiculous, at times sublime, but always beloved of God.

For all of my mother’s and the priest’s well-intended connivances, and though I kept my ears peeled for it, I never heard the voice of God. I remember seeing the dead priest’s cassock hanging from a rafter in my grandparents’ basement, a box with his biretta and other priestly things on a shelf beside it. I tried them on but nothing seemed to fit, and over time my life of faith came to include an ambivalence about the church that ranged from passion to indifference—a kind of swithering, brought on, no doubt, by mighty nature: the certain sense awakened in me when I was about twelve that among the good Lord’s greatest gifts to humankind were the gifts he gave us of each other. Possibly it was meditating on the changes I could see in bodies all around me and sense in my own body, late in my grade-school years, that convinced me there were aspects of the priestly life that would be, thanks be to God, impossible for me.

I record these things because they seem somehow the ground and compost out of which Argyle rose, in that flash of recognition years ago, to become the mouthpiece for my mixed religious feelings. If I’d learned sin and guilt and shame and contrition from the nuns and priests, I was likewise schooled in approval and tolerance and inextinquishable love by my parents, earthen vessels though they were. Grace—the unmerited favor of Whoever is in Charge Here—was the gift outright of my upbringing. It made me, like the apostle whose name I shared, a doubter and contrarian, grateful for religious sensibilities but wary of all magisteriums.

By the end of winter that first year I’d written three or four Argyle poems. I field-tested them at Joe’s Star Lounge on North Main Street in Ann Arbor, where boozers and poets would gather on Sunday afternoons to read their latest to one another. It was a kind of communion, I suppose, or a potluck anyway: we all brought a “dish” to pass, our best home recipes of words. I liked the sound of these poems in my mouth, the cadence of Argyle’s odd adventures and little blasphemies.

His name came easy—from the socks, of course, the only thing I knew that was reliably Scots, apart from whiskey; but also from the acoustic resemblance to “our guile,” which sounded a note not far from “guilt.”

These were the days long before one could Google up facts on demand, when writers were expected to make things up out of the whole cloth of imagination: Argyle’s loneliness, the contempt of locals, the contretemps of clergy—I intuited these, along with the sense of his rootlessness, his orphanage and pilgrimage. I’d spent, by then, enough time in the rural western parishes of Ireland and Scotland to have a sense of the landscapes and people he would find himself among—their “ground sense” and land passions, their religious sensibilities.

I began to identify with Argyle. As the only funeral director in a small town in Michigan, I was aware of the common ambivalence toward anyone whose undertakings involve money and corpses, religious practice and residual guilt. Both undertaker and sin-eater know that people in need are glad to see you coming and gladder still to see you gone. The same is true of the curate and parish priest, with whom Argyle often finds himself at odds. I was likewise aware of the occasional awkwardness between undertakers and the reverend clergy. Some of the latter would quite rightly wince at the crass mercantilism of some of the former—who would, in turn, roll their eyes at the human failings of the latter.

“That’s just not necessary,” a churchman once complained to my father in reference to a pricey casket that had been chosen by a congregant’s family and rolled into church. “Neither is any of that,” replied my dad, nodding at the stained glass and mosaics, vaulted ceilings, and statuary. And yet, over time, both pastor and dismal trader come to appreciate the humanity of the other, the willingness to show up in the worst of circumstances, outfitted with only their willingness to serve.

Argyle fit my purposes and circumstances. The work to which he had, by force of hunger, been called seemed in concert with my own summons and stumblings both religiously and occupationally. He is trying to keep body and soul together. And he articulates the mixed blessing and contrariety of my own life of faith—from before Vatican II to the current sadness—through which I have been, variously, devout and devoutly lapsed.

Among the blessings of forty years of work as a funeral director is that it has put me in earshot of the reverend clergy trying to make sense of senseless things: the man who kills his wife, their poodle, then himself; a mother who drowns her baby, then does her nails; the teenager with the broken heart and loaded pistol; the tumors and emboli, influenzas and tsunamis, deadly contagions and misadventures—the endless renditions of the Book of Job. When someone shows up—priest or pastor, rabbi or imam, venerable master or fellow traveler—to stand with the living and the dead and speak into the gaping maw of the unspeakable, I know I am witnessing uncommon courage and my perennially shaken faith is emboldened by theirs.

“Behold, I show you a mystery,” they always say. They are balm and anointing, these men and women of God, frontline infantry and holy corpsmen in the wars long waged between faith and fear.

The life of faith is never settled, driven as it must be by doubts and wonder, by those experiences, those losses and griefs, that cast us adrift. For Argyle, the tensions between authority and autonomy, belonging and disbelief, keep him forever second-guessing where he stands with God. And in this state of flux he is not alone.

The sin-eater is both appalled by his culture’s religiosity and beholden to it. The accountancy of sin and punishment at once offends him and feeds him. He lives in constant hope and fear, despair and faith, gratitude and God hunger. In the end he isn’t certain, but believes that everything is forgiven, whoever God is or isn’t. Everything is reconciled.

If W. H. Auden was right that “through art, we are able to break bread with the dead,” Seamus Heaney was also right when he said that “rhyme and meter are the table manners.” Prayer and poetry are both forms of “raised speech” by which we attempt to commune with our makers and creation, with the gone but not forgotten. Argyle’s hunger, his breaking bread upon the dead, is a metaphor for all those rituals by which we seek to commune with the ghosts of those gone before us, parents and lovers, mentors and heroes, friends and fellow outcasts. His is a sacrament of renewal and restoration. It is in such communion that our hope is nourished—the hope that there may be something in nature’s harmonium and hush that is discernable as the voice of God.

In the end, Argyle is just trying to find his way home, looking for a place at a table where he is always welcome and never alone. Possessed of few certainties, his faith always seasoned by wonder and doubt, he knows that either we are all God’s children or none of us are. To be forgiven himself, Argyle must forgive everything—because God forgives everything or nothing at all, hears all our prayers or none of them. At the end, all of Argyle’s prayers begin to sound like thanks. All of God’s answers have become you’re welcome.


Related: Thomas Lynch's Argyle poems, The Sin Eater, Argyle's Retreat, Argyle in Agony

Published in the 2011-08-12 issue: 

Thomas Lynch’s most recent books are The Sin-Eater—A Breviary and The Good Funeral, co-authored with Thomas G. Long. He has taught in the Department of Mortuary Science at Wayne State University, the Graduate Writing Program at the University of Michigan, and at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

Also by this author
'The Work of the Dead'

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