“When I die,” undertaker Edward Lynch told his sons, “you’ll know what to do.”

And they did. The widowed Lynch’s heart gave out when he was vacationing in Florida with a friend. She called his children in Milford, Michigan, and two of the sons of Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors flew down with their embalmer’s traveling kit: “gloves, fluids, needles, odds and ends.” As they grieved for and prepared their father, they said good-bye. “He’d gotten the death he wanted,” Thomas wrote in The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade, “life caught in full stride, quick and cleanly after a day strolling the beach picking sea shells for the grandchildren and maybe after a little bone bouncing with his condo-mate, though she never said and we never asked and can only hope.”

It was a gift to be able to care for his father’s body, Thomas Lynch says. Typically people say they don’t want to be a burden to their children when they die. Argues Lynch, “Were they not a burden to us–our children? And didn’t the management of that burden make us feel alive and loved and helpful and capable?”

Lynch is a poet and essayist who is an undertaker, or vice versa. He refers to himself as a “dancing bear,” the odd one in the bunch, whether the bunch is writers or funeral directors. He writes, he says flippantly, “because I don’t play golf.” For a long time he was a reader who wanted to be a poet. “Because I learned from every poet and every poem I’ve heard and read, I’m entirely indebted to my elders and betters,” he says. He credits a college teacher, poet Michael Heffernan, with teaching him to “read and invent.” As for taking up the dismal profession, he says, “I admired my father more than any other professional I knew”–for his honesty, ability, and dedication. Adds Lynch, “He knew who he was, what it was he did, for whom he did it, and to whom he was accountable.”

Lynch, 51, was in Chicago earlier this month for BookExpo America at McCormick Place. He stood at the W.W. Norton & Company booth, greeting booksellers and others who lined up for free signed copies of his new book, Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality. In his jacket photos he looks as if he’s from another era, with his wire-rimmed glasses and dark hat. At McCormick Place he looked just a little formal, with a black jacket, dark gray pants, a red-and-white striped bowtie, and a sugar-and-cinnamon beard that was somewhere between stubbly and short. He would look at people’s name tags, greet them by name, and sometimes ask where they were from or reminisce about a stop on his tour for The Undertaking, which won a 1998 American Book Award and was a National Book Award finalist. When copies of Bodies in Motion ran out, he began handing out paperback editions of Still Life in Milford, one of his three poetry collections. “Poems will do you no harm,” he told the person next in line, sounding like a dispenser of some tonic. “You can read them one at a time.”

Lynch’s books and his profession are based on an obvious truth: that we are going to die. And on its ancillary: for life to have meaning, death must have meaning. The process of grieving and disposing of the body shouldn’t be short and swift and clean. It must be experienced by the survivors. After his own demise, Lynch says, “I want them to press up their noses against my mortality. I want them to deal with me.” Everyone, he says, needs to witness the death of loved ones, and participate in the accompanying rituals, whether by washing the body, digging the grave, filling it, or at least seeing it done. Such practices, he says, lead to “good grief.”

We try to keep unpleasant things at bay, Lynch says, and it’s no coincidence that in the “civilized” world we try to get rid of both shit and death as quickly as possible. In The Undertaking, he describes the first of many trips to visit cousins at the family homestead on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare. They lived in a house with flagstone floors, a hot plate, an open hearth, and no indoor plumbing. He became used to the latter and began to appreciate the lack. “It was my first taste of Liberty–to crap out in the open air on the acreage of my ancestors, whilst listening to the sounds of morning: an aubade of birdwhistle and windsong.” His excrement became part of the cycle of birth and life and death: “It greens the grass that feeds the cow that makes the milk and shits again: a paradigm for the internal combustion engine, a closed system, efficient as an old Ford.”

That cycle is never absent from his writing, even in essays on fishing, the family curse (the great thirst for alcohol), his divorce, and a hypochondriacal poet friend. (The poet is “cured” of his disease when he gets a computer and transfers his obsession from human viruses to those of the cyber kind.)

When Lynch inherited the family cottage, he had indoor plumbing installed. But despite the overall increase of such “improvements,” he believes the Irish are still more comfortable with death than we are in the U.S. “Everybody drops everything when someone dies,” he says. When a 105-year-old neighbor died, there were 80 cars in the procession, he says, out of a population of 600.

Though much in demand as a speaker, Lynch still works in the family business, along with six of his eight siblings. The day before he came to Chicago he worked a funeral. His neighbors may turn out for his readings and smile a lot at him now, but he still has a job to do. “I could win the Pulitzer Prize and if your mother dies and I don’t show up–I don’t get a pass.”

Lynch returns to Chicago at 7:30 PM Wednesday, June 21, to read at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1350 N. Wells (312-642-5044). –S.L. Wisenberg

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Darrow Montgomery.