No doubt it's because my own mother just died that an interview with Lynch veered wildly into death and Irish keening. He was ready for it: Death is in his blood, so to say. Lynch is a third-generation funeral director... and not the only one in his family, either. There are nine siblings in his generation and six of them, Lynch says, run funeral homes serving the northern suburbs of Detroit.
Whether bound for heaven or for hell, it seems residents of Milford, Mich., and nearby towns must go through a Lynch first. "Every year I bury a couple of hundred townspeople," he says. Death is not macabre, or it shouldn't be. "Our generation," Lynch says of baby boomers, "is the first that seems to denature the whole process, that keeps its distance from the dead."
My own clan has a history of wakes that last for several days with the body in the room, beers at a nearby tavern or, failing that, in the parking lot of the funeral home, followed by a Mass and then a procession where the hearse swings past the house on its way to the cemetery.
"For 40,000 years up until about 40 years ago, every person on the planet did some version of what you did with your mother, God bless her," Lynch says. "You deal with the idea of death by dealing with the corpse. That's how you get through it."
He gets worked up at the trend, especially here in the West, of memorial services with the dead person not present, and the service often conducted by a stranger.
"It's like Disney World," he exclaims. "It's like the wedding without the bride, the baptism without the baby ... someone declares closure just before the merlot runs out.
"It's bizarre," he says.
This distancing from death is the topic of a fresh essay he's composing, Lynch says. This is familiar turf; his nonfiction is highlighted by The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, a National Book Award finalist about the funeral industry.
The book was also the genesis for a Frontline documentary that aired on public television last year.
People can be just as uncomfortable with the idea of writing as they are with the idea of death, says Lynch, who didn't begin writing poetry until he was in his 30s.
"Like any type of work you have to get up the nerve to start," he says. "The doing it is great. The getting ready to do it is the worst part."
He was inspired to write by a friend, the poet Michael Heffernan, and had the further good fortune of being edited by Gordon Lish, the mentor to a generation of fine writers.
Once he got going, Lynch didn't stop, tackling essays as well as poetry and, recently, fiction.
"I like to write. When it is working, it's very joyous," he says.
As a funeral director, Lynch is troubled by the trend towards distancing. "I do think our job is to embolden people to do what they have always done -- deal with the dead."
This is much akin to his role as a writer, emboldening the rest of us to confront the page.
"Writers are just readers who have gone karaoke. After a while you say, 'I can do that.'"
Thomas Lynch will read from his poetry on Friday, April 18, at noon at EWU's Music Building in Cheney. Free. Lynch will read from his nonfiction about death on Saturday, April 19, at 4:15 pm at the Bing. Tickets: $10-$15. Call 325-SEAT.