The Undertaking

Whatever being the dead have now, they have by the living’s faith alone.

— Thomas Lynch

Thomas Lynch deals in death. “Every year,” he says, “I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople. Another two or three dozen, I take to the crematorium to be burned. I sell caskets, burial vaults, and urns for the ashes. I have a sideline in headstones and monuments. I do flowers on commission. Apart from the tangibles, I sell the use of my building.” Being the only undertaker in the small Michigan town where he lives, he adds, “I have a corner on the market.”

His business, Lynch & Sons, has been handed down over generations. And Tom Lynch has come to appreciate what he does in a number of ways, not least being his contemplation of death and responses to it, both individual and communal. He plays point of departure for The Undertaking, Frontline’s look at death and funerals. Contemplative, understated, and poignant, the documentary offers delicate wintertime exteriors, corpses in coffins, and sometimes painful interviews with surviving family members.

Lynch’s thinking is at once practical and poetic. In his essays and conversation, he is gentle, wry, and acutely self-aware. Death is everywhere around him, as are the rituals by which his community deals with death. His son Sean recalls classmates saying that his dad “works with dead people,” and yet, he adds, “I always knew it as quite the opposite of that: my dad works with living people.”

Patrick Lynch sees this work as a kind of ongoing confrontation with death, seeing bodies as a means to reduce fear and help with change. “I view the viewing of the dead as one of the most fundamental aspects of acknowledging grief,” he says. “Reality can no longer be denied. The death is literally staring them in the face.” Tom notes the complications of ceremony and circumstance, however. He doesn’t so much make sense of death rituals as he probes them, allowing their arbitrariness but also their meanings. He notes that services have changed over time, to accommodate logistical difficulties or sometimes to assuage fears. “Up until a couple generations ago,” observes Lynch, “humans dealt with death by dealing with their dead, so that the way that we processed mortality was by processing from one place to another. Both the dead and the living have some distance to go when someone we love dies.” Now, however, bodies aren’t always “present” at their own rituals, leaving room for stand-ins, emblems of bodies or memories: a soldier’s passing is marked by a folded flag, a cremated corpse is transformed into an implacable urn.

This notion of process — the sense of journey as well as transformation — informs the work done by Lynch and his family. It’s an “odd arithmetic,” he reads from his book, “Our livelihoods depending on the deaths of others in the way that medicos depend on sickness and lawyers on crime and clergy on the fear of God.” Upfront about the gaps he and such other professionals fill, Lynch doesn’t pretend to know all. Rather, he offers his experience as comfort for the grieving, his knowledge that time changes initial rawness and rage, that next steps, however different they are for each individual, are inevitable, that feelings change and survivors do survive.

The idea of process also informs the Lynch’s interactions with clients. Each seeks comfort in his or her own way. Anne Beardsley brings Lynch to the bedside of her aunt, Mary Leonard, dying of cancer. Gaunt and pale, Mary speaks openly about not knowing what’s ahead. “I don’t know why she was so direct with death and dying,” says Anne. “She wasn’t a religious person.” Other relatives, like David King, don’t have the chance to talk through the process with the person dying. His father Dennis was diagnosed with cancer late, and died soon after. The film shows Dennis’s body dressed and arranged for viewing (“It’s not so much that you’re trying to beautify someone, but that you’re trying to identify someone,” says Sean). David says, “I was surprised by how important some of the details become,” he says.

Having things look right and having a nice suit on or having a nice sport coat on. My dad hadn’t been wearing anything but hospital gowns and sweatpants for months at that point, and to be able to see him looking like himself, with a coat and tie on, ended up being a real comfort.

Not all details are comforting, of course. Nevada and Anthony Verrino must prepare for years, concerning their baby’s imminent death. Born with CFC syndrome, the boy doesn’t see or even make noises, “unless he’s having seizures.” The parents appear repeatedly together, though Nevada ends up speaking most often, describing her walks through the cemetery, where she reads tombstones, noting other mothers who have buried children. “It’s comforting just to feel like we’re a part of this history, and that others have gone through it,” she says. “And we’re just one more family, you know, with our own child and our own grief and also our own will to survive. Because we have to go on without him. He will be gone and our story will continue, just like those other families.”

Comfort seems more a convention than a reality, a story we tell ourselves in order to “continue.” Cemetery worker Michael Willenberg says he’s told his wife he doesn’t care how he’s dispatched, whether by burial or cremation. “Being in the business,” he says, leaning on his backhoe, “to me, it’s just a vehicle you’re putting in the ground, the person’s not there.”

In fact, we all live close to death. Some can forget, however briefly, the details and the imminence, immersed in distractions and codes of living. But death must always be processed. Tom Lynch recalls seeing his own father’s body for the first time. At first, he says, he imagined this was what his father would look like dead, and then he saw: this was his father dead. “It was like a door closing between tenses,” he recalls. “It’s going from the idea of the thing to the thing itself, seeing what we don’t want to be true and knowing it’s true. The truth of death is rarely welcome, but persists. “By accompanying the dead where they need to go,” says Lynch, “we get where we need to be, to the edge of that oblivion and then the return to life, with the certain knowledge that life has changed.”

RATING 7 / 10