16 November, 2010
2 hours, 9 minutes, 11 seconds
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Thomas Lynch (b. 1948) was born in Michigan and was raised in the nearby suburb of Birmingham. Lynch was raised in an Irish-Catholic community and attended traditional Catholic schools. He graduated from Brother Rice High School in 1966, and then went on to attend Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, before deciding to leave school and visit Ireland in 1970. After being introduced to famous poets such as W.B. Yeats and James Joyce at university by Professor Michael Heffernan, Lynch made his first attempts at writing poetry while staying in Ireland with his cousins Tommy and Nora Lynch. Lynch stayed in Ireland for four months before returning to Michigan where in 1971, he entered mortuary school and graduated from Wayne State University Department of Mortuary Science in 1973. Lynch began running the funeral home in Milford in 1974, which he still runs today. Lynch's writing slowed for a short while before he received a copy of Michael Heffernan's first published work in 1978, which inspired him to begin writing again. Lynch published his first collection of poems in 1987 and his first non-fiction work in 1994, which won multiple awards and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Lynch has now published four collections of poems, three works of non-fiction, and one work of fiction. Lynch's work has been featured in many publications such as The New York Times and Times of London, The New Yorker, and Poetry. He has also been the subject of two documentaries, one produced by PBS' Frontline, and the other directed by Cathal Black. Two of Lynch's sons work with him in the funeral business, while his other son is a fly-fishing guide and his daughter is a social worker.
Going to Work with his FatherDisc 1, Track 4: 6:33-8:44
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
TL: And I can remember at some point, I think this was quite by design, it was suggested I go to work with him on a Saturday. I think I might have been seven or eight. I don't know.
LDA: That's young.
TL: I was child. And my mother said, your father is going to take you to work with him today, you know. And it was a Saturday morning, a beautiful sunlit day as I recall. And we walked into the back door of the funeral home in Highland Park, which gave entrance to the embalming room. And there was this man with a bald head and large earlobes laid out horizontally, covered with a sheet, clearly dead. I remember saying, you know, what was his name, how did he die, how old was he? I was given answers to all those questions and then we moved into the next room where, you know, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. And I was told to say a prayer for his family. So I think my experience of the dead, was probably typical of children the generations before me. Where they would have had the dead laid out in their family parlors, certainly anyone in Ireland would have had the dead laid on in their kitchen before they were seven or eight years old. You know, because these were multi-generational families. So, um, maybe that was the reason that my mother had no qualms about sending me off to work with my father. And it wasn't like a big announcement, like now you're going to see a corpse son, be ready for this. It was just; I'm going to work with my father on a Saturday. I knew my father's work had something to do with the dead, so um, and it didn't scar me for life, that I'm aware of. I mean I didn't start, you know, I didn't gain any nervous tics about it or anything like that. No, just—it really seemed very normal. And I think really what is not normal, is the estrangement that we have now enforced between the living and the dead where people can get to fifty and they've never seen a dead body.
The Golf Bag UrnDisc 1: Track 6: 4:10-7:17
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
TL: We have in our funeral home, a selection of cremation urns, everything from the ridiculous to the sublime as you might imagine. One of them that I bought one time is shaped like a golf bag, it's made out of plastic. I said, that's ridiculous, but I wanted it because it looked ridiculous to me. And I used to think this is really ridiculous. Until, a man about your age came in one time—actually younger than you—he had just graduated high school. This man was born on the day his grandfather died. So he got his grandfather's name, not remarkably. He got his grandfather's golf clubs, not remarkably. He got his grandfather's trust account, which was going to be sending him to school back east. So the day this boy graduated from high school, they had a big party at the house of course, and everybody was washing dishing afterwards, and he's cleaning up, and he was—as kids do, will begin to review the wonders of his eighteen years of life already. You know, and he said, and by the way Mom, who was washing dishes with his grandmother. By the way, where—where is Grandpa buried? You know, my namesake, the man whose money I'm about to spend going off to college. And the two women begin to panic, and look at each other because the grandfather had been just cremated as he had requested, and his ashes had been just left in the closet at the funeral home all these years. Because in their mind it was done, you know, he just wanted to be cremated. So once he was cremated they figured it was done. And they never did anything else about it. And I'm sure they had intentions to over the years, but just never came to pass. So his ashes sat on a shelf in the closet, which we had begun to call the closet of memories. You know, with tongue in cheek. But there it was under lock and key, and he had been there for eighteen years.
LDA: Oh my gosh.
TL: Yeah not—it's by the way it's not unusual. Every funeral home in the country has just such a repository, every one of them. And um, this young man, took the money he had gotten for his graduation, came down to the funeral home to get his grandfather's ashes, and he selected that golf bag urn. And he was there when I put the ashes in the urn, and he was there when we took him up to the cemetery, where he bought a grave and bought a stone, with his name which was his grandfather's name, and his grandfather's dates on it. And he put the urn in the hole in the ground with a stone on top, and then it was done, and then he went to school. And this idiotic golf bag urn, which I thought was so ridiculous, when I saw that boy bend to the grave to put his grandfather in that hole, I said, that's sublime. That's sublime. So you're exactly right professor, it's not what is done, it's by whom it's done, and why it's done, and how it's done.
A Twelve Year-olds' EulogyDisc 2: Track 2: 0:14-4:00
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
TL: I directed a funeral with my son Michael for an eight year old girl who died of a brain tumor. When she was diagnosed in January this year, her mother and father, and her sister took it in their mind to spend as much time as they could traveling the world, showing her all the wonders of it. Of course, at every stop there had to be some medical facility, where they could get emergent help if they needed it. They made it as far as St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands where she died.
ETM: I've been to St. Thomas, it's gorgeous.
TL: It is gorgeous.
ETM: St. Thomas and St. John.
TL: Gorgeous places, I've been there. Yeah, I mean, It's a bit of heaven isn't it?
ETM: Yeah, that's a good place to go.
TL: Yeah, it's gorgeous unless you have a daughter who's dying. Everyplace is gorgeous unless you have a daughter who's dying. And um, everyplace is gorgeous unless you have a daughter who's dying. And that's the thing that—and here's the amazing part. So anyway we get to, we get her little body back from the funeral director there, took some time, her family got together. They—you know. We called the priest, and all the casseroles were made, and all the helpless friends and neighbors, and rather large extended family. And then on the day of the funeral mass, which was an unseasonably beautiful day when you think of it. This little girl, Ellie Fionola Murphy, her sister Catherine, just on the edge of junior high school, a tall, beauty of a middle-schooler stood up in front of everyone and gave a ten minute eulogy for her sister. While her parents, who were gob-smacked into speechlessness just held her. And I thought—because I'm named for a famous doubter, and I doubt everything, and I wonder about everything. And I think, as my cousin Nora said at 85, holding her hands in front of the fire. I wonder if there is anything there at all, I wonder if they hear us when we pray. Aren't these the questions we all ask? These are basic questions. Is that all there is, can it happen to me, what comes next? These are signature questions of our species. Cocker spaniels don't ask it, rhododendrons don't ask it, they all live and die, but they don't ask we do. That's what makes us who we are. And so I'm thinking as I'm watching this little girl stand up next to the casket of her dead sister, in a church full of people with the priest and the incense and everybody trying their very best to uphold these people. And she's actually standing there talking, like we're talking now, about her sister. She's actually telling us about her sister. And I'm thinking how does she do it, how does she stand there and do it. 'Cause if it were my sister or brother, or my son or daughter, God help us, I'd be on the ground.
LDA: As an adult.
TL: As an adult, I don't think I could get up. And yet there she was, casting her words into this maw of the unspeakable. And I thought, there must be something there, holding her up. So it gives me faith of a kind.
- Evan Metzold [ETM]
- Linda Dowling Almeida [LDA]
- Thomas Lynch. Photo by Alan Betson, Irish Times