My weekly men’s group has had its share of somber moments these past few weeks. We’ve been discussing death and funerals.
For the last couple of months, we’ve been moving, one chapter a week, through Thomas Lynch’s “The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade.” A National Book Award finalist, this 1997 book was written by the co-owner of Lynch and Sons funeral home in Michigan. Lynch, also a poet, writes movingly on the randomness of death, the business and meaning of funerals, and life itself. Along the way, Lynch meanders through his divorce, his Irish ancestors, the role of faith and death, encounters with clergy, the relevance of cemeteries, his understanding of Catholicism, his embalming of his own father, the need for tradition and the randomness of death.
Our discussions have not always been easy. We’re all over 70 years old. I had read the book when younger, and since clergy operate in the realm of death quite regularly, thought the book might be an interesting read for my group. But it has been somewhat challenging to discuss dying, cremation, plans for a funeral, the death of friends and the tragic suddenness of death.
Yes, you say, but this is an issue all of us must face. And my group has been facing the topic as well as could be expected. Sometimes the conversation has been very holy and at other times we have laughed a little bit too hard in the face of our own dying. Are we laughing at death or laughing at our own insecurity? We’re not getting any younger and some of us are beset with disease.
The sessions have caused me to think on many things: A Southwest Airlines pilot recently flew the remains of his own father back from Vietnam to his final Texas resting place. That story made me weep, maybe out of patriotism, maybe because of what it said about a father and a son. A 36-year-old mother is killed in Middle Georgia when a runaway truck tire from an 18-wheeler rumbles across the interstate, crashes through her SUV and kills her immediately, only slightly injuring her parents and children who are also in the car. How does one make sense of such a story?
One of our group brings in an article indicating that fewer of us are holding funerals at all and fewer people are planning any religious aspect for their funeral. Oh yes, funeral directors are planning for fewer casket funerals and more cremations. A second crematory has opened in Middle Georgia, promising cut-rate prices.
We have about three chapters left in this book. I’m already thinking that I need to select something — anything! — a little more upbeat for our next study. I think everybody in the group will welcome the finish line on this book, and although it has been some tough sledding, it’s possible that the book will help us welcome The Finish Line a little more easily.