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Poet and Undertaker Thomas Lynch.

Poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch has combined his two occupations to produce his new book, "The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade." (W. W. Norton) The work is a collection of essays whose topics range from the scheme to use cemeteries as golf courses to poignant stories from his twenty year career as an undertaker. Lynch says he thinks that the meaning of life is connected to death, and his book primarily discusses the impact of the dead on the living.


Other segments from the episode on July 21, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 21, 1997: Interview with Thomas Lynch; Commentary on literature and travel; Review of Ron Miles's album "Woman's Day."


Date: JULY 21, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072101NP.217
Head: The Undertaking
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Thomas Lynch. When he was a child, death was a normal part of life because undertaking was the family business. Lynch's father preferred the term "funeral director" to describe his profession. Thomas Lynch, who has stayed in the profession, is also a writer. So he's often called a mortician/poet or poet/undertaker.

Lynch suggests that both aspects of his work are about making some sense of life and living. He's never written a book of poems about funerals, but he has just written a memoir called "The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade."

Here's a reading from the opening.

THOMAS LYNCH, FUNERAL DIRECTOR AND AUTHOR, "THE UNDERTAKING: LIFE STUDIES FROM THE DISMAL TRADE": "Every year, I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople. Another two or three dozen I take to the crematory 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 -- 11,000 square feet furnished and fixtured with an abundance of pastel and chair rail and crown mouldings. The whole lash-up is mortgaged and remortgaged well into the next century."

"My rolling stock includes a hearse, two Fleetwoods, and a minivan with darkened windows our price list calls a 'service vehicle' and everyone in town calls 'the dead wagon.'"

"I used to use the unit pricing method -- the old package deal. It meant that you had only one number to look at. It was a large number. Now, everything is itemized. It's the law, so now there is a long list of items and numbers and italicized disclaimers -- something like a menu or the Sears Roebuck wish book."

"And sometimes, the federally-mandated options begin to look like cruise control or rear window defrost. I wear black most of the time to keep folks in mind of the fact we're not talking Buicks here."

"At the bottom of the list there is still a large number. In a good year, the gross is close to $1 million -- 5 percent of which we hope to call profit. I am the only undertaker in this town. I have a corner on the market."

GROSS: Thomas Lynch, thanks for reading that excerpt of your new memoir, The Undertaking.

Would you just describe a little bit the rest of your job for us? After somebody chooses what funeral plan they want, what do you do?

LYNCH: I think my job is to -- in one very practical way, to see that everybody gets to the right place at the right time. And I suppose, you know, for the dead guy, that means getting to the right cemetery and the right grave in the cemetery or the crematory.

For the living people, that means, I suppose, getting into the first weeks and months of their bereavement with what I like to think is a head start that the funeral gives them.

GROSS: Why do you think your father first went into the business?

LYNCH: When he was a boy, 10 or 12, he went with his father to make funeral arrangements for a dead uncle. The uncle was a priest and had died out west and was brought back to Jackson, Michigan.

And whilst my grandfather was upstairs picking out caskets, my father went downstairs where he was two undertakers dressing the priest in his vestments in the embalming room. And he always said that's when he decided to be an undertaker. I suppose the only other option would have been to be a priest.

GROSS: It sounds he like he felt a sense of calling when he saw this.

LYNCH: Well, I'm glad he chose the one that allowed him to have children.

GROSS: That's interesting you should put it that way. So what's the big differences between the business when your father started it and the business that you have now?

LYNCH: Well, there are some things that are remarkably the same, Terry. I mean, you know, the players are pretty much the same. There's the -- you know, the one dead guy and then there's the 150 or 200 people to whom that death matters. And so, that hasn't changed -- that hasn't changed in, you know, in history.

I think in a lot of ways my father's time was shaped by different forces than our times are. I mean, in my father's childhood, you know, sexuality was associated with the threat of birth. And now, sexuality is tainted by the threat of death. So that's a pretty big change in our -- the way we see things.

And certainly my father's -- the perception of my father's work was changed by a book in the early '60s by "The American Way of Death." But it was also shaped by, you know, one of the biggest funerals this country ever witnessed in the early '60s, which was Kennedy's.

GROSS: Parents often try to protect their children from death for as long as they can. But you helped your parents in preparing dead bodies. What are your first memories about having death explained to you?

LYNCH: Well, that's a really good question. I've often thought how my parents went about introducing us to these facts. And I remember, I think I was maybe 10 or 12 years old, going in the back door of my father's funeral home -- the door through which you had to go through the embalming room in order to get to the main offices. And he never announced what I was going to see or made much of a production of it. It was a Saturday and I was invited to go to work with him.

And in this room that we walked through was a dead body -- a man who was laid out on a table horizontally, and a sheet over his body, but not his face. And I remember asking my father what his name was and how did he die and how old he was. And he gave me the answers to those things, and was generally available to answer any other questions. I can't remember if I had any others. But it made sense to me.

It was not seen as exceptional, and to the extent that, you know, 100 percent of us that are born die, it was not exceptional.

GROSS: So you weren't frightened by being in the presence of a dead body?

LYNCH: No, no I wasn't. But I wasn't -- I wasn't told I ought to be either. And I think we sometimes spend too much time warming our children up to this fact. I have -- I've had the experience too often where parents will bring young children to the funeral home and tell them to sit in a chair in the lobby and don't move.

And the parents go in and are able to line up the facts and the fictions and all the, you know, all the feelings that go on at a funeral, and the children sit out in the hallway seeing people coming, going -- some laughing, some weeping. And, you know, people standing around in black suits opening the door.

And I think that creates more mystery for children. I think it's better to leave them home with a sitter if you're not going to let them actually take part in what's going on.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Thomas Lynch. He's a poet and an undertaker, and his new memoir is called The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade.

What is your attitude now toward dead bodies? As you say in your book, a lot of people think of bodies as being just the shell -- you know, the life is gone...


GROSS: ... the spirit is gone. This is just the empty vessel.

LYNCH: Well, you know, I think we have -- I think there's a broad range of responses to a dead body, but most people who come in contact with them have, you know, strong feelings. And so, I think it's probably healthy that we do come in contact with them.

And my sense of it is in my own experience of dead bodies, the people who make a difference to me -- my dead mother, my dead father, my dead grandparents, my dead cousin Nora in Ireland -- each of these bodies did not cease being the person immediately.

They ceased being the person when I took leave of them. And something about the funeral had to do with that leavetaking -- acting out that sort of ceremonial passage between when they died -- actually, physically -- and when they died actually socially to their children and grandchildren and bill collectors. I think that's why we have funerals -- to make up that space.

And I've often noticed when I go to the cemetery after, you know -- first I get news that a neighbor has died and then we spend two or three days during the wake and the funeral and the preparations and what have you. And maybe three or four days later, we're at the cemetery and the body is being buried.

I've often noticed that somehow that's not the person anymore. It was the person when I first got word of the death, but by the time we're prepared to place that body in the ground or take that body to the crematory, it's not the person anymore. And I think that's the way it's supposed to work.

GROSS: Does dealing with dead bodies ever become routine? You've been at it for so many years -- you grew up with your father being an undertaker. It's always been a part of your life.

LYNCH: No, I don't -- I don't know that it's ever been routine for me, because dead bodies in Milford are the bodies of neighbors and friends, or the mothers and fathers or sisters and brothers of people I know. So that, you know -- and my concentration, to be sure, Terry, is most often not on the dead body.

It's on the person who's walking in the door to whom that dead body makes a difference. And, by the way, who's going to be paying the bill. I mean, that's -- you know, the central player, as far as I'm concerned, is not the dead body for whom I can do nothing to or about or for or with. The central player is the person to whom that makes a difference -- the widowed or the bereaved -- the one for whom I can do some good or some harm.

GROSS: It's customary to cover the body after death -- to cover the head, the face. Why is that customary?

LYNCH: I don't know, because more often than not, when we make a removal from a person's home, we're asked to leave the face uncovered, and we do, because it's not an embarrassment to these people.

I think this returns to one of your earlier questions. When someone we love dies, it's not that person we don't want to see anymore. It's that person's death that we hesitate to see.

And I think sometimes that's the first thing we need to see. We have to kind of confront that fact of life. And that's one of the things that funerals seek to do.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Thomas Lynch. He's a poet and he's the town undertaker in Milford, Michigan. He's written a new memoir called The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade.

Let's take a short break and then we'll chat some more.

LYNCH: Sure.


Back with Thomas Lynch. He's a funeral director and poet and author of a new memoir called The Undertaking.

I wonder what you think of open casket funerals? And when you think they're appropriate and when you think they're not? Or if you think that's just completely a function of what survivors want?

LYNCH: Well, I think they are more or less essential. I think we're a species that operates under old rules like "seeing is believing" and as difficult as it is to see someone we care about dead, I think it's probably one of the things we need to see when a person we love has died.

And you know, we live in a world in which we can literally disappear the dead. I can get a call on the phone and within 24 hours that body can disappear into the crematory or to the cemetery. And no one to whom that body has any significance will have to come in contact with it. They can sign the paperwork, pay the bill, and call it a day.

And while they are probably getting a good deal, they may not be getting their money's worth in that case, because I believe one of the obligations the living have to the dead is to kind of witness. And I think it helps the living respond to what is.

So we all know people who are carrying old griefs around with them years after the death has occurred, and I think a lot of that has to do with not having actually faced the death. And so I think, you know, open caskets are more or less essential.

GROSS: Well, it's your job to make the person -- to make the body, I guess, look as much as a living person...


GROSS: ... as possible. No? You know, because people are always saying: "oh, he looked -- she looked great."

LYNCH: I think the phrase is: "doesn't he look natural?"

GROSS: Yeah.

LYNCH: Yeah. Well, they do. I mean, that's our nature. It's entirely natural to be dead one time in your life. I think what a lot of people are not prepared to see is someone they love laid out horizontally, fully dressed with their eyes and their mouth closed, and their jewelry on. But that's the way we've been laying out the dead for a long time. That's not to say we couldn't change that.

What I'm interested in is not necessarily the, you know, how the body is laid out, but that the living confront the dead, so that they begin to behave as if the death has occurred. And I mean, closed caskets are very tidy and no caskets are even tidier. But it means nothing. I mean, I could put a casket in every living room in Milford and it wouldn't mean a thing about anyone dying.

So -- and I'm not really concerned about whether it's an open casket or a body on a cot. I think that confrontation is the important thing.

GROSS: So what do you aspire to cosmetically? You say you want the person to confront the dead -- to confront the death?

LYNCH: Well, I don't aspire to too much. I think, for example, when my father died, I wanted him to be clothed the way he would clothe himself. So I wanted -- I mean, he wore a suit. I put a suit on him.

I wanted his hair combed and I wanted his eyes closed and his mouth closed because my father, like most of the human race, did not die with his eyes and his mouth closed. And so, I closed his eyes and I closed his mouth.

But I didn't -- I didn't want -- I mean, he died in Florida, so he had this remarkable tan, you know, so -- and he had just stepped out of the shower, so he was perfectly clean.

But it took us three days to get him home from Florida where he died to his wake in Michigan. And so, he was embalmed so that we could take our time saying our goodbyes and bring him home to do it.

But I didn't want to make him look like, you know, like Brad Pitt. You know, I wanted him to look like my father dead.

GROSS: You and your brothers embalmed your father yourselves. I would have thought that embalming was a little bit like being a doctor. People say that, you know, doctors shouldn't treat people who are really close to them, like their family. You get -- you just get emotionally too involved and you can make mistakes. You can make bad judgments because of how close you are.

And I would think it would be uncomfortable or more than you'd want to see, to preside over the embalming of your own father.

LYNCH: Well, for me -- I don't -- I think it had -- it was less like medicine, which is highly technical, and more like nursing, which has more to do with care. So for me, that procedure had no technical bad sides to it.

You know, I mean the worse that could happen had already happened. My father died. So whatever care I took to prepare his body so that my brothers and sisters and his sister and the rest of our family could say their goodbyes seemed perfectly normal to me.

GROSS: Now, you're father was an undertaker. He was a professional, so I'm sure you really wanted to do right by him. Did he give you any clues what kind of burial -- what kind of funeral he wanted?

LYNCH: You know, he directed so many of them. We used to always kind of inquire "what do you want done with you when you're dead?" And his only response to that was: "you'll know what to do."

And I think for my father, the lesson I got from that was that he trusted our instincts and he trusted his training. And he also knew that whatever we did, we would be living with the decisions. He would not.

And one of the things about being dead, Terry, is that you don't have to direct any more funerals if you're a funeral director. But if you're a real estate agent, you don't have to direct your own funeral. You can leave that to the people who literally live with the decisions.

And I think too often we are told that we, you know, we have to make our prearrangements and "don't be a burden to our children" as if they weren't a burden to us, and as if, you know, taking care of those burdens didn't make us feel alive and well and able and part of the family.

So, you know, I mistrust this idea that we can somehow pre-feel the feelings by prearranging the funeral, and that's whether it's, you know, prenuptial agreements or planned parenthood. I mean, they're very tidy when it comes to finances, but they don't do a thing for the feelings, you know? I could have planned all the parenthood I wanted -- never prepared me for having teenagers.

GROSS: So what are your thoughts, though, about people who come in and want to prearrange their funeral so that they don't have to let their children or their spouse make the decision about what the best funeral would be?

LYNCH: Well, my -- I think my advice is that that type of discussion is really healthy, but it ought to include the spouse and the children. And, you know, I tell the story in the book of a good friend of mine, Russ Reader (ph), who was trying to make his prearrangements for 20 years.

And, you know, he was the father of nine children and I always used to tell him -- first, he wanted his body donated to science, but because of his rather ponderous size, it was unlikely that the medical school would take him, and in fact, they wouldn't.

And then he wanted to be cremated and his ashes spread from a hot air balloon over town during sidewalk sale days, which was, you know, a wonderful idea and one I could see working for Russ. But I told him eventually he would have to make that deal with his wife and family. They were the ones who'd be paying me. They were the ones eventually for whom I'd be working. And they were.

And Russ -- I don't know if he ever had that discussion, but I do know that when he died, his wife and his family felt it was important to have a brass band to lead him up to the cemetery playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" and they had a lot of people stand up at his wake and talk about their stories about Russ. He was a character in Milford and a great man in every way.

GROSS: Thomas Lynch is the undertaker in Milford, Michigan. His new memoir is called The Undertaking. He'll be back in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Thomas Lynch. He's the only funeral director in Milford, Michigan where he lives. He learned embalming from his father, who was an undertaker. Thomas Lynch is also a poet and essayist. He's been published in the New Yorker, Harpers, and the London Review of Books. He's written a new memoir called The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade.

When you're preparing a body for a viewing, are you often thinking: this is the absolute last visual memory the loved ones will have of this person?

LYNCH: No. I think so often what we see when we see someone laid out in a casket or dead, I think so much of what we see is informed by what we're able to see of what we want to see. It's a composite of memory and worry.

All I can explain to you about this, Terry, is oftentimes people will come into the funeral home and -- for the first viewing, for the first sight of someone laid out -- and sometimes people will say "oh, doesn't he look natural; that's great; that's wonderful."

But sometimes, people will say, you know: "there's something that's just not right. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something -- it's just not him." And I'll ask them to have a seat, you now, in the lounge have a cup of coffee while I make some adjustments. And very often, I do nothing. But I ask them to come back in, you know, five minutes later and somehow it's changed them -- somehow, "oh yes, that's more him."

And I'm not trying to be devious or duplicitous, but what I am trying to be in tune to is the fact that for someone to walk in and say: "oh, yes, this is OK" when, you know, their mother died at 50 oftentimes isn't the case.

Maybe they're angry. Maybe it's not OK. Maybe it's not natural. Maybe this is the worst possible thing that can happen and it's going to be some time before they get around to saying "that's all right." So, I think what we see and what we perceive are two different things.

GROSS: You said that most people don't die with their eyes closed and their mouth closed -- that's a position you put them in...

LYNCH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ... for the viewing. What are some of the more typical positions of death that you find bodies in? And I'm wondering what that says to you about what -- what the passage from life to death might be like?

LYNCH: Well, I mean, horizontal is a big preference. I mean, everybody likes to, you know, get level, I think. And so I would say the, you know, the vast majority of us die horizontally. We can do it otherwise, but that's the leader so far.

You know, the best case scenario is to die in your own bed, and that happens to, you know, less than 15 percent of us. But it does happen, and -- but I've buried people, you know, in Chevrolets, you know, who died in Chevrolets and BMWs and emergency rooms and, you know, their backyards and hanging and drowning and every imaginable circumstance.

GROSS: When you have a body that died in some kind of mangling type of accident or committed suicide or was murdered, and their body reveals that...

LYNCH: Parts.

GROSS: ... yeah, what -- is it hard for you to fix it up in a way that will be acceptable to the family?

LYNCH: Well, most of the time...

GROSS: Do you try to make the body look like they weren't mangled?

LYNCH: No, no. I think sometimes what we try to do is wash the body and clean the body and in a sense return the body to a family so that they can come to terms with it. And there are cases -- and this is interesting to me, that when oftentimes you'd think an open casket is not an option, that's oftentimes when it's most important for a family -- when they are most insistent on it.

When a daughter has been brutally murdered, or a son has died in an accident -- a violent accident -- or has gone off to some foreign place and was found dead -- that's when it's most important to return the bodies, to see them.

And so, this is true when buildings blow up or when planes crash into the sea, that there's this immediate effort to return the body to the family. It doesn't belong to the airlines. It doesn't belong to the ocean. It doesn't belong to the media or the medical examiner. It belongs to the people who care about it.

And so, whether they see the body looking lively or the body looking dead or only a portion of the body, Terry, as long as it convinces them that what they heard happened did happen, they begin to grieve properly.

So yeah, I've been with mothers and fathers who have seen horrible things. And I didn't try to do a thing to change that, but I did let them see. And from what they tell me, it was the right thing to do. It was the one thing that helped them begin to grieve as if someone they really cared about had been brutally and terribly and violently removed from them.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is poet and funeral director Thomas Lynch. And he's written a new memoir called The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade.

When people come to see you to make decisions about what casket and what lining and all of that, if the death has already happened, I mean, they're at their most vulnerable.

LYNCH: Yeah.

GROSS: And yet they have to make important consumer decisions: are they getting a good price? Are they getting their money's worth? Is one package deal a better buy than another? Is it the pine or the oak coffin? And it must be a really strange time to, you know, be going over prices and linings and things like that with them.

LYNCH: Yeah. Sure. It is, but it's -- you know, the presumption is -- and you are absolutely right, Terry -- when someone we -- you know, when we have a dead body on our hands, we're in a bad bargaining position. You know, we don't -- we don't, you know, let our fingers do the walking very often. We know, in advance, usually, who we're going to call.

And what I have to keep in mind is that in my town, about 70 or 80 percent of my business every year depends on the fact that people regard me as someone who treats them properly. And that means -- that takes care that they are not pushed around financially. And I do that not because I'm such a nice guy, but because it's really good for business and because I have a 30-year mortgage, so I want to be around to pay for it.

So my general instruction to people about caskets is that there are none that get you into heaven or keep you out.

GROSS: You feel it's very important for family or for survivors to encounter the physical actuality of somebody's death...

LYNCH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ... to see the body. What do you think about cremation?

LYNCH: Well, I think it works very well as a way of disposing of our dead properly, and it's an ancient and honorable form of disposing of our dead. I do feel that too often in Western culture, we have mistaken cremation for disappearing the dead.

In east India where cremation is practiced widely and successfully and with great meaning and, you know, spiritual meaning, it's done publicly. But so often here, cremation is short-hand for getting rid of the body.

And most of the cremations that we handle in our area -- it's about 20, 22 percent of our deaths end in cremation. But most of them follow, you know, some form of a funeral. It may be -- it might be different in format or length of time than the, you know, the bells and whistles, three limousines, casket, spray of roses type of funeral that we're all used to. But it still has the meaning and importance to those families.

And I've found, you know, for many families, that choice about cremation has been very, very good. But it's usually because they made it for good reasons like, for example, a family recently who wanted to have a portion of their dad's ashes buried in the cemetery so they could go there on Memorial Day, but they also wanted a portion of his ashes, you know, spread in the river up north where he fished all the time. They can't do that with earth burial, but they could do it with cremation and it made a lot of sense to them.

GROSS: My guest is Thomas Lynch. He's written a memoir called The Undertaking. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with undertaker and writer Thomas Lynch.

Your father never gave you any advice on the kind of funeral he wanted. He always told you you'd know what to do when he died. Have you spoken with your family about what you want when you go?

LYNCH: Well, I want them to be sure I'm dead, for starters.

GROSS: Yeah, well that's a good idea. Yeah.

LYNCH: I mean, it's sort of -- yeah, yeah. But then after that, Terry, you know -- and a portion of the book makes this case -- I would like them to organize a service that allows them, you know, to look at what's happened. They can decide, you now, the meanings. It really is theirs to do. But I don't want anybody necessarily telling them that there's, you know, that we should just all have a party.

In case they feel like weeping, I want them to feel as if it's OK to do so. And if they want to laugh, I want them to feel as if it's OK to do so. But it's theirs to do, so I'm -- you know, my -- I have a confidence in my parenting. I expect they'll have a sense of what makes sense to me, but they're under no obligation to me. You know.

I'd like to be a burden to them. I'd like my death to amount to something for them. I'd like them to sort of have to pay the toll on all these years of what I hope is loving. And I hope they do that efficiently, and by that I mean, I hope they get over it, but I don't want them to go around it. I want them to go through it.

GROSS: But the decision about whether you'll be in a cemetery or be cremated; whether your ashes would be scattered or resting on the fireplace -- that's for them to decide?

LYNCH: Yeah, that doesn't make a bit of difference to me.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

LYNCH: That doesn't really make a bit of difference to me. I have said that if I -- you know, I have a little house in Ireland. I have said that if I die in Ireland, that would be a good place to bury me. If I did in Milford, that would be a good place to bury me. I think that's the only direction I've given.

I have said that I'm also entitled to wholesale on most everything.


GROSS: You know, you write about how your father used to say when you were young and you asked him to go someplace or have a little adventure, he'd say: "you can't do it. I just buried a kid who died after doing that."

LYNCH: That's right. Yes, he was a very, very careful man. But he lived with my mother, who had great doses of faith and it was, I think, the balance between her willingness to let God take care of us and his wariness about God's, you know, sort of abiding by the laws of nature. I think I grew up with that balance.

And so, yeah, you know, God does live by the laws of nature. Terrible, terrible things happen to people that oughtn't to happen. And yet, you know, by faith we seem to be able to make the leaps past that. I think the promise of faith is that it gets us past our fear, not past our death.

GROSS: Do you have a religious faith that...

LYNCH: Oh, yeah...

GROSS: ... helps, helps you understand death?

LYNCH: ... I do. Well, I have a -- I mean, yeah, my sense of faith is, I mean, it's day to day. Yeah, I think being a parent has made me a person of faith. The list that, you know, of things that I'm in charge of gets shorter and the list of things that whomever's in charge is in charge of gets longer.

And some days, you know, God seems very close -- you know, the guy with the beard and the abandonment issues that I grew up with. And other days, it seems like, you know, God is dressing up in a different uniform. Some days he looks like my kids and some days he looks like my wife. You know, every day, though, it seems that He's taking on more duties and I'm getting less.

GROSS: As I've mentioned before, you're a poet as well as a funeral director, and I'd love it if you could leave us with a poem or an excerpt of a poem.

LYNCH: Yeah, this is a poem, Terry, about the rebuilding of a bridge to an old cemetery in Milford that connected the town, its daily life, to the ancient debt of our town across the river, the Huron River.

This bridge allows a residential route
So now we take our dead by tidy homes with fresh bed linens hung in the back yards
And lanky boys in driveways shooting hoops and gardens to turn and lawns for mowing
And young girls sunning in their bright new bodies
First to Atlantic and down Mount Eagle, to the marshy north bank of the Huron
Where blue heron nest, rock bass and blue gill bed in the shallows,
And life goes on
And on the other side, the granite rows of Johnsons, Jacksons, Ruggles, Wilsons, Smiths -- the common names we have in common with this place, this river, and these winter oaks
And have likewise in common our own ends, that bristle in us when we cross this bridge
The cancer or the cardiac arrest or lapse of caution that will do us in
Among these stones we find the binding thread -- old wars, old famines, whole families killed by flu
A century and then some of our dead, this bridge restores our easy access to
A river is a decent distance kept, the graveyard is an old agreement made between the living, and the living who have died
That says we keep their names and dates alive
This bridge connects our daily lives to them, and makes them, once our neighbors, neighbors once again

GROSS: Thank you for reading that, and thank you very much for talking with us.

LYNCH: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Thomas Lynch is the funeral director in Milford, Michigan. His new memoir is called The Undertaking.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Thomas Lynch
High: Poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch has combined his two occupations to produce his new book, "The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade." The work is a collection of essays whose topics range from the scheme to use cemeteries as golf courses to poignant stories from his twenty year career as an undertaker. Lynch says he thinks that the meaning of life is connected to death, and his book primarily discusses the impact of the dead on the living.
Spec: Books; Authors; Death; Labor; Undertakers; The Undertaking

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: The Undertaking
Date: JULY 21, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072102NP.217
Head: Mystery Lover's Tour of England
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:46

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, reads a lot of murder mysteries and has taught a course on detective fiction. Last month, she was a guide on a mystery lovers tour of England. She's back now to tell us how it went.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Chaucer's pilgrims set off in April to make their way to Canterbury to pray at the shrine of Thomas a'Becket. But modern-day pilgrims who seek to worship at the shrine of literature usually set off in summertime.

In past summers, I've endured long, sweaty road trips just to be able to breathe in the sacred dust molecules floating in houses once inhabited by Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, and Emily Dickinson. This summer, however, I hit the academic junket jackpot: an all-expense paid mystery lovers tour of England.

In exchange for my scholarly expertise on mysteries, the Smithsonian Institution, which was sponsoring the tour, would put me up in four-star hotels and cover all the fish and chips and warm ale I could swallow.

I accepted the Smithsonian's offer faster than you could say "the butler did it." And last month, I found myself in London, boarding a bus with two guides and 15 participants, mostly retirees. Our first stop was Torquay (ph), a seaside resort in southwest England that was Agatha Christie's home.

After settling in at the Imperial Hotel, a grand Edwardian pile that served as the setting for some of Christie's mysteries, I gave an introductory talk on Dame Agatha's life.

Afterwards, to my surprise, the participants clapped. The only time my undergraduate students clap is when I tell them I'm going to curve the grade on their midterm exams. I was really beginning to enjoy this tour, but the best was yet to come.

One of our intrepid guides had visited a Torquay pub a few weeks earlier and had fallen into conversation with Agatha Christie's former vegetable gardener. After a few pints, this fellow agreed to take a note to Dame Agatha's reclusive daughter, asking if our group could visit the grounds of the family mansion, "Greenways," which is never open to the public.

Miraculously, Christie's daughter wrote back, inviting us to come. So on our second day in Torquay, the tour bus lumbered up a narrow country lane and soon we were wandering among the descendants of the very same roses and marrows that Christie herself once cultivated. Christie's daughter, accompanied by her lap dog, even came out to greet us. Now in her 70s, she's the eerie spitting image of her mother.

The next few days were a delicious whirl of murder and mayhem. I lectured on Dorothy Sayers (ph) over tea and "The Hound of the Baskervilles" as our tour bus slogged through the moors. We gaped at Agatha Christie's typewriter, a replica of Brother Cadfile's (ph) monastery, and the national stud grounds immortalized by Dick Francis.

And then, we met a real live mystery writer. I won't say his name, but you know him. His mysteries have been serialized on television and they've been praised by me, among other reviewers, for their erudite tone. I was delighted to be seated next to this grand old detective fiction writer at dinner that night.

But as the evening progressed, I began to get suspicious. He kept putting his arm around my shoulder. Was it a paternal gesture? He'd lean over me to talk to others and put his hand on my knee. Was he just being avuncular? By dinner's end, the mystery was solved. Our literary eminence was clearly a lech.

Constrained by my official role as tour study leader and having no arsenic handy to drop in his coffee, I resigned myself to sitting with my elbows out and a disapproving, Miss Marple expression on my face. Here was yet one more author better to read than to meet.

That's the paradox of literary pilgrimages like this one. Our group spent 10 days tracing the footsteps of mystery masterminds, hoping that by walking around the same streets and villages they inhabited, we'd come to know these authors intimately. Yet actually meeting an admired author can oftentimes be a disappointing, even flesh-crawling experience.

It's a fallacy to think that because we love a writer's imagination, we'll necessarily love him or her, too. And yet, illogically, almost all of us devoted readers persist in that fallacy. Even after my squirming encounter with well, let's call him Inspector Hound, I continued to collect author talismans, like a snapshot of Dorothy Sayers' front door and a napkin from the C.S. Lewis Room in an Oxford pub.

Then, there's that little flower I plucked from Agatha Christie's garden that's now pressed into my copy of "The Body in the Library." When I touch it, I irrationally feel a little closer to the queen of crime herself.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan tells us about her recent junket, a "Mystery Lover's Tour of England."
Spec: Books; Mysteries; Europe; England
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Mystery Lover's Tour of England
Date: JULY 21, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072103NP.217
Head: Mommy on Top
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Trumpeter Ron Miles comes from Boulder, Colorado where he played in a lot of bands and made a few records for regional labels, which didn't attract so much attention despite his good chops on trumpet and quirky perspective on music.

Then he got hired by guitarist Bill Friselle (ph) for his quartet. Now, Ron Miles makes records for a big label.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Thirty years ago, most jazz musicians were in agreement about rock and roll: it was the devil's music. Not because of rude lyrics or anything like that, but because rockers were getting a lot of the gigs jazz musicians used to get.

But even those jazz musicians in sympathy with rock, or at least hoping to cash in on it a little, didn't always have a good ear for it. They would have sounded just as unconvincing playing country and western.

That was then. By now, two generations of improvisers have come up with rock in their blood. Trumpeter Ron Miles is one. He knows rock influence is not just a matter of loud guitars and a backbeat from the drums. It's also about putting some feeling into songs of repeating melodic hooks and, by jazz standards anyway, very simple chord progressions.

This is from "Mommy On Top" on Miles' new album called "Woman's Day."


WHITEHEAD: That owes a lot to the Miles Davis of the '70s, even if Ron Miles here favors a more outgoing trumpet style. Ron Miles hears a continuum of American popular music, spanning jazz and rock and cowboy ballads. There is a resemblance between his country-inflected tunes and those of guitarist Bill Friselle, in whose band Miles works and who plays on Miles' new album.

But the trumpeter was already involved in blurring such genre's on the eastern Colorado jazz scene where he came up. Miles has a real knack for titles. This tune is called "Jesus, I Want To Go To Sleep."


WHITEHEAD: Such unguarded material puts all the more pressure on a soloist to find something tart to say. Ron Miles can do it by placing his beats where you don't expect and developing familiar phrases in unexpected ways. This is from "Belly."


WHITEHEAD: Maybe the best thing about Ron Miles' rock and country borrowings is that he doesn't force the issue on every piece or take himself too seriously. Nowadays, of course, the jazz CD bins are bulging with self-conscious Americana and omageous old rock bands. When a major jazz label puts out a record of "Crosby, Stills, and Nash" covers, you know a trend is out of hand.

Ron Miles keeps a sense of perspective the easiest way there is: Playing what feels natural, no matter how much work goes into the execution.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead reviewed trumpeter Ron Miles' new release "Woman's Day" on the Grammavision Label.

Dateline: Kevin Whitehead; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews "Mommy on Top" the new release by trumpeter Ron Miles.
Spec: Music Industry; Jazz; Mommy on Top
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Mommy on Top
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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