Q&A: Essayist and Undertaker Thomas Lynch

Thomas Lynch is a poet, an essayist, a memoirist, and a fiction writer.

He is also a funeral director.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the meditations inspired by decades spent preparing the dead might come across as the worst sort of rehashing of Six Feet Under, but Lynch is no hack. His poems and prose are masterly, and his essays have appeared everywhere from Granta and The New Yorker to The New York Times and The Paris Review. His 1997 collection, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, won the American Book Award and the Heartland Prize for Non-Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Lynch is concerned with death, of course, but also with life, with faith, and with art. His essays can be mordantly funny, intellectual, or unexpectedly emotional—sometimes all at once. His poems embrace similar themes with crisp imagery and stark verse.

This winter, Lynch is spending a few months away from his funeral home in Michigan at Emory's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. He's writing and teaching a course with Thomas Long, with whom Lynch has co-written a book titled The Good Funeral, to be released later this year. On Monday, Lynch will come into Knoxville for both an afternoon discussion and an evening reading. (The Q&A session will be held in room 1210 of the McClung Tower at 3 p.m.) Even if thoughts of mortality aren't heavy on your mind in this, the gloomiest of months, you'll be missing out if you don't catch him.

You move between writing poems, essays, and fiction, but is there one genre you prefer over any other?
I just write, but poetry is the thing without which nothing else would happen. Of course, that's probably the opposite of how the reading public approaches it. But the essays follow on from poems.

You followed your father into the funeral profession in your early 20s. Were you already writing poetry at that point? Is it something you started doing in school?
No, but I was reading it. I always found poetry very exciting. Exciting may be a strange word, I suppose, but I was always excited by the purposeful deployment of words. But it wasn't until my mid-30s that I began trying to deploy the words myself. And then I wanted to see how my work compared to others, and so I sent some poems out and met with some welcome at journals and literary magazines. … After I had written a couple of essays for The London Review of Books, my editor in the U.K. asked, why don't you write a dozen of them, and we'll put them into a book? And that became The Undertaking. … Non-fiction is, of course, easier to get published than poetry, so I always work into my contract to require the publication a book of poems. For better or worse, I've enjoyed good fortune with editors.

You've continued to work full-time as a funeral director, despite your success as a writer. Would you advise aspiring young poets to keep a regular day job?
I think people whose singular literary interest is poetry need to have something on the side, whether it's a job in academia or a day job. … My friend Dennis O'Driscoll, the brilliant Irish poet and critic who died on Christmas Eve, was a tax man in Ireland his entire life. … And Dennis always insisted—and this is my experience too—that the time he spent writing poetry was a gift. And you know, a hundred years from know, he'll still be remembered for that time he spent on his poetry and his criticism, but he probably won't be remembered as a famous public servant.

Your work as a funeral director isn't a regular nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday job, where you always have weekends off and regular times set aside for writing. How do you balance fitting the time into write in your schedule?
While a funeral service does require you to be available 24-7, you do spend a lot of time waiting. … I find that I often can carry around a line, or a series of lines, and work on them all day.

You've been a funeral director for four decades or so, but I'm curious—are there ever times when you're dealing with a death that is just so sad that it's hard for you to maintain your professionalism? Do you ever lose it?
Actually, it happens more now than before, I think probably due to my own age and advancing decrepitude. I'm in the last third of my life, realistically. … And I'm oftentimes finding myself responding in ways I never did before. By the same token, the death of children has always been really hard to deal with. Last month I was speaking with the general director in Newtown, and there's just nothing you can do to prepare yourself for that many children's funerals at once. There's just no preparation, no training to teach you how to deal with that. … All of that takes its pound of the heart's flesh, I think. There'd be something wrong if it didn't.