From Ireland and Michigan, a Funeral Director Echoes Poetic Insights of Heaney and O'Driscoll

Author: Bill Schmitt

Thomas P. Lynch, a poet and funeral director with roots in Ireland and Michigan, combined reflections on life and death with tributes to two recently deceased Irish poets when he spoke at Notre Dame on September 9, 2016. The occasion was the Cushwa Center’s annual Hibernian Lecture, focused this year on the genius of Seamus Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll, considered from Lynch’s distinct perspective as an Irish-American writer who deals professionally with death and dying. He honored the two masters of multiple genres, who died in 2013 and 2012 respectively, by recalling their inspiration for his own writing.

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Lynch echoed their stories about solidarity in difficult journeys, relevant to the experiences of Irish immigrant families in the United States, through a lyrical lecture and poetry reading titled “Shoulder and Shovelwork: Dead Poets and Eschatologies.” He explained the title’s inspiration: Seamus Heaney’s promise to work in words with the same diligence he had observed in his father’s work with the soil.

Lynch has taught in a graduate writing program at the University of Michigan, the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and a mortuary science curriculum at Wayne State University. He himself has written about such things as the dignity and difficulties of immigrants’ travels, although his lecture drew more on his work as a Milford, Michigan, funeral director called to honor the joys and brokenness revealed when a life ends. He was a National Book Award finalist in 1987 for his first book of poems about living and dying, Skating with Heather Grace. One of his books of essays, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, inspired a 2007 “Frontline” program of the same name. The PBS production won an Emmy for best art and culture documentary.

Recalling the thrill of seeing Heaney speak at Emory University, Lynch explained, “He had been the most amplified and ever-present voice of my generation of poets.” Heaney received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. Thanks partly to a Catholic upbringing in Ireland, Heaney’s words always yielded “a rich trove of metaphoric treasure,” Lynch said. He cited the poem “Funeral Rites,” in which Heaney was coping with slaughter amid the Irish “Troubles,” but nevertheless “shouldered a kind of manhood” by preserving ritual and carrying the coffins of family members and others.

Lynch also looked back to the Christmas Eve death of Dennis O’Driscoll, with whom he had a 25-year friendship. O’Driscoll was “Ireland’s most bookish man,” one of the country’s “under-celebrated” poets, and the best biographer of Heaney, Lynch said. He decided to travel to O’Driscoll’s funeral partly because he had read that Heaney once made his way to the funeral of a writer who had influenced him.

“The witness of Dennis’s burial, the witness of Seamus’s burial, drew in me a catch in the breath that I still have not let go of,” Lynch commented.

His career as a funeral director allowed Lynch the occasional privilege of being present with a group gathered around the deceased when the circumstances sparked memorable reflections. These were the eloquent remarks that “priests and pastors and rabbis and imams, poets and poohbahs and perfect strangers, bring to these horizontal mysteries—at bedside, at box-side, at graveside. I’ve been graced, I’d have to say, by my witness of the lifting and burying and carrying that we all do for one another,” Lynch added.

“This language of shoulders and shovels and aching backs” is what Heaney “learned as a farm boy in Derry.” The Michigan funeral director warned that American culture is forgetting what Ireland still knows of this gritty engagement and accompaniment at the end of life.

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Lynch connected the journeys of these deceased poets to his own Irish-American family’s experience, highlighting both the vitality of immigrants’ hopes and the paths that could lead to joy and sorrow. As he continued the Hibernian Lecture, he displayed a 1934 photograph (shown here) which showed the extended Lynch family gathered on the steps of a Jackson, Michigan, church. There, a young priest, Lynch’s great-uncle, had just celebrated his first high Mass. The priest’s father, Thomas C. Lynch, had passed away, but it was his immigration to the United States—and his marriage to fellow immigrant Ellen Ryan—that gave birth to the legacies pictured: The priest was one of three children of Thomas and Ellen. The others became a teacher and a postal worker. Seated below the standing, robed priest, a ten-year-old boy posed. Thomas P. Lynch told his audience this boy would grow up to be his father.

Continuing the joy-and-sorrow theme, Thomas P. referred again to the priest in the family photo. A few years after ordination, while in New Mexico, pneumonia claimed the life of his great-uncle. The priest’s nephew, Lynch’s father-to-be, the ten-year-old from the photo, soon wound up wandering a funeral home prior to his uncle’s burial. He happened upon two undertakers silently finishing preparations of the body. Profoundly moved by the sight of the priest’s corpse being lifted carefully into a casket, the nephew decided to become an undertaker—adopting a profession his son, Thomas P., would carry on. The latter Lynch also became a writer and educator, inspired by the likes of Heaney and O’Driscoll on his initial visit and many returns to Ireland to find his ancestral heritage there. These discoveries affirmed this funeral director’s resonance with both life and death, which had been dignified by the two Irish legends to whom he gave tribute and from whom he drew lessons.

“When we estrange ourselves from our dead,” he cautioned the audience, “we are estranging ourselves from Humanity 101.”