A poem by Thomas Lynch, published in The Atlantic in 2008
Thomas Lynch has written six poetry collections, five books of essays, and one volume of short stories; in 1997, he was a finalist for the National Book Award. Writing isn’t even Lynch’s day job. Since 1974, he’s been a funeral director in the town of Milford, Michigan. The life of an undertaker might seem radically different from that of a writer, but there are some meaningful similarities: Both jobs require a sensitivity to emotional pain, a sense of duty to attend to grief, and a deft way with words. In a 2013 interview, Lynch explained: “When a death occurs, people are looking for a language to describe what happened. We are trying to address through language things that are unspeakable, things we don’t have a ready vocabulary for.”
This ability to walk people through unspeakable loss drew Lynch to undertaking. His father was a funeral director, and Lynch grew up witnessing how important even the smallest kindnesses were to people in mourning. It was gratifying, “just taking coats and moving flowers and helping people through the maze of a funeral home, when at the end of the evening, the widower or widow or surviving child takes you by the shoulders and says, ‘I couldn’t have done this without you,’” he said in the same interview. “All I had to do was show up and do my part. It wasn’t brain surgery. It was simply humanity.”
“Father Andrews” is an ode to another kind of quiet but steadfast presence—a clergyman. Death happens, Lynch notes, regardless of what we mortals do. Father Andrews knows, too, that “we have our little say and then are silent.” But all the same, he continues to show up. He meets the mourners, and even knowing that he doesn’t have all the answers, he tries to figure things out with them. There is a special kind of holiness, Lynch suggests, to those people who know how much in the world they cannot change, but perform their role dutifully, hoping it may relieve someone. It’s simply humanity.
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