I recall reading about The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch when it came out some years ago. I would have said, without checking, ten to fifteen years ago, but it was actually twenty. I remember reading some reviews at the time and thinking that it sounded interesting: essays by a poet who makes his living as an undertaker (or, if you prefer, a mortician): surely he would have some interesting things to say. Enough influential people liked the book that it was a finalist for the National Book Award, but I never took the trouble to have a look at it. And I probably never would have if my wife had not come across it recently and read it. She kept finding passages that she liked so much that she read them to me, and so when she put it down, I picked it up.
It is a very good book, and I recommend it. It treats death familiarly and casually, but simultaneously with respect and awe, and by no means without humor. That famous "dissociation of sensibility" that Eliot saw and described in the modern world is certainly not in evidence here. One who gets up in the morning and goes to work to spend the day collecting bodies from the places where they became bodies only, preparing them for funerals, dealing with the bereaved, burying or burning the bodies, sending out bills for these services and thinking about how to keep them reasonably profitable, could hardly be anything but familiar with death, and would be almost forced to become casual about it. The challenge perhaps would be not to let casual turn into indifferent. But while Lynch is unillusioned and unsentimental, he is not cynical, and definitely not indifferent.
Moreover, he comes from a big Irish Catholic family, and while it is not clear that he still believes, he retains a very Catholic sensibility, by which I mean that he finds it easy and natural to invest very mundane, even crude or disgusting, things with great significance.
Much of the book consists of stories which are variously and often simultaneously touching, funny, and horrifying. Be advised that there are some gruesome moments. There is also a deep undercurrent of meditation on the ethics of life and death.
All of this comes together most impressively for me in the essay "Uncle Eddie, Inc.", which begins with a proposal by his brother Eddie, also an undertaker, for a sideline business specializing in cleaning the premises where a very untidy death has occurred.
Perhaps his service were a little too specialized--know only to local and state law enforcement agencies and county medical examiners and funeral homes; only needed by the families and landlords of the messy dead. Indoor suicides, homicides, household accidents, or natural deaths undetected in a timely fashion--these were the exceptional cases that often required the specialized sanitation services that Uncle Eddie and his staff at Triple S--his wife, his golfing buddy, and his golfing buddy's wife--stood ever ready to provide for reasonable fees most often covered by the Homeowner's Policy. If not the sort of thing you'd find in the yellow pages, still, tough work that someone had to do.
Had you ever wondered about such things? I had.
I went to a Mardi Gras parade in Mobile on the weekend before Mardi Gras proper. It had been several years since I'd been to a Mobile parade. Here in Fairhope there are a few parades that are fairly big and elaborate by local standards (nothing like as elaborate as those in New Orleans, I'm told). And going to one or two of those is generally enough for me. The whole thing can seem kind of tiresome, actually, once you've done it a few times. But it was fun going to a Mobile parade again: the parades are bigger, and the crowds are a lot bigger and more lively.
It was a seriously diverse crowd. "Diversity" in its current cant-ish sense generally conjures up an image of nice middle-class people who may look different from each other and may come from different countries with different cultural and religious traditions, but have grown detached (implicitly above) those traditions, and mostly adopted the habits and attitudes and tastes of middle-to-upper-class white liberals.
The crowd at this parade, though, at least at the place where I was watching it (Government Street) was most definitely not the place to be if you didn't want those attitudes and tastes to be offended. This crowd was mostly not very affluent, noisy, crude, old, young, black, white, and frequently very tacky. There were unattractive people wearing t-shirts advertising their sex appeal, women wearing all sorts of ill-advised super-tight pants and tops, bad hairdos, and a general preference for the cheap and gaudy, although some of the gaudiness had a possibly ironic twist, like the tall Cat-in-the-Hat-type hats decorated with flashing lights. There were cheap plastic beads and glow sticks everywhere. A fair number of people were drunk. Many smoked cigarettes or cigars. Much food of a decidedly unhealthy nature was consumed: corn dogs, nachos (drenched in a liquid cheese-like liquid of mysterious provenance), and funnel cakes (which in my opinion are worthy of the gods). It was a lively, occasionally rowdy, but very good-humored crowd, and for my part the high spirits of the people, on and off the floats, and the pervasive beat of marching bands are very effective in putting me into a festive frame of mind.
Looking around at the crowd, I said to someone "This is Trump's America," and she looked a little shocked. Well, a lot shocked, actually, and I hastened to explain: not that these were Trump supporters--the crowd was at least 50% black, and we can assume they weren't predominantly pro-Trump--but that this was the messy, undisciplined, and frankly somewhat crazy America that many of the people who are horrified and terrified by Trump are not much acquainted with, and to the extent that they are aware of it find repulsive. It is the America that produced and elevated Trump, notwithstanding the couple of thousand miles and couple of billions of dollars between him and this crowd, and to which Trump can relate and appeal. Black people kept their distance from him for perfectly good reasons of ethnic politics, but a black politician with similar tactics and personality--a black Trump--would do very well among them. (Barack Obama I have always considered to be best understood as being temperamentally and ideologically a white liberal whose half-African ancestry gave him immeasurable cachet among the same, and an appeal far greater than an actual American black man like Al Sharpton could have.)
The technocrats of Washington, New York, and California who tend to run the major institutions of our society are generally intelligent, disciplined, and prudent. They tend to order their lives pretty sensibly. They may copulate wildly but they are careful about birth control and rarely permit unplanned births. They do well in school and are "educated" with an emphasis on the contemporary: on economics, politics, and law seen from a somewhat abstract sociological viewpoint that seems to leave them ignorant or naive about elemental human truths. They tend to view social problems as, precisely, problems, which, like textbook exercises, have rational solutions. And they don't understand people who reject their solutions and do irrational, imprudent, impractical things like smoking, diving for Moon Pies and worthless beads at Mardi Gras, and "cling[ing] to guns and religion," as our coolly technocratic ex-president complained.
A character in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength says "You cannot study men; you can only get to know them." A Mardi Gras crowd in Mobile, Alabama, is a good place to do it.
After the parade I had a surprise, which was initially unpleasant but on balance a good one. We--my wife, a daughter and her two children, a son and his girlfriend--were in the parking lot of the building where my wife works. It's a private lot and the entrances are blocked by padlocked chains, which is nice for us because she has a key and thus we always have a convenient place to park. While we were waiting for the traffic to thin out my two grandsons and I were throwing a Mardi Gras frisbee around the parking lot. (Technically speaking, not a Frisbee (tm), but an off-brand flying disk, a frequent "throw" from the floats.) The frisbee sailed out into the street. I went to get it. Just as I was stepping over the chain, one of my grandsons pulled it up so that he could go under it, very effectively pulling my feet out from under me. I hit the concrete pretty hard, on my side. I lay there for a minute thinking it fairly likely that I had some kind of significant damage, quite possibly a broken bone. But I didn't. I only had a few bruises and scratches. I was gratified to find that my bones are apparently not yet very brittle, even though I'm getting uncomfortably near to my three-score-and-ten years.
(I was not drunk, by the way. I had had a beer with dinner three hours earlier, nothing else.)
Seeking whom he may devour?
Biting wit: a local news story tells us that "A man had his ear bit off during a verbal altercation."