I just finished watching the PBS’ Frontline documentary on Thomas Lynch, titled The Undertaking.

Here’s a clip, via YouTube:

What did I think of it?

I felt it was a nice piece of human interest and it portrayed the industry in a favorable light. 

Thomas Lynch is a thoughful funeral director, who has written eloquently on the nature of funeral rites.  His poems and essays speak to the important work of funeral professionals and the way that we memorialize our deceased.

But watching the program I was struck by a few simple, yet glaring facts:  his firm enjoys a veritable monopoly in his community.  Virtually all of the cases featured in the short program involved a Catholic Mass or other religious service.  He mentions burying several hundred of his fellow townspeople every year and cremating a few dozen others. 

I have to wonder how many funeral homes enjoy a similar status?

How many firms are the only funeral home in their community?  How many firms see only a few dozen cremations a year?  How many funeral homes serve a predominantly Catholic community?

Now, before you think I’m being overly critical, please realize that I used to work for a firm much like this one.  The small funeral home I ran served the local Catholic Church.  Of the 100+ cremations we handled each year, more than half included a veiwing and some type of religious service.

But we still fought the (Floridian) perception that cremation replaces a service, rather than being an alternate disposition.  And while it was nice to have the Catholic Church’s help to keep families spending the same amount of money on similar services, we also found a wide range of spending habits and funeral plans from those with other religious belief.

And while I applaud the work done by the Lynch’s in their community (they now have six locations) I know that their experience is not the same experience of every director in North America. 

So what did I take away from the program? 

— I was struck by the reverence that the Lynch family used when dealing with their families. 

— I was put off by the way that Mr. Lynch made funeral plans from behind a big desk, when I think many families feel more at ease if you sit next to them at a table, so they are included in the decisions as equals.

— I was touched by the way that all the Lynch’s talked about their sacred duties.  Thomas speaks as a person who has clearly thought a lot about his chosen profession.  In an extended online interview, his son, Sean Lynch, tells us what he’s learned from working in the family firm and presents the views of a 27-year-old on the modern funeral.  He tells us that “The way I heard it put is that ‘Your dad works with dead people.’ And I always knew it to be quite the opposite to that — that my dad worked with living people.”

— The stories of the dead shared in the program are moving and reminded me why I love this industry.  There are precious few opportunities in this world to provide the steady support a family needs during a difficult time and the funeral industry allows that.  (I used to hear “you must go home crying every night!” from people.  Quite the contrary:  it’s always easier to sleep peacefully when you know you’ve truly helped another human being.)

Overall, I loved the program and hope a lot of non-funeral people see it.  The film provides a quick glimpse into the important work done by funeral professionals.  And it shines the spotlight on positive images that can only help to reinforce the goodwill we all work so hard to engender.

Thanks, Mr. Lynch, for letting us visit with you in your funeral home.