Idol Chatter

Halloween is a hell of a way to deal with our fear of life beyond the grave. Funerals are the opposite: our attempt to grasp the enormity of death by making it serene and beautiful. In either case, death is a problem for the living, not the dead.That’s the simple but necessary and beautifully made point of “The Undertaking,” a Front Line documentary airing tomorrow night on PBS. Your host for the hour is Thomas Lynch, a funeral director whose family has been in the business of burying the dead in a small town in Michigan for three generations. Lynch, who is also a poet, memoirist, and erstwhile Beliefnet columnist, is used to presenting death to the outsider in a thoughtful, elegant, and friendly way, and with his guidance the documentary gets very close to the reality of death through our rituals.Which, even Lynch admits, can be rather silly. But these motions we go through, says Lynch, are important to make sure “the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.”Tracing the journeys of three families facing, then undergoing the death of their loved ones, the film gently suggests that funerals allow us to grasp instinctively what we know intellectually. It shows up close, but discreetly, the preservation, primping and even painting of corpses–not, in the words of one undertaker in Lynch’s shop, to beautify but to make them real. In Lynch’s world, even the filling out of forms takes on an importance that dignifies our grief, and allows us a measured, comprehensible way to peer into the abyss and step back into life again.

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