That Tom Lynch libel case

Charles Cowling

There are times when we feel acutely that the UK and the US are ‘two countries separated by a common language’. When our common language is voiced by the monstrous Republican right, the gulf looks unbridgeable.

But where funerals are concerned we have much talk about and much to learn from each other. And there’s a healthy symbiosis going on: they like our natural burial; we like their home funerals. In almost every area of debate Americans are more passionate and dynamic than the Brits. The US has a far more powerful, predatory, scandal-ridden, eco-hostile funeral industry than ours, so they have more to react against, more to talk about, and more urgently. For all that, the issues are shared: the role and value of the funeral director; the rights and responsibilities of the bereaved; the purpose of a funeral; and environmentally responsible funerals. Elemental stuff.

In the matter of consumer protection, the US has its excellent Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), run by the acute and indefatigble Josh Slocum. Its website is a treasury of information. It also has the Funeral Ethics Organisation (FEO), run by the redoubtable and completely splendid Lisa Carlson. We have nothing like campaigners of this calibre here in the UK.

The US has the best writers, too. We have our Tony Walter, but no one has written more thoughtfully or brilliantly than Thomas Lynch, an undertaker and poet whose prose, arguably, is even better than his verse. His two books of essays, The Undertaking and Bodies in Rest and in Motion, condense thought, experience and wisdom, and express them through a high intelligence and a god-given, delicious prose style. His concerns are elemental ones: “funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters. It’s how we assign meaning to our little remarkable histories.”

He is critical of the way things are. He observes how the parlour, that room in old houses where babies were born and the dead laid out, has been converted to accommodate Mr Thomas Crapper’s invaluable invention, the toilet: “Since Crapper’s marvellous invention, we need only pull the lever behind us and the evidence disappears, a kind of rapture that removes the nuisance … having lost the regular necessity of dealing with unpleasantries, we have lost the ability to do so when need arises. And we have lost the community well versed in these calamities. In short, when shit happens, we feel alone. It is the same with our dead. We are embarrassed by them in the way that we are embarrassed by a toilet that overflows the night that company comes. It is an emergency. We call the plumber … And just as bringing the crapper indoors has made faeces an embarrassment, pushing the dead and dying out has made death one.”

This looks like a manifesto for home funerals. It is. One of Tom’s most-repeated dictums is this: “Ours is a species which deals with death by dealing with our dead.” He acknowledges that most people don’t want to be that involved, and that’s where the funeral director comes in. He says, “some want to be empowered, others to be served, others not to be bothered at all. Our job is to meet them where they are on this continuum and help where we can when we’re asked.”

For all that, Tom fell out with Lisa and the FCA over his defence of the right of the State of Michigan to appoint funeral directors to superintend the filing of paperwork pertaining to a funeral, even that of home funeralists. Interestingly, anomalously, the state does not pay these funeral directors for their supervision, the family does. And, as Lisa has it, “When a state requires a family to hire a funeral director, that body becomes a hostage of the funeral industry. The funeral director is suddenly in a position of authority with his meter running.”

The falling out was so acrimonious that Tom sued Lisa and the FCA for libel.

The news is that Tom’s suit has just been thrown out of court.

And the saddening pity is that all parties are high-minded, admirable people.

I don’t feel culturally qualified to have a view on all this, so I’m nailing my trousers to the fence. Sure, we share a common language…

Read the FCA response and the court ruling here.

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