The UndertakingPoet Thomas Lynch and preaching professor Thomas G. Long know they can’t stop death, but they’re on a mission to change how the living deal with it. They take the stage April 11-12 at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology as part of a four-city lecture tour called “The Undertaking,” designed to return reverential ritual and metaphor to end-of-life practices.

“The Undertaking” serves as Candler’s annual Whiteside Lectures sponsored by the school’s Office of Lifelong Learning and is ideal for pastors, and funeral and hospice professionals. It includes a reading by Lynch on April 11 at 7 p.m. in Candler room 252. The reading is free and open to the public, and no registration is required. The April 12 lectures require registration. Register online via the Emory Alumni Association.

“Funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters,” says Lynch, a funeral director in Milford, MI, whose writing and family-owned business were the inspiration for the television series Six Feet Under and two documentaries. “A good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.”    

Lynch, who has published three collections of poetry and three books of essays, will read selections from his poetry on Monday evening and speak on “The Partnership of Pastor and Funeral Director” on Tuesday morning. Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler, will join Lynch on Tuesday afternoon to discuss “The Good Death, Good Grief & Good Funerals.”

“A society that doesn’t know how to care for the bodies of the dead can’t care tenderly for the living,” says Long, the author of 14 books on preaching and worship, who is regarded as one of the top 12 preachers in the English-speaking world.

More than 10 years ago, Long began researching the national trend of white suburban Protestants moving toward “body-less” memorials and away from funerals that serve as metaphors for the deceased as a saint traveling on a baptismal journey toward God. He encountered Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, winner of the 1998 American Book Award and a National Book Award finalist, and knew they had to meet.

“I’ve read a lot of theology about this subject, but the person who writes the best about it is a funeral director,” Long said. “We approach the topic from different perspectives, but we share the conviction that human society is better when the dead are handled properly and memorialized.”

The preacher sought out the poet, and the poet was equally inspired. “Finally, here was someone who was interested in this topic from the clergy standpoint and can speak to people as a pastor,” Lynch recalled in a recent interview.

They made their first joint presentation in Michigan to a local funeral directors’ association. Their second appearance took place in Chicago last year, sponsored by The Christian Century, at the debut of Long’s Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Their current tour is sponsored by the National Funeral Directors’ Association, which is led by Lynch’s brother and business partner, Pat.

Lynch hopes this current round of lectures will begin shifting the conversation about funerals from the cost of the arrangements to “what you do when you death occurs in a culture where religion, family and geographic ties have been unbound by 50 years of history.”

“If you were a Baptist in South Carolina 30 years ago, you didn’t have to reinvent the wheel because your pastor, your people, your neighbors had ritual to get you through this. For religious people, a death in the family is the event that presses your nose against what you believe in,” Lynch says.

Long attributes the trend toward “body-less memorials that focus primarily on the living and grief management” to a confluence of events that started as early as the Civil War. The sight of hundreds of thousands of dead bodies on the battlefield made people question the ritual of memorializing individuals, he explains. This was followed by the post-Freud focus on self rather than the deceased, the general decline in religious institutions and people’s affiliation with them, and the inconvenience of dealing with a body.

“I hope to make the case that when Christian funerals are faithful to Christian shapes, themes and trajectories, the human spirit is nourished, the community of Christ is strengthened, the gospel is proclaimed, the dead in Christ are honored and remembered, and the light of resurrection hope shines for all to see,” says Long.

For more information about the event, visit the Candler’s event calendar.