Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Big Questions

Most of us already know that Memorial Day is a holiday originally meant to commemorate US soldiers who died while serving their country. It began with that idea, but in modern times the last Monday in May has become an occasion for remembering ordinary people as well, with many visiting the graves of deceased relatives whether they served in the military or not. More recently Memorial Day has become a long three-day weekend for family gatherings, trips to the beach, hot dogs and fireworks and of course, the Indianapolis 500 car race. But somewhere there at the bottom is still the thought that it is a time to pause and remember those whose deaths in one way or another meant and continue to mean something to us.

Purely coincidental that on this past Memorial Day the book in my hand was one written by a man who has spent much of his life intimately involved with death and the dead. No, neither ghoul, policeman nor murderer, but an undertaker who also happens to be a poet and something of a philosopher on the milestones of Life and Death. Some may remember seeing here last Saturday a post focusing on Thomas Lynch and his book of essays, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. In fact, the focus was more on a poem that appears in one chapter of that book, only one highlight among a book filled with thought provoking pages. Hard to remember when I last read something that had me grabbing so often for a pencil and notebook, and later returning to review and contemplate one of the writer’s observations on what he calls the Big Questions.

On one page after another Lynch gives the reader solid reasoning for questioning the technology and rationalism that have entangled our thoughts and morality with notions of my this, my that, getting in touch with my feelings and what it’s going to do for me and what about my self-esteem.

In a short passage from The Undertaking, Lynch wonders if ultimately we are going to leave all the answers to “experts.”

‘…the great divisions of the last half century and the next half century seem based on the contemplations of Life and Death: when one becomes the other and under whose agency. The advance of our technology is coincidental with the loss of our appetite for ethical questions that ought to attend the implications of these new powers. We have blurred the borders between being and ceasing to be by a technology that can tell us How It Works but not What It Means. Nor do we trust our instincts anymore. If we sense something is Wrong, we are embarrassed to say so, just as we are when we sense it is Right. In the name of diversity, any idea is regarded as worthy as any other; any nonsense is entitled to a forum, a full hearing, and equal time. Reality is customized to fit the person or the situation. There is your reality and my reality, the truth as they see it, but what is real and true for us all eludes us. We frame our personal questions in terms of the legal and the illegal, politically correct or incorrect, function or dysfunction, how it impacts our self-esteem, or puts us in touch with our feelings, or bodes for the next election or millage vote or how the markets will respond. And while business of all sorts can be conducted this way to the relative advantage of all concerned, on the Big Questions, the Existential Concerns, the Life and Death Matters of who is and who isn’t to be, what is called for are our best instincts, our finest intuitions, our clearest intellections and an honesty inspired by our participation, not in a party or a gender or a religion or a special interest or ethnicity, but by our participation in the human race.’

‘And here, the dialogue seems oddly hushed. Is it possible we are just too busy, just don’t care? Are we willing to leave it to the experts?’

Put The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade on your reading list.


  1. All too often, yes, the big questions are left to others. A friend and I, usually after a couple of snorts of King Bourbon, use to wonder who was happier--someone contentedly living in a trailer in the backwoods that never questioned anything or someone (like us maybe) who asked the unanswerable questions and always wondered "what's it all about. Alfie?"

  2. I know that with faced with the fact that you know me and my background I would, without apology of course, say that the only truth is in Jesus Christ. He is the Creator of us human beings so He has the knowledge of what makes us "tick". So.....to answer the question about life it is what is God's plan for my life. As far as I'm concerned, that's it in a nutshell and whatever anyone else poses is blown away with the wind because He is the Truth. Good post and interesting comments.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America