Then in 1997, his first book of prose, “The Undertaking – Life Studies from the Dismal Trade,” became a critical success, won several prizes and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Three years later “Bodies in Motion and at Rest” added to his growing reputation.
He’s been described by Philip Lopate, the compiler of the anthology “The Art of the Personal Essay,” as “one of our indispensable essayists, a master of skeptical realism and tragicomic relief.”
Lynch and his work are familiar to listeners of NPR, RTE and the BBC, he’s been profiled on national television and his articles appear in the New York Times and other publications.
Yet, most days you’ll find the 56-year-old funeral director at work at Lynch & Sons in Milford, Mich.
He only becomes a full-time writer at his ancestral home in Moveen, West Clare — for a month in the spring and a month in the fall.
Lynch’s latest book, “Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans,” is a meditation partly on his 35-year relationship with the home place his great-grandfather left in 1890 in pursuit of a job in a new American prison.
“He was a big tough West Clare man. Somebody who had been in Jackson [Mich.] before him said: ‘Come on, there’s plenty of work.’ So he went,” Lynch said.
What has become the family business began with a dead priest, one of the Moveen immigrant’s two sons.
The Rev. Thomas Lynch was ministering to Native American parishioners when he succumbed to pneumonia, at age 36.
“When he was brought back to Jackson, my father who was 12 years old, snook into the embalming room, and saw them lifting him into the casket and decided on that day, he would be a funeral director,” Lynch said. “It really was a watershed moment in our family history.”
All of Lynch’s four children have attended or are attending mortuary school. Though one of his sons is a fishing guide in Western Michigan, and contributes to fly fishing magazines, the others work at Lynch & Sons.
His children have their own talents and interests (his only daughter, he said, “wants to save the world,” and spends part of each year abroad) but he’s flattered that they’ve opted to join him in the family business.
Lynch said there are perils associated with working with one’s children, “but I grin a whole lot of the time; I feel very grateful.”
His wife, a visual artist and sculptor, also helps out. “We live next to the funeral home, so whatever’s there to do, she’ll do,” he added.
Said Lynch of his two professions: “It’s never either/or. I feel very blessed to be able to do both — and to pursue excellence in both.
“It’s an awful lot of trust that people place when they call when someone they love dies,” he said. “And that’s kind of seductive. All you have to do is answer the phone and show up and you are automatically their hero. You feel necessary, in a way that selling solar heat windows you wouldn’t.”
The family business is now into its third generation, but the Moveen immigrant’s other son, the author’s grandfather, was a civil servant, fulfilling “part of the Irish dream in America.”
Lynch recalled: “When my grandfather used to preside over Sunday dinner he would complete the grace before meals with: ‘And don’t forget your cousins, Tommy and Nora, on the banks of the River Shannon.’
“Now he never met Tommy and Nora, his first cousins.
He’d never seen the River Shannon. He didn’t know what part of the banks they were on. But he was told to say it. And his wife kept the address.”
Thomas Lynch has roots in Sligo, Kilkenny and elsewhere in Ireland, but that tangible link to West Clare was crucial. “What we had was that my grandfather, Ed Lynch, was the son of the man who came out of the house at Moveen,” he said.
Those cousins Tommy and Nora — the unmarried niece and nephew of the man who set out for Michigan in 1890 — were there to greet him when he arrived as a student in 1970.
He might have been walking into the 16th century, he remembered: “Except for four light sockets, it was unencumbered by anything that gave a nod to modernity.”
Lynch writes in “Booking Passage” of his cousin Nora, who was born in 1902: “Neither her sisters nor her sisters’ children had ever returned. Her dead brothers had left no children. Nora Lynch was the last – the withered and spinsterly end of the line until, as she often said, I came. Two decades of letters and phone calls and transatlantic flights had tightened the ties that bind family connections between Michigan and Moveen. So when it looked like Nora was dying [in hospital in 1992], they called me.”
Lynch has been well placed to observe the changes that Ireland has undergone in those decades. One of the first and most obvious was the decisive shift away the oral tradition, a shift he characterized as: “People watching ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” instead of talking about people who went to America and became millionaires.'”
But, on balance, the rapid economic changes that have happened in the last few years in particular are welcome, in his view.
“Ireland has made up all the lag that existed 35 years ago,” he said. “Everybody has the option — they come and go as they please, which is the wonder of the Celtic Tiger. The best and the brightest are going home
“Much better to deal with the problems of too much than to deal with the problems of too little,” he said. “I think it’s much better to have to consider racism in terms of the people who want to get into your country, rather than have to deal with racism when you go out of your country.”
The changes in religious practice have been dramatic, too. “The clericalism that infected the church in Ireland and America is dying,” Lynch said. “It doesn’t mean that priests are bad or that religion is bad, just that we have to take a better look at what are the rubrics of our faith.”
In some ways, he said, he still looks and thinks of God and religion through the lens of the Baltimore Catechism. Nonetheless, he’s repelled by Pope Benedict’s view that Catholicism is the one true faith.
“I just can’t imagine a God who would disenfranchise most of his creation. It would be like me saying that I only speak the language that one my children speaks,” he said. “Each of us is on a pilgrimage trying to get home to a God, whomever she is.”
Lynch, who’s currently writing fiction, wants to write a book on the subject of doubt. “It’s a much underrated article of faith,” he said, pointing out that he was named after a famous doubter.
When the time comes, it will be added to body of work that at present includes three collections of poems.
“Some people somewhere read my stuff. That’s always a shock and delight to me,” Lynch said. “And the fact that it’s on the record. It’s in the library. It’s on the shelf. And it’ll outlive me.”
“Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans” is published by W.W. Norton ($24.95).