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FRONTLINE: The Undertaking

Ken Kutzli of Lynch & Sons prepares a body for viewing.
Courtesy of FRONTLINE
Ken Kutzli of Lynch & Sons prepares a body for viewing.

Airs Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Thomas Lynch, 58, is a writer and a poet. He's also a funeral director in a small town in central Michigan where he and his family have cared for the dead -- and the living -- for three generations.

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David King: His dad, Dennis King, died from cancer at the age of 72. David initially was skeptical about the meaningfulness of a funeral, but after his father's wake and accompanying his father's body to the crematory, he now thinks differently about it. Watch now

Robert Kelly, 85, met with funeral director Patrick Lynch to go over the final details of his own funeral - when that day comes. He knows exactly what it will be: one viewing, a Mass, cremation, and then burial right beside his beloved wife, Jean. Watch now

For the first time, Lynch agreed to allow cameras inside Lynch & Sons, giving FRONTLINE producers Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor rare, behind-the-scenes access -- from funeral arrangements to the embalming room -- to the Lynches' world for this film, "The Undertaking."

In his critically acclaimed book, "The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade," excerpted in the film, Lynch chronicles a life spent in the presence of the dead.

"We have in some ways become estranged from death and the dead," Lynch believes. "We're among the first couple of generations for whom the presence of the dead at their own funerals has become optional. And I see that as probably not good news for the culture at large."

The Lynch family believes that the rituals of a funeral are more than mere formalities. "Funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters," Lynch contends. "A good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be."

"Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople. Another two or three dozen I take to the crematory to be burned... I sell caskets, burial vaults, and urns for the ashes... I am the only undertaker in this town." - Thomas Lynch

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Watch The Undertaking on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

FRONTLINE profiles Thomas Lynch, a poet and undertaker whose family has cared for the dead in a small town in central Michigan for three generations. In "The Undertaking," a critically acclaimed book, Lynch offered unique and profound insight into what he called the "dismal trade."

Frontline: The Undertaking: An Open Casket