Everyone Dies: Lessons from Six Feet Under
From 2001 to 2005, the award-winning HBO television series Six Feet Under took viewers behind the scenes at the Fisher & Sons Funeral Home in Los Angeles. Over the course of the series, the program explored themes of death, grief, mourning and transformation. In spite of its emphasis on death, Six Feet Under offers important life lessons.
I just spent my summer vacation watching all five years, 63 episodes in all, within two months. I think the phrase that best describes Six Feet Under is “sex, drugs and rigor mortis.” It also regularly portrayed the dead speaking to the living.
The Fisher family – mother Ruth and adult children Nate, David and Claire – all had grief repression issues. These characters in Six Feet Under offer a way to identify, discuss, and release repressed grief. Sooner or later, repressed grief expresses itself, sometimes explosively.
Let’s start with the mother, Ruth. In the first episode, her husband Nathaniel Fisher is killed by a bus while driving his brand-new hearse to the airport to pick up son Nate for a Christmas visit. She married into the funeral business more than 35 years ago. She’s accustomed to keeping her feelings under wraps.
While she’s getting dressed for the funeral, she sees Nathaniel in the mirror and he says to her, “I know, Ruth,” referring to an affair she had over the past year. When she sees his body in the casket, she starts to lose her composure and her funeral director son David hustles her off to a side room.
Nate sees this while sitting on a sofa next to Claire. He says, “What? She’s sad, so he has to get her out of sight?” Claire says, “They always do that. The second someone starts to lose it, they take them off into that room. It makes the other people uncomfortable.”
In the privacy of the room, she exclaims, “I’m a whore and your father knows it!” This is news to Nate and David. She calms down for the remainder of the service, until they get to the graveside burial.
As the casket is lowered into the ground and the reverend prays “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the family sprinkles earth from a shaker onto the casket. Nate comments to himself, “It’s like he’s salted popcorn.” He takes the shaker, then reaches down and grabs a clod of earth. David tries to stop him.
Nate: “I refuse to sanitize this anymore.”
David: “This is how it is done.”
Nate: “Yeah, well. It’s whacked. What is this stupid saltshaker? What is this hermetically sealed box? This phony Astroturf around the grave? Jesus, David, it’s like surgery. Clean, antiseptic, business. You can pump him full of chemicals, you can put makeup on him…and you can prop him up for a nap in the slumber room…but the fact remains that the only father we’ve ever gonna have is gone! Forever. And that sucks. And it’s part of life, but you can’t ever accept it without even getting your hands dirty.”
After listening to this, Ruth kneels and sobs and cries violently, throwing fistfuls of real dirt into her husband’s grave, getting her hands dirty, hence, making it feel real, and finally, being able to truly mourn her dead husband, presenting her real grief – the untidy business of anger, love, guilt, pain and loss as Thomas Lynch calls it.
The display of grief and mourning in public is almost forbidden and the funeral is seen as an artificial ritual. The environment of a funeral needs to allow grief to be fully expressed. Otherwise, that repressed grief can surface later in other ways.
We see this with Claire. At the start of the series, she is an 18-year-old high school student. Now, anyone who’s been around teenagers knows they have an attitude. Claire’s attitude is on steroids. Her email is ICDeadPeople. She does lots of eye rolling, making snarky comments, and retreating into her room for long periods of time.
She also has aspirations of being an artist. During an interview to get into a prestigious art school, she breaks down over her dad’s death and actually admits that she’s been having a hard time over the past year or so.
Her art is influenced by her childhood at the funeral home. She does find a way to use her art to release her repressed grief and provide an intriguing look at life and death. Art therapy is often used successfully to address grief issues.
Nate, an outsider to the funeral industry, inherits half of the business with his brother David, an experienced funeral director. Nate studies and becomes licensed. During a trip to Seattle, where he escaped from his childhood in the funeral home, he unknowingly impregnates former housemate/friend Lisa.
He marries her, she has their child, and Nate is ambivalent about their relationship. Then Lisa disappears on a trip to her sister’s house in Santa Barbara. When her body is found in the ocean several weeks later, he has serious guilt and grief with which to contend.
In the episode “In Case of Rapture,” a Christian woman sees helium-filled sex dolls floating up in the sky and thinks the Rapture has started. She is killed when she gets out of her car in traffic. When her husband comes to the funeral home to make arrangements, and at the viewing, he is at peace – she is with the Lord. Nate tries to convince him that he needs to grieve and mourn openly. In his own grief, he’s trying to convince the husband of a specific way to grieve. Talk about a doctor needing his own medicine!
In contrast, the woman’s teenage son is visibly upset by his mother’s death. It’s obvious he does not feel the peace that his father does, yet his grief is not recognized and addressed. Everyone grieves in his or her own way. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect regarding their own way of handling their emotions.
Throughout the series, David has been the strong, competent professional funeral director. Then in the fourth season, he is the victim of a vicious carjacking. He’s almost killed by a sociopath who soaks him in gasoline and puts a gun in his mouth. This gives David a serious case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. He needs to shift his own sense of self to allow others to help take care of him in his moment of weakness.
I hate to spoil the surprise, but Nate dies at the end of season five. He had a brain condition called Arteriovenous Malformation, or AVM, which almost did him in at the end of season two. This development throws the entire family into deep grief, especially David. He’s been the professional who has held it together through so many funerals for others. Now that the grief is personal, he has to learn to allow loved ones to support him.
He goes to pick up Nate’s body, and finds that the eyes and organs have been harvested – something David did not anticipate. This triggers a relapse of the PTSD. He is haunted by a red-hooded figure with the face of his tormenter.
While washing Nate’s body for a green burial, he screams at his mother Ruth. While attempting to read his eulogy, he breaks down and is comforted by his partner Keith. He is frightened by the red-hooded figure out at the cemetery, and has to be coaxed out of the car by Ruth. Afterward, his adopted children bring him soup as he rests in bed. He finally relaxes to the point that he accepts the support of others in his time of grief.
Within the series and outside of the Fisher family, one other example of grief repression is Vanessa Diaz, wife of restorative artist and later funeral home partner Frederico Diaz. Her mother died and four months later the family was still spending time every Sunday at her grave.
Vanessa becomes lethargic, depressed, numb and uninterested in sex. Frederico encourages her to do something to feel better. She starts taking prescription medications to feel alive again and runs into problems with drug abuse. She eventually stops taking them, prompted by a scary experience with her heart rate after salsa dancing. Plus, Frederico has an affair and her anger at him channels away her sadness over her mother’s death.
Between Vanessa, Ruth, Claire, Nate and David, we see a range of ways individuals repress their grief. We also see the individual ways that that grief can be released and the individual can start healing. Although grief and funerals are serious processes, Six Feet Under made it fun to watch.
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