When thinking about a lot of the pop culture representations of death, I often think they are over-dramatized or not emotional enough. One of the television shows which I often cite as having the best representations of death is the HBO show Six Feet Under. I started watching Six Feet Under a few years after it went off the air when I was in high school, partially because I remember my father watching it when I was a child and being told to leave the living room when it came on because of the very raw images of death and the way in which death is dealt with on a daily basis. Because of its overwhelming theme of death in all forms, it is a difficult show to handle and comprehend for a child. As an adult watching the show, it is even still difficult to handle at points, but also interweaves the humor of life in with tragedy. It is a show all about death and interpersonal relationships, but also addresses the fundamental human experience and issue from a novel perspective. The premise of the show is focused on a family that owns a funeral home in Los Angeles and all of the family drama that occurs after the patriarch (the mortician) dies. All of his three children deal with his death in a different way and these first initial reactions to his death inform the entire course of the five season show.
The show is controversial in its constant images of death, but also in turn downplays the taboo-ness of death by addressing the issues inherent in the life experience straight on with a great level of honesty. Never before have I seen a scripted show that discusses death on such a philosophical and emotional level as Six Feet Under. Even the theme song and accompanying imagery contains images of cadavers, gravestones, and plant-matter wilting away. The whole show has an underlying tone of death with dark, subdued colors and lifeless images of LA streets. Each episode begins with the death of an individual who eventually ends up in the funeral home owned by the family and interacting with the people embalming them and preparing them for the funeral. Thus, the show poses an interesting paradox about how we, as humans, often feel that the dead are not completely dead and communication is often still possible with someone who is no longer living. The discussion between the dead and the mortuary workers allows the dead to be seen as more than the dead that they must prepare for the funeral. Also, the show presents the mortuary purposes that are often hidden from families and the public by showing what happens during the embalming process or the plastic surgery used to make the dead look more alive.
Death in popular culture, especially television, is often used as a plot device to end or further the storyline of one of the characters. Six Feet Under does not utilize this strategy in the usual sense, but rather uses death as a metaphor for life and emphasizes how the obsession with death and funeral practices consume one’s life if there is no acceptance of death. The inevitability of death is addressed so wholeheartedly in Six Feet Under that one cannot help, but to examine one’s personal perception of death and the death of family members. Unlike shows such as CSI that focus on the biomedical and criminal aspect of after death, Six Feet Under focuses on the philosophical and emotional which is a respite from the usual treatment of death as detached from life. I think that Six Feet Under provides an antidote to the views of death currently portrayed in a lot of television shows as violent or bio-medically defined.
Side note: Six Feet Under famously has one the most well crafted finales. In the spirit of not spoiling I will not reveal what happens, but if you want to see a beautiful ending to a TV show all about death look it up!