Breathe Me: Six Feet Under and the American Way of Death

keepcalmembalmIf friends are God’s apology for relations, then family is the price we pay for being born. Six Feet Under centres on a family funeral business in suburban Los Angeles. In the very first scene, the patriarch, Nathaniel Fisher, is driving the company hearse and takes his eye off the road to light a cigarette. Immediately he is smashed and killed by an oncoming city bus.

Nathaniel is survived by his brittle and fretful widow, Ruth, his tightly-wound younger son David and his laconic goth daughter, Claire. They are joined by Nathaniel’s older son, Nate Fisher, the favoured brother who was supposed to inherit the family business. Nate had other ideas and ran away at seventeen. Although he never got far in life (when we meet Nate, he’s the assistant manager at a Seattle vegan shop) he is clearly the most well adjusted of the family, and the most immediately likeable. Nate’s a liberal alpha male who runs three miles a day and starts a passionate sexual relationship with a beautiful LA woman within moments of boarding the plane home. The other siblings are clearly envious that Nate had the courage to make a life outside the quiet trade. At the funeral, David confronts him: ‘You got out. The least you could do is stay out.’

But in stories temporary is never temporary and, having resolved to stay only a few days, Nate finds himself drafted into the Fisher and Sons funeral business, and developing a few more complex commitments of his own. The details of the American way of death are fascinating (the embalmer Federico, casually stuffing filler into a head cavity while bitching about his marital problems) and since the funeral home is also the Fisher family home, there are some obvious macabre embarrassments. And there is no shortage of trade. Every episode begins with the death of a Fisher and Sons client, followed by the name, birth and death years, which fade onto the screen in black against white, tombstone-style. The deaths are tragic, funny, brutal, quotidian, and the Fishers never turn a body away. Nate and David bury young, old, white, Hispanic, Jewish, suicides, murderers. One porn star client is electrocuted when the cat knocks the radio into her bath: a high school friend of Nate’s somehow manages to run himself over.

There is plenty of LA kookiness in Six Feet Under, particularly when the Chenowith family are around. Linked with the Fishers through Nate’s girlfriend Brenda, they are a wealthy academic/psychiatric clan, redolent of bipolarity, incest and age-inappropriate affairs, who could have walked straight out of an A M Homes novel. Once you work your way through the boxset, though, Six Feet Under develops the rich complex storytelling of a long book by John Irving or E Annie Proulx. Like Irving, the writers Alan Ball and Lisa Robin are not afraid to kill their darlings, or take you into the dark. There’s an incredible scene where Nate illegally buries his first wife in some distant woods, then shrieks into the night sky. Credits.

The Fishers work with death for a living, and I can’t think of a TV series that gives a stronger sense of the transience of all things. The final season DVD carries the tagline: ‘Everything everyone everywhere ends.’ Everyone we have ever known will die. Everything you love will be carried away. Yet there is a sense that death is sometimes benign, or can be. What is it TS Garp says about the Under Toad, when he himself checks out:

It was yielding, like the warm wrestling mats; it smelled like the sweat of clean boys – and like Helen, the first and last woman Garp had loved. The Under Toad, Garp knew now, could even look like a nurse; a person who is familiar with death and trained to make practical response to pain.

Stephen King puts it more simply: ‘Death is where the pain stops and the good memories begin.’ Death is after all something that anyone and everyone can do. We’re all headed there eventually. It can’t be that fucking bad. And probably David Hume was right that we should fear death no more that we are afraid of the time before we were born (although I’m sure that remark loses a lot of its consolatory power if you have just handed a six-month terminal diagnosis).

None of which excuses us from the duty to live while we are alive. And Six Feet Under explores how people end up failing or shirking that duty. The younger brother, David, was never expected to lead the business but has ended up throwing his entire adult life into it. Even though he has never left home, David has nevertheless drifted further and further away from his family, into a dark and gated interior world. It seems unrealistic, in early 2000s California, that David has reached his thirties without coming out as gay, but his secret is not so much a repressed sexuality than that David is just an intensely private person – he feels exposed, and scrabbling to preserve what autonomy he can. David is haunted first by the ghost of a murdered gay Fisher client, then by a carjacker who takes him on a terrifying journey into the LA night. His developing relationship with the hardheaded cop Keith Charles is beautifully realised, and David’s long road to self acceptance (and his sexuality is the least of that) forms one of the most rewarding aspects of the series.

In a sense the character of Ruth is the most powerful. Well into her fifties at start of series, she married Nathaniel at nineteen, had her first child shortly after and was kept out of college by her sick mother. Family is a joy to her but at the same time Ruth is very conscious that she has had almost no say in how her life has turned out. This manifests itself in a series of autumnal love affairs, plus a raging anxiety about her daughter Claire. It’s only brute chronology that has kept Ruth from living life to the full, but Claire has won time’s lottery and yet Ruth sees her making the same mistakes. It’s when she manages to transcend her own regrets that Ruth becomes alive. At the end of the series, when the family is hit again by terrible grief, Claire has the one piece of good news – she has the opportunity to work in New York and follow her dream of becoming a photographic artist. But the family are in trouble and Claire offers to give up the job and stay with Ruth to help her mother through this latest round of pain. ‘Absolutely not,’ Ruth yells. I’m not sure I didn’t actually stand up and applaud.

In Six Feet Under death doesn’t mean the characters walk offstage. Nathaniel Fisher appears at random moments to give some cynical wisdom to his children. Often a Fisher client will be sitting on the worktop chatting freely while Nate or David run embalming fluid through the corpse. Claire even at one point wanders into the land of the dead, a kind of unseen carnival where people get the chance to forget the mistakes they made in life. Six Feet Under doesn’t have the cold fatalism of Lovecraft or Houellebecq, and no sentimental religious cop out either. The tone is liberal and secular and pragmatic, but we godless also speak with the dead. The series ends with a montage of Claire driving off into the sunset, interspersed with glimpses of how the characters’ lives pan out and end. I challenge you to watch this without getting choked up.


(Image: IMDB. Top: Funeral Sauce)


One Response to “Breathe Me: Six Feet Under and the American Way of Death”

  1. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Sounds good…but I was waiting for you to mention Jessica Mitford…the ‘nice’ one.

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