[1 November 2011]
When Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under debuted in 2001, its depiction of a complex, quirky family of undertakers quickly captured imaginations with the recurrent themes of death and dying, family dramas, and narratives about queer sexuality, coming of age, and the interconnected nature of human relationships. At its core, though, Six Feet Under was about the funeral industry, something viewers rarely forgot, thanks to the tradition for opening each episode with a death that would become the framing storyline around which everything else revolved.
This was an audacious move for television. Despite ample examples of crime dramas and other genres where violence explodes across the screen and viewers encounter death, dying, and the aftermath on a regular basis, the funeral home was the place most television feared to tread. Ball turned that on its head by forcing viewers into the undertaker’s every week, even down into the forbidden zone of the embalming room, where issues like skin slippage, reconstruction, and what to do with the insistently firm breasts of a deceased porn star came up over the course of the series. And who could forget blood bubbling apocalyptically from the drains?
Funeral homes are not a place viewers like to think about, even when they are willing to contemplate mortality and death in other settings. On forensic shows, the drama happens to someone else—viewers rarely put themselves in the shoes of murder victims, and the story becomes an exciting narrative puzzle for viewers to lose themselves in, complete with gory discoveries like maggots pouring out of skulls, but always with the element of distance in place to prevent the plot from cutting too close to the bone. At the funeral home, viewers are reminded that this is something that can happen to anyone, and will happen eventually to them; an air of deep discomfort is created. Alan Ball cultivated and maintained that throughout Six Feet Under to keep viewers on their toes.
The barriers people create to distance themselves from the things in pop culture that frighten them tumbled down with Six Feet Under, where some of the deaths were absolutely ordinary and prosaic in nature. Anyone could be arranging a funeral for a dead parent, sibling, or child, could be thinking about the bottom line of the cost while attempting to do the right thing. Anyone could sit on uncomfortable brocade floral couches waiting for the funeral director to emerge, somberly garbed and with hushed voice to discuss the options, a dizzying array of choices which come with ever-increasing price tags. Ball’s decision to go there was bold, and it’s one that worked well.
Six Feet Under would not have been possible without Jessica Mitford’s landmark 1963 expose of the funeral industry in the United States. The American Way of Death profiled the rise of corporate funeral homes, the sleazy tactics used to take advantage of people in their darkest hours, and the formerly taboo topic of what actually happened during an embalming. Since then, scores of books about death, dying, and the funeral industry have followed; people, it is clear, are interested in death and dying even as they shy away from the topic, and Alan Ball provided a venue for exploring that.
Analysis of Six Feet Under often focuses on the human complexities of the show, but it is important to remember that it was also about the business of death, which happens to be extremely large. Service Corporation International, a global company with a reach that rivals the fictional Kroehner from the show, made over two billion dollars last year on funeral services from the United States to Australia. Like Kroehner, Service Corporation International specializes in the creation of vertical monopolies, a practice criticized by Mitford back in 1963. SCI owns the florist, the coffin manufacturer, the monument carver, the vehicle rental…and so did Kroehner.
Kroehner’s business tactics of snapping up florists and other entities associated with funerals might have seemed outrageously aggressive, but they’re business as usual for the modern funeral industry. While funeral homes might not be burning down empty houses for the insurance, they certainly engage in many of the same practices Kroehner did, and sometimes even more outrageous ones. Large facilities can cut costs to a high degree, pushing out smaller, independent funeral homes which have the choice between shuttering or selling out. Just as Kroehner suggested it would do with the Fisher brothers, SCI routinely leaves the former owners in managerial positions, and doesn’t change the name of the funeral home, to create the illusion that a facility is still family owned and operated.
Ball gave viewers a narrative many could identify with: the small family business struggling against corporate heavy hitters with the money, the power, and the tenacity to force out small businesses, often through means of dubious legality. When Nate skewered Kroehner at an industry conference to the applause of the people behind small family-run operations, undoubtedly some viewers at home were cheering not just for the characters, but also for the trenchant commentary on the real world. When David finally came out swinging against Kroehner, it was not just a cathartic moment for the character, but also for viewers who feel too small and too powerless against the corporate influences in their own lives.
The scenery of Six Feet Under would not be unfamiliar to funeral homes today. Most of the industry is owned by large corporations like SCI and it’s increasingly difficult to make a living as a fully independent home like Fisher and Diaz. Funeral homes routinely poach talented restoration artists from each other, are not above sending spies to see how other businesses do it, and certainly aren’t afraid to report each other to the health department in the hopes of putting each other out of business. The business of death is a cutthroat one and Six Feet Under barely scratched the surface; perhaps the creators felt that viewers wouldn’t believe some of the industry practices they could have depicted.
Sadly, the show didn’t integrate the Tri-State Crematory scandal, which broke in 2002, into its depiction of the industry. It’s a story that, in its gallows grotesquerie, seemed ready made for Six Feet Under, with all the garish elements of greed, horror, and disrespect for the dead, but evidently it didn’t appeal to Ball and the rest of the creative team. David would have salivated at all the potential reburial clients as headlines flashed on the television, just like funeral directors across the South did while the scandal was breaking.
From the pilot episode, Six Feet Under made it clear that it was going to highlight some of the most unsavory aspects of the industry, and even the Fisher brothers don’t always come up as heroes in the narrative. In a highly competitive industry where you really only get one shot at each client, any number of tactics can be on the table and they often were on Six Feet Under just as they are in the real world.
The industry is notorious for its manipulative, brash tactics and willingness to take advantage of people in their time of grief, something the Fisher brothers claimed not to do, even as that wasn’t always the case. David was always an eager upseller, and this became a topic of conflict between him and his brother at times over the course of the series. Nate wasn’t afraid to take low-cost funerals, or to provide suggestions for cutting costs even further, even when it meant that the funeral home made less money. David was truer to the reality, with his subtle cues and reinforcement of more expensive purchasing decisions for coffins, flowers, and everything else.
Keen attention to detail was notable not just in the depiction of business practices, but the trappings that surrounded the show. The advertisements that acted as interstitials in the pilot, sadly never to appear during the rest of the series, were a sendup of real-world funeral home advertising, which ranges from the bizarre to the utterly tasteless. The ads proved popular with viewers, many of whom were disappointed to see them only this once, but similar advertising can be found in the wild, for those who wish to do some hunting. Funeral homes have used everything from nude calendars to disturbing billboards cautioning about the perils of texting and driving to drum up business and ensure that their names float to mind first when Grandma Alice dies and someone needs to make the arrangements.
Six Feet Under also provided a glimpse into the world of trade conferences and publications, where the funeral industry lets its hair down out of view of the closely scrutinizing public. Mitford taught the industry that it wasn’t inviolable, but those lessons clearly weren’t well-learned, as the industry continues to use abrasive, tactless language and advertisements in industry-only publications. Advertisements encourage funeral homes, for example, to take advantage of the growing demand for pet funeral services, and provide helpful suggestions on how to increase bottom line that would probably make readers clutch Fluffy and Fido close.
Towards the end of the series, Six Feet Under started to explore the trend of green funerals, which was just starting to take off around the time the finale episode aired, perhaps in no small part due to the popularity of the series and the decisions made by its characters. It highlighted the conflicts between traditional funeral services and the green approach, even as funeral directors like Nate attempted to figure out how to make it work both for them and their clients. Nate’s burial scene, as the family stands around the open grave, represents a burial not just of Nate, but of a way of life in the funeral industry since the 1800s, when funerals became increasingly elaborate and expensive, and a showy funeral was sometimes seen as the only way to appease the dead.
The show also warned of trends that have already emerged in the green burial industry; desperate to make a buck on what is, in theory, a minimalist burial practice, funeral directors use a variety of means to milk every cent out of a green burial. They can’t embalm their clients or ensconce them in heavy duty coffins, but they can sell services like “perpetual memory stones” and plots in luxury green burial facilities that cost more than some homes.
Viewers approached the show with their own ideas about the funeral industry, an industry most people only come into contact briefly, and at adverse times in their lives. Six Feet Under balanced the humanization of the Fisher brothers and the illustration that funeral directors are people too with a very real and unflinching look at the multibillion dollar business behind funerals, memorials, and the other appurtenances of death. It made a delicious setting for the Fisher family, but, more than that, it highlighted the fact that not a lot has changed since The American Way of Death.
The show aired just as forensic dramas were starting to take off in the United States in a big way and producers became aware that there are few things viewers in the US seem to enjoy more than death. Yet, despite the slew of CSI clones dotting the airwaves, the expansion of forensics coverage into shows like Bones, no one has dared attempt a repeat of Six Feet Under, a show that was not received with universal warmness by the industry it depicted. Undoubtedly funeral directors across the States are heaving a sigh of relief that television continues to leave the door to the embalming room closed, after the gritty reality of Six Feet Under.
Sadly, Jessica Mitford died before Six Feet Under made it to the airwaves, but it seems like the sort of programming she would have loved; a complex, honest, and sometimes nasty look at a big business that gets almost everyone as a customer in the end. Mitford’s advocacy for consumers brought about a number of radical changes in industry practices, including the institution of the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule to compel funeral homes to provide honest pricing and disclosures to consumers, but the show was a grim reminder that all the regulation in the world couldn’t make funerals unprofitable, and wouldn’t remove the incentive to build up funerary empires with multinational reach and profits that continue to be shockingly large, even in an economic recession.