The Funeral Parlor Palette: Color Symbolism in ‘Six Feet Under’

The artful direction and cinematography of Six Feet Under was notable not only for its dynamic beauty, but for the complex symbolism of the production design, including a creative and strategic use of color. Alan Ball’s work is notable for its heavily-symbolic use of color: the film American Beauty, written by Ball and directed by Sam Mendes, had a very strong red, white and blue color palette, befitting its topic. These colors are not merely “patriotic” expressions of America, but portray specific emotions and qualities of various characters. White stands for innocence, inviolability, and perhaps most of all the pristine sterility of the main characters’ home. Red is all about lust and passion: we see the teenaged temptress of Kevin Spacey drenched in red rose petals, and the roses tended by Annette Bening demonstrate the anger beneath her cold exterior, the passion of her marriage subsumed to her careful domestic ministrations. This intricate and pervasive use of color enhanced an already powerful narrative and underlaid the film with greater pathos and emotional subtlety.

In books like Color by Vittorio Storaro and If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die by Patti Bellantoni, the mechanics and complexity of color design in cinema are explained via the emotional power and deeply-rooted cultural symbolism of color. Different colors have different meaning across cultures: for example, green is considered lucky in the West but not so in the East; white is associated with weddings in Europe and funerals in Japan; the color black is considered somber in some societies, chic in others. But certain colors’ characteristics have been deemed universal to the emotional impact of color upon human emotional response: for example, greens and blues are calming; pink is soothing and inspires romance; red excites and implies danger; yellow stimulates and serves as a visual warning. These symbolic meanings have been used since the creation of color technology in cinema to enhance visual storytelling.

Six Feet Under, Ball’s acclaimed series for HBO, featured a color palette that defined and linked all of the major characters (Nate, David, Claire, Ruth and Brenda were associated, respectively, with brown, red, purple, green and blue). The colors were usually associated with characters via their costumes or the environments they spent a lot of time in. For example, Brenda’s pale blue shirts were ubiquitous, mirroring her involvement in yoga and massage, the soothing balms to her frenetic intellect and sexual addiction. Ruth’s primary color, green, was seen throughout the kitchen where she prepared the Fisher family’s meals, including the seminal scene in the pilot where she hears of Nathaniel Sr.’s accidental death and smashes the pot roast against the wall. She also worked with green plants in Nikolai’s flower shop. The color green is associated with balance and harmony, as well as nature, fertility, prosperity and growth, but also with decay and disease. As the show’s maternal centerpiece, but also a character for whom growth and transformation were consistently emphasized via her relationship challenges, Ruth’s place at the center of the spectrum (with David at one extreme and Claire at the other) demonstrates her central importance to the story. But it is Claire who is finally the show’s most important character, and her color at the end of the spectrum (purple) tells us this.

Claire was also associated with green via the bright lime green vintage Cadillac hearse she drove, but this color tied her to her family and soon after she totaled the vehicle late in season five, she began to take steps to break away and establish a more independent identity. This was symbolized by her new hybrid car in a shade of pale purple, the color most frequently associated with Claire throughout the show, seen in her costumes, the mauve satin bedspread in her room, and the muted purple room in the funeral home (where she had her most important conversation with Russell, in which she admits she was pregnant with his child and had an abortion). Purple is associated with the supernatural and the occult, intoxication and creativity, and the realms of death and the afterlife. Claire’s involvement with drugs, art and mental illness (through her relationship with Billy) made purple a fitting color for her character’s visual identity. As the true central character, modeled after Ball himself, it made sense for Claire’s main color to be one associated with death, but her purples were rarely deep or intense, hinting perhaps that her self-destructive behavior and brushes with mortality would nevertheless put her death further off than anyone else’s — indeed, she is the last to die, as the finale’s stunning flash-forward sequence tells us, at the fine old age of 102.

David, the middle son and the one whose identity is the most conflicted (as a gay man who has difficulty coming out to his family and community) is exemplified by the color red: a powerful color associated with love, anger, sex, violence and intense emotional states. David’s issues with his sexuality, expressed via his self-destructive behavior when his relationship with Keith sours, shows that his sexual identity is key to his life. His tendency towards neatness and obsession, towards repressing his emotions and acing on them inappropriately, suggests that red not only describes his passionate nature but is offered as a red flag to show what happens when that nature is denied. Red is also a symbol of violence and danger, and we see this in the red hooded sweatshirt worn by David’s tormenter, a hitchhiker who kidnaps him, robs him and physically and emotionally brutalizes him, causing David to experience post-traumatic stress for a number of months, during which the image of the red hoodie haunts and terrorizes him. In the episode portraying the attack, the final image is a red light on a police car, pulling up next to him, reminiscent of Keith’s profession and his love and protection of David, suggesting David’s path ahead will depend on his partner’s support.

Nate’s color was brown: not a spectrum color and not one that seems to inspire any symbolic interpretation. But given the show’s title being a direct reference to burial after death, and given Nate’s frequent interaction with the act of burial, the color of earth is a powerful signifier for Nate’s character. For example, in the pilot when he argues with David over the “salt shaker” and says he thinks they should be using actual dirt to help bury his father, Nate makes it clear that for him, death is a natural process that is steeped in both reality and mystery. Nate also confronts the notion of burial when he collects Lisa’s body from the morgue and buries it instead of following her parents’ wishes for cremation. Nate also insists on his own burial being “green” and devoid of the ritualized preparations of funerary service; by forgoing embalming Nate’s body will return to earth faster and more naturally than most of the clients if his family’s business. Brenda confronts Nate’s apparent fear of death by trying to get him to talk about it and accept it.

Interestingly, shortly after Nate and Brenda meet and his father is killed suddenly, she shows up the day of his father’s funeral, dressed entirely in brown suede. This suggests she will be the vehicle for Nate’s journey towards a closer understanding and acceptance of his own mortality. But generally, Brenda’s color, light blue, is one associated with spirituality, calmness, innocence, and youth. If Nate’s brown is earth, Brenda’s blue is sky: Nate’s obsession with death is paralleled with Brenda’s eternal movement forward towards her future. Her intellectual curiosity and self-absorption suggests she is not really at peace with death, and that it remains an abstract concept for her, despite her ability to discuss Nate’s fears. Yet this melding of corporeal fear and intellectual questing explains their deep attraction for one another and their inability to let go of each other, despite years of difficulty maintaining a healthy relationship. Brenda’s connection to the world of thoughts and ideas means her sexual addictions are caused by her failure or inability to be in touch with her physical self, a problem Nate seems to share, given his tendency to veer between a healthy lifestyle of running and organic foods, and complete decadent immersion into alcohol and drugs. Both characters struggle with addictive, impulsive behavior, and the balance of these two very different colors suggests their relationship represents a way for them to find equilibrium. But in the end, despite years of struggle, their relationship doesn’t provide peace or happiness for either of them.

For most of these characters, their colors remain constant throughout their story arc over the show’s five seasons. But there are several examples of dramatic color shifts that demonstrate significant transformation. For example, Ruth’s decision to change her life by opening a day care center for dogs is accompanied by scenes showing her wearing a flattering shade of rose pink. This color represents health, vitality and love, and Ruth ‘s later years, prior to her struggle with terminal illness, appear to be characterized by leisurely time spent in comfort with friends, where they are shown throwing toys to the dogs and drinking wine on the deck. The rosy shade of pink she wears in the final episode, when she says goodbye to Claire, is also a symbol of the feminine solidarity and affection that mother and daughter have achieved. Claire thanks Ruth for giving her life and Ruth responds, “You gave me life.” Claire is shown in white at her mother’s funeral, then at her wedding, and again at her brother David’s wedding to Keith. This shift from purple to white suggests Claire has made peace with her obsessions and has become a blank slate, free from her painful past and open to new experiences.

Six Feet Under is a highly cinematic series, befitting HBO’s high quality offerings, and viewers who watch it more than once will find their experience enriched when they become aware of the artful symbolism and subtlety of the cinematography and production design. The intricacy of the show’s color structure adds a significant layer of meaning to the insights, epiphanies and intensities of Six Feet Under’s depth and drama. It’s one of my personal favorite television series of all time, and being able to share my exploration of the shows color meanings has added to my own enjoyment of it.