Six Feet Under and The Culture of Grief

Categories: Tragedy

We know it’s coming. It’s happening right now. Death is the great equalizer. Death is the biggest mystery mankind will ever face and each and every human will eventually solve it. The real question is not how do we deal with dying, rather how do the ones we leave behind deal with your absence? HBO’s Six Feet Under tackles this conundrum from the first scene. The show opens with Nathaniel Fisher, owner of a prominent funeral home named “Fisher and Sons”, being hit by a bus while driving home to celebrate Christmas in sunny southern California in his newly purchased hearse.

The pilot of the show demonstrates the immense differences in which we react to tragic events. Mr. Fisher’s family has an assortment of reactions from devastation and rage in Ruth Fisher, (Nathaniel’s Wife of 40 years), to shock and numbness in Nathaniel’s second-born son. Claire, the only daughter, and youngest child, confronts her grief with denial and panic after she learns of her father’s death just minutes after trying crystal meth for the first time.

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Meanwhile, Nathaniel’s firstborn, Nate, personifies his loss in disbelief and almost a smug “I told you so” persona. All of these characters take the news of their father’s horrific end in totally polarizing ways.

Six Feet Under opens every show with the death of a person. Husbands, wives, children, the elderly, porn stars, and war heroes all meet their demise in varying ways. Though, unlike your normal primetime television show, Six Feet Under chooses not to focus on the deceased, but on the aftermath of what they leave behind.

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In particular, the Fisher family deals with their loss in the form of Nathaniel’s “ghost” visiting them and interacting with them. In reality, there is no ghost, just the Fisher family’s vision of their memory of their father. Six Feet Under is constantly trying to convey that although the dead are gone, they can never truly leave. Their memory is forever bound to you, reminding you of the impact those special people had on your life. This is especially pertinent in each episode when the topic of funeral services arises. Throughout the series, cultural norms are displayed in hundreds of ways. Each family has its own idea of how to respect the dead and pay them tribute. From a biker gang blasting classic rock near the casket to Buddhist monks lighting incense and chanting, cultures collide in the Fisher’s funeral home and a major theme is about recognizing that everyone must grieve differently. Some mourn the loss of their loved ones while others celebrate the life of the people they loved.

Although it might seem like I’m describing this dull and horribly depressing show, Six Feet Under is quite the opposite. The show relies on dark humor and realistic characters that have depth and are loving. The Fisher home is a place of welcoming and comfort. All cultures are recognized and the focus of their efforts is entirely on making the families feel safe and comfortable. Beautiful moments happen during the show as the Fisher family expands and succeeds in their lives. Nate has a daughter, David adopts two children, and Claire becomes an accomplished photographer. These moments bring balance and perspective to a show that focuses so much on the biggest fear most humans have.

As we see these characters age, we also see them evolve. Nate, initially patently against having any part of his father’s family business, even running away across the country to avoid his birthright, grows to appreciate what his father gave people. Nate takes over Fisher and Sons with his brother and learns the benefit of allowing people to take time and grieve. The funeral home gives families a place to gain closure, to say goodbye. The show teaches the audience that death is painful, but life is incredible. Always countering the sad moments with uplifting, inspiring stories of people impacting those they left behind, Six Feet Under shows how different our grieving process can be, but ultimately, all the same.

We are all looking for that closure, for that understanding of what we’re doing here. The Fisher family is a source of comfort for those lost in a sea of doubt. Before watching this show, I thought funerals were cruel. Why would anybody subject themselves to that kind of pain? In their most vulnerable moments, why twist the knife when they’re already so wounded? I have come to realize that funeral proceedings are about acceptance. If you cannot face what has happened, how can you ever move on? Only after opening up fully can the healing begin.
I know it might seem silly, or cliché, but Six Feet Under taught me a lot about not only the world but also myself. The show is truly a work of art that deals honestly with the hardest part of life.

The Fisher family is written as if they must be real people. Sub-cultures are displayed fully and impartially to present how different we are, yet how similar we can react. Six Feet Under not only forces their characters to react, but they also confront the audience with these disasters that unfold before them. As different ways of life challenge the Fisher family, the viewer is constantly presented with new ideas and ways to think about the great beyond. I realized just how much the show had an effect on me when in one episode, a child is denied a heart transplant because a man who died didn’t sign away his organs. I couldn’t escape the fact that if I die prematurely, that exact scenario could happen again. I could deny life to another human for no good reason. I signed my license that day.

Six Feet Under is a gorgeous tale about a family that owns a funeral home, but it can be so much more than that. Birth, death, and everything in between are analyzed objectively and impartially in a way to get the audience to cross-cultural boundaries and truly gain perspective about the world we live in, no matter how short our stay might be. I urge everyone I know to watch the show, not just for the entertainment, but to connect to other people in a way that is not often talked about because of societal fear about death. We’re all going to be worm food someday, but in the end, what matters is what we leave behind. “All that lives forever. Only the shell, the perishable passes away. The spirit is without end. Eternal. Deathless.” –Nate Fisher.

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Six Feet Under and The Culture of Grief. (2022, Feb 21). Retrieved from

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