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The Meaning of Death

[Written in March 2004. In this third in a series of monthly columns on Six Feet Under, the author concludes his discussion of season 1. Copyright © 2004 by Cory Pagett.]

At this time of year, while watching Six Feet Under, a saying comes to mind: "There are only two things in life that are certain: death and taxes." While I am sure many of you are busy like myself preparing (or putting off preparing) your annual return, let me offer you a bit of a break and instead focus on death.

A column on Six Feet Under can't help but address this overriding issue. Even the packaging of the first-season DVD conjures up images of a coffin, and inside lies the message, "Your whole life is leading up to this." So why have I not chosen to focus on this topic? Well, without getting overly psychoanalytical, let's just say that it's not something I like to face—kind of like, well, taxes.

But as I finished rewatching the first season, it struck me how the issue of death is woven into the show in so many different and fascinating ways.

IN MEMORIAM

First of all there are the various ways that the characters meet their end. The unfortunate souls we meet through the first season are:

  • Nathaniel Fisher Sr.: car accident
  • Chandler James Swanson: diving accident
  • Thomas Alfredo Romano: bakery accident
  • Pedro Antonio Bolin: gang shooting
  • Vivica St. John: electrocuted in bathtub
  • Mildred "Hattie" Effinger Jones: in her sleep
  • Victor Wayne Kovitch: Gulf War syndrome
  • ChloŽ Anne Bryant Yorkin: head smashed into crane
  • Anthony Christopher Finelli: gun accident
  • Jonathan Arthur Hanley: killed by wife with frying pan
  • Dillon Michael Cooper: sudden infant death syndrome
  • Marcus Foster Jr: beaten to death in gay bashing
  • Lilian Grace Montrose: hit in head with golf ball

(For those who are interested, there are obituaries for the deceased on HBO's website.)

It is painfully obvious that Death has a great number of tricks up his sleeve (and the writers quite a bit of imagination) in order to accomplish his fatal work.

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

All of these situations call for equal creativity on the part of Rico in preparing the bodies for viewing. Among the tricks of the trade that he uses are a leg of lamb to replace the missing foot of Mr. Romano and a tin of cat food to correct a certain imbalance in adult film star Ms. St. John. Rico pulls out all of the stops for his "Sistine Chapel," the reconstruction of Ms. York's head. David also proves resourceful by using diaper rash cream to get rid of scarring on Mr. Foster's face. And then there is the lingo, like "cremains." Do I ever have some questions for the technical consultants!

EMOTIONAL IMPACT

In addition to the challenges the corpses pose to Rico and the Fishers, there is the emotional impact on those they leave behind. The emotions run the gamut from cold (Victor Kovitch), hysterical (Mrs. Romano) to heart-stopping (Mr. Jones expires at his wife's coffin).

As an audience, we also are caught up in the mourning process. We may be upset over the unjust loss of such young people as Victor, Pedro, Anthony, Marcus and particularly Dillon. We may find ourselves questioning how we would face the loss of our life partner—if we too would simply give up like Mr. Jones, while perhaps hoping that our death may be so peaceful. And we become more aware that death can be lurking around any corner, from the bathtub, to work, to sitting on the lawn.

The Fishers themselves are also impacted, for while they may be providing a service to the families of the deceased, they often find themselves much more involved. David is confronted by the ghosts of Pedro and Marcus, Rico is particularly challenged when preparing a three-month-old corpse while his wife is expecting a second child, and Nate recognizes the brother of Victor as a former schoolmate. Even Claire, who does not work in the business, is forced to offer a helping hand to Mr. Jones (who then won't let go) and lends even more support to Gabe following the death of his brother, Anthony. Tracy, a neurotic follower of David's, reappears on the scene when her aunt, Lilian Montrose, is killed by a stray golf ball (which happens to have been launched by the club of Mrs. Huntley, an executive with Kroehner International!). The ghost of Nathaniel Fisher Sr. continues to reach out to all of the family members.

All of this dealing with death and mourning has inevitable side-effects on the Fishers, who appear to the "new person," Angela, as fragile as Ruth's precious crystal glass. Even when Ruth tries to move on and start a new career working at Nikolai's flower shop, she is criticized for her "funereal" arrangements. Claire is teased for driving a converted hearse and has nicknames such as "Morticia," and David's new boyfriend, Kurt, accuses him of letting all the "stuff" get into his head.

THE DEATH INDUSTRY

Before we can conclude that the Fishers are alone in their experience, we realize that they are part of an entire industry—one that will always be thriving (along with tax accountants).

The other major player in their area is Kroehner International, whose "body farm" approach to business stands in sharp contrast to the style of a family shop.

Rico gets caught between the two, dealing with the responsibility of being the husband to a very demanding wife and the father of a four-year-old child (with baby number two on the way).

Unable to cope with the workload, the Fishers are forced to hire a replacement, Angela, who has her own quirks (such as working in only a bra). The interview process and the different candidates show that it takes all types to be involved in this line of work.

We also get a glimpse of the diverse world of funeral services when David and Nate (joined by Brenda) attend a convention in Las Vegas. In a rare act of bravery, David defends his father's philosophy during a speech on the future of the independent funeral director.

Even Brenda is aware of the complexities of the business and tries to open Nate's eyes by dragging him around to different funeral homes where they pose as potential clients. The unsuspecting staff offer matching caskets for their parents, try to overcharge them for the Titan (a "high-end" casket) and even try to help Brenda arrange for her own funeral.

YOUR LIFE IS LEADING UP TO THIS

At times it all seems too much. To think that our lives should come down to simply a final business transaction! Indeed, in the final episode of the season, Tracy, the consummate party planner who obsesses over her aunt's funeral, breaks down, asking Nate, "Why do people have to die?" Nate's response is profound, both in its truth and its showcasing of the strength of the show: "To make life important. None of us know how long we've got, which is why we have to make every day matter."

I'm sure grief counsellors and spiritual directors speak those words every day, but delivered by this character (fictional though he may be) they seem to resonate with wisdom.

We are left with a scene of joy: the christening of Rico's son. While the ghost of Nathaniel looks on and reminds us that death is ever-present, there seems to be a new balance between the forces of life and death and a deeper meaning of both.

Now if someone could just explain to me the meaning of taxes!

Send comments about the show and ideas for future columns to the author.

Previous column: "Suspending Disbelief."


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