Six Feet Under and the Funeral Industry

Six Feet Under is possibly my favourite television series of all time because it blends two of my most passionate interests: really good television and death. And one of the things that’s always intrigued is the show’s interaction with the funeral industry, something I covered for PopMatters in 2011. What did the show do well? What did it do not-so-well? What does the show’s depiction of the Fisher brothers say about our larger relationship with the funeral industry?

It’s a strange business because it’s one that almost everyone has to deal with eventually, but very few people think about until a time of critical need. While pre-need arrangements can be made (and sales of pre-need contracts are a big part of the industry), it’s not uncommon for someone’s first introduction to the funeral trade to be the process of making funeral arrangements for a loved one, or as a customer, in which case you’re unlikely to be able to share your impressions of the experience.

What intrigued me about Six Feet Under is that it sometimes clashed with my overall negative perception of the industry, brought about in part by extensive reading about the multibillion dollar nature of the death trade, which does serious business in exploiting people at a time of extreme vulnerability. The United States in particular has been a pioneer in terms of developing more and more add-ons for funerals, ways of guilting family members into spending more on a funeral, and astronomical non-negotiable fees on the final bill. The Funeral Rule was in part enacted to address some of these issues, but the industry has found ways around it because it needed to in order to keep being a profitable endeavor; there’s no money in compassion.

While funeral directors receive extensive training in school that is theoretically supposed to prepare them for compassionately and responsibly handling the dead and their grieving loved ones, they also receive business education. Because death is a business, and funeral directors are providing a service. A service which almost everyone uses despite the fact that in many regions, you are not required to go through a funeral home to manage a burial; in California, for example, as long as you apply for the right permits and get an authorised burial spot or dispose of the body via regulated cremation, you don’t need the services of a funeral director, despite what the industry wants you to think.

To view, and love, a show told from the perspective of people inside the industry was an interesting struggle for me. The Fisher brothers represented a small family business being besieged by major corporations, marking an important distinction and a reminder that all funeral homes are not alike. In the real world, the same thing is happening, with a handful of huge firms snapping up small funeral homes and businesses related to the trade, like florists, as they attempt to monopolise the industry and dominate prices. These firms are responsible for some of the most brutal abuses of the trade, while small businesses struggle to stand up to them.

Big firms can slash prices to drive out competition (raising them afterwards, of course), and they can take advantage of their huge network of controlled resources to keep their operating costs down while artificially driving costs up for independent funeral homes. Smaller homes, like the Fisher and Diaz home, also have a more personal relationship with the community than larger ones, something brought home with a number of the funerals that showed up on Six Feet Under.

It was interesting to contrast Nate, who sometimes sympathised with grieving families and helped them cut costs and choose the funerals they wanted without shaming them, and David, who viewed the funeral home as a business and was concerned about profits and bottom lines. David sighed when Nate sold a low-cost coffin, or when customers spent minimal amounts of money because they couldn’t afford more, and David was the one looking for new ways to monetise, new ways to keep money coming into the funeral home. While Nate may have embodied the face of the folksy small business ethic, it was David who kept the home alive, and David who represented the uglier side of the industry, if on a smaller scale than the huge companies that control the bulk of the funeral trade. He was a constant reminder of the realities of the industry, while Nate was a more idealised depiction of a funeral director.

As a family drama that also involved keeping a beloved business alive, Six Feet Under captured what it’s like to watch a major corporation try to muscle you out of your family trade, even as the trade is evolving and changing. I loved that Nate had a green burial at the end, for example, which really highlighted the differences between him and David. He choose a deliberate rejection of the corporatisation of death and the ways in which the industry attempts to regulate and control how people die and how their remains are handled, even though it was also an act of defiance in the face of what his family had been doing for two generations.

One thing Six Feet Under really failed to do, though, was probe into the darker failings of the industry; the lies, the deception, the exploitation, and I wish it had done more of that. Even as it showed the struggles between David and Goliath, it didn’t probe into how awful Goliath can be in the real world and the kinds of horrible acts committed by major players in the trade, like collecting bodies for cremation and then not actually cremating them, jacking up coffin costs to take advantage of grieving families, actively distributing misinformation about legal requirements surrounding the handling and disposition of human remains.

I would have loved to see the Fisher brothers tackling that.