Pop culture and the modern funeral

The funeral is an everpresent force in pop culture, particularly on television, where in long-running serial storytelling, people at some point have to die—from a cynical perspective, to drive the plot forward, but also from a purely practical one, to accommodate actors who want to leave programmes before the end. This means that we tend to see rather a lot of funerals depicted in the pop culture landscape, whether on comedies, dramas, or other settings. Death is an everpresent counterpoint to life, and consequently, it’s a component of artistic productions that explore the nature of life (and, sometimes, the fear of death).

Six Feet Underwith its one or more funerals per episode, is of course the iconic example of the genre of pop culture funerals, and the programme had a tendency of representing a huge range of approaches to death, grieving, funerals, and burial. We saw very conventional funerals in a style that’s becoming the default in the US, we saw green burial, we saw Jewish funerals, we saw funerals where the deceased was a gang member, or someone who died of AIDS. The intersections of the lives of these dying people and the characters were a key component of the show, with the dead often speaking in ways the living could not within the tightly bound constraints of the Fisher family, where so much was left unsaid because the operators of a funeral home were, in their own way, terrified of living.

But of course Six Feet Under isn’t the only show where people die, and are specifically buried. Plenty of hospital and procedural dramas feature dead people, but when looking at funerals in particular, representation drops. It also tends to take an extremely familiar form, with small variations. The funeral home comes to take the body away, they prepare it, there’s a ceremony either at the home or at the graveside, the body is buried. Everyone wears black and for some reason it’s always raining, and then everyone comes back to the house for a grim gathering over mediocre potluck offerings before slowly dissipating away again.

The thing about pop culture is that it doesn’t just entertain us. It shows us how to live. As people criticise the lack of diversity in pop culture, one of the things that comes up over and over again is that some experiences and lives go entirely without representation, creating a gap in the social framework. It’s terrible for those who never see themselves in pop culture, for those looking for models of their own lives, and, of course, for people who never get a chance to empathise or put themselves in the shoes of people with life experiences different from their own. When you never see trans women on television, for example, it’s difficult to understand the trans experience.

When it comes to life events rather than identities, the stakes aren’t as high, but they’re still important. When your primary exposure to funerals, or weddings, or giving birth is through television and other media, that heavily influences the way you manage those events in your life. Not necessarily in a good way, either.

Many people have few interactions with funerals until they’re planning for their own family members, or in some cases until they’re involved in funeral planning for friends. People don’t really know what a funeral should look like or be like with the exception of the handful they’ve attended, and the ones they’ve seen on television. The funeral industry must deeply appreciate the fact that the ‘traditional’ funeral as told in pop culture is one that contributes to massive profits, for everything from the headstone to the rental of a viewing room. For people confused and upset in a time of grief who haven’t gone over any funeral planning whatsoever, it’s easy to cling to what is familiar, and to hope the weather cooperates.

But what happens when pop culture shifts the dynamic of what a funeral or memorial looks like? Six Feet Under had a profound effect on the green funeral industry and the way people thought about funerals as they came to understand that they had more options beyond embalming and conventional burial. We see Nate bury Lisa’s remains in the desert (hey kids, don’t try this at home, it’s illegal, but hat tip for the Edward Abbey reference), but we also see other instances where people ask for and explore green burial options. We see people choosing cremation and family members wanting to take a more active role in that planning.

Pop culture alone can’t claim full credit for the growth of alternative approaches to death—there are a lot of people working very hard to change the way we think about death and the handling of bodies. But pop culture definitely plays a role, because it can dictate an entire way of life to a waiting society, especially when it comes to rare events that people hope to only experience a handful of times in a lifetime. The funeral is an iconic and very painful moment, and the routine of the familiar is comforting.

While people should be engaging in funeral planning and talking about what they want before they die, pop culture is also playing a role by pushing at the boundaries of what a funeral should look like. A funeral doesn’t have to involve a funeral home. It doesn’t have to involve burial. Family members can be present for cremation. People who want more traditional burials can use plain coffins or bring their own. People can march with bands and play music, can draw on the coffin, can bury people in wicker or shrouds, can hang out with the dead at home for a few days. These are all things that we are starting to see in pop culture, and they are all important things for audiences to see, too.

Image: a beginning & an end, Thomas Levinson, Flickr