A hit since it debuted in 2001 and now in its fourth season, "Six Feet Under" has been described as a show with its "roots in Aaron Spelling and its head in Kübler-Ross." It follows the lives (and deaths) of the Fisher family, who manage a funeral home in Los Angeles. Created by Oscar-winner Alan Ball ("American Beauty") the show has won multiple awards and rave reviews from critics and the public. Two years later, Showtime debuted "Dead Like Me," starring Mandy Patinkin and Ellen Muth, a quirky (and supernatural) look at life and death from the point of view of several fledgling Grim Reapers.
Earlier this year, A&E combined two winning TV trends with their reality show set in the family-run Poway-Bernardo Mortuary near San Diego. "Family Plots" follows the Wissmiller sisters, their father, and the rest of the staff at Poway-Bernardo, giving viewers an inside view into the mechanics of the funeral industry and the mechanics of mourning. We watch the family of a woman disfigured in a car accident come to terms with never seeing her again as she was in life. Another family pours on positive stories and happy snapshots in a charming celebration of their dear departed. It may be that the gutsiest people on television are not the ones on "Fear Factor," but the Poway-Bernardo clients who allow us to witness their private grief.
The Big Chill, it seems, equals ratings. Showtime pulled in more than 1 million viewers for the debut of "Dead Like Me" last year. In its first season, "Six Feet Under" quickly out-Nielsened "The Sopranos" and is still the channel's top show. Last week, it was the most watched show on cable, with 3.4 million people inviting death into their living rooms.
The current vogue for funerary TV might be called Kübler-Ross's revenge. One reason for these shows' popularity may be that they offer an outlet for modern mourning, giving us an acceptable forum to discuss grief in public. HBO's website includes a "Death and Loss" discussion board on its "Six Feet Under" section. Many posts describe the unconventional healing they have gained from the programming. "Yeah, who woulda thunkit," writes one contributor. "My online support group is a bunch of folks from all over the country who happen to like a show about a family in the funeral parlor business!"
A century ago, death in the living room was a common occurrence. If you were lucky, you died peacefully in your own bedroom and were waked in the front room. (It's no coincidence they call them funeral parlors.) At first, funeral homes simply provided caskets and other equipment for mourning that occurred in the home. Rob Moore, a licensed funeral director whose family has been in the business in Clay County, Indiana since 1885, writes on his website that outsiders became more involved only when immigrants began to arrive in large cities. Their tenement apartments did not have the space to hold a traditional wake at home. Businessmen capitalized on the space shortage, offering waking rooms for rent.
Early last century, death took another step away from the home. Thanks to what historians refer to as the "medicalization of death," most people today die in hospital beds, not their own. As death disappears from daily life, many argue, the meaning of grieving has been lost. "We have no comprehension about grieving," laments Kris Bertelsen, a "postvention" coordinator for suicide prevention and crisis service in Tompkins County, N.Y. "We will do almost anything not to grieve."
Society has always had a lot to say about how death is presented. It used to impose well-defined mourning periods and demand appropriate accoutrements like bunting and black clothing. But society no longer allows for the outer signs of inner pain. Aries continues: "The outward manifestations of mourning are disappearing. Dark clothes are no longer worn; one no longer dresses differently than any other day."
Kübler-Ross set out to correct both traditional and modern approaches to death. Death, she said in "On Death and Dying," should not be a taboo to be wrapped in black crepe or hidden behind a hospital curtain. Her five stages of grief--denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—were based on her observations of how actual dying people faced death head-on. If the larger culture could look death in the eye, she argued, we could absorb its certainties and approach it with dignity.