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.
Kübler-Ross's book gave birth to the hospice movement, which revolutionized how medical professionals deal with the end of life. Her five stages became part of the cultural bedrock. Fifteen years after "On Death and Dying" was published, the AIDS crisis took full advantage of Kübler-Ross's ideas. A picture of a family gathered at the deathbed of a tragically young patient became for a time the reigning image of death in the news, the movies and even, in Benetton's scandal-provoking advertisements, on the sides of passing buses.
Today, death is everywhere—the pope has called ours "the culture of death"—but it has for the most part returned to its clinical setting. Eighty percent of Americans still die in hospitals or nursing homes. For every show about death, there is at least one C.S.I. in which the dead are treated as lab specimens. Grieving is still as misunderstood as it is unwelcome in public.
If our culture continues to ignore Kübler-Ross's work, it seems, we do so at our own risk. The death of someone close to us has physical effects as well as psychological ones. Survivors usually have a lowered cognitive ability for six to eight months after a sudden loss—workers often have trouble returning to tasks they've performed easily for years after the sudden death of a family member. Not dealing with the natural aftershocks of death can be costly. According to Bertelsen, addiction rates soar after a traumatic death especially, with increased use of both illegal and legal substances. Women tend to turn to tranquilizers, while men abuse alcohol and cigarettes. "Our culture believes that if you don't talk about it, you'll get over it faster, but the opposite is true. If 9/11 did anything for us as a culture, it helped us come to terms with the fact that you don't just 'get over it.'"
Thanks to the rash of death shows, death in the West is no longer "treated with the same prudery as the sexual impulses were a century ago," as Geoffrey Gorer wrote in 1965. But they bear out Gorer's prediction that death, like sex, will out whether we like it or not: "Sensible, rational men and women can keep their mourning under complete control by strength of will and character," he wrote, "so that it need be given no public expression, and indulged, if at all, in private, as furtively as if it were analogue to masturbation."
Nate, who has recently lost his own wife, is incensed by a customer whose Christian beliefs allow him to reconcile himself to his wife's death. "In the interest of healthy grieving, Mr. Sheedy, you need to give yourself permission to at least be curious as to why your wife would jump out of a car and into traffic for no apparent reason," implores Nate. The customer simply responds, "It's not gonna bring her back."
Our feelings about death may be so rudimentary, though, that a good dose of cliché might be enough to get the discussion started. "They bring death up as a subject," says Bertelsen. "We don't have enough death. We're used to longevity. We're used to people dying in other places. We're not in a position to understand that dying is a part of life, that it's the other side of the coin that we've been trying to exclude. I think [these shows] could help us, as a culture, go in the direction that we need to go."
On Showtime's "Dead Like Me," one of Death's henchmen unknowingly strikes up a conversation with his latest recruit's mother. Casually chatting, he asks why she is in the office. Her daughter is there for a session, because, "Her sister's sudden death traumatized her. She's been unable to … too stubborn, to move on." Rube responds, "I just don't get our culture's obsession with moving on. What are we afraid of … being sad, remembering?" Union College death historian Richard V. Wells says, television doesn't have to be subtle. "To give people permission to talk about it is a useful thing. They don't necessarily provide clear-cut answers, but that's alright," he says.
What these shows say about grief and loss, in fact, may not be as important as what they show: the nuts and bolts of disposing of our loved ones. In his history, "Puritan Way of Death," historian David Stannard notes how our forefathers understood that death was simply a part of life--that death can't be "extracted from life and still retain its meaning." The Wissmillers not only make death a part of life, they make a living from it. Like the fictional family on "Six Feet Under," they make it banal, commonplace—literally manageable. On "Dead Like Me," the Grim Reapers get day jobs to pay the bills. They eat at a waffle house.
The grisly details, in other words, are even more helpful than the airy cliches. A contributor to the message boards on the chat room WidowNet recently started a topic entitled "I'm a Creep?" She wanted to know if she was the only widow who watches SFU and Family Plots. "John's been gone 31 months after a 30 year marriage," she wrote, and I find I'm fascinated by the behind the scenes stuff." She was relieved to find that she wasn't alone. "The wisest thing said to me was: 'It's not morbid. It's like saying to death "Nyah nyah nyah, you can't hurt me -- because you already did."' Maybe it's healthy."
"Nyah, nyah, nyah" isn't one of Kübler-Ross's steps to accepting death, but it ain't a bad place to start.