R.I.P. Six Feet Under

Ten years after millions of others mourned the passing of Six Feet Under I was hugging my knees and bawling like a baby [hey — WAIT — is there a statute of limitations on spoiler alerts? — is a decade long enough not to worry about spoiling things for someone — oh, what the heck — just in case — SPOILER ALERT — stop reading NOW if you don’t what to know how Six Feet Under ends] as Claire rode off into the sun (well, technically and importantly, away from the sun) and into the next 80 years of her life. I didn’t ever expect to get so emotionally involved. But who was I kidding? This was, after all, a show about death. A show that told us, point blank, that “Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.”

Six Feet Under imageAnd Six Feet Under did it like no other show ever had or probably ever will. At once a groundbreaking (pun intended) family drama (melodrama?) and a yank-aside-the-curtain look at the funeral industry and our American relationship with death (hint: it’s a damn unhealthy relationship!), Six Feet Under (2001-2005) was brilliant, uncomfortable, riveting, and, I suspect, life-changing for many of its dedicated viewers. I now count myself among them.

It started out casually enough. Six Feet Under was one of those shows that kept coming up in conversation, or popping up in online posts — insinuating itself into my awareness. One of those shows you surely had to know. When folks would find out that I was interested in alternative approaches to death such as green burial and home funerals, they would jump right to Six Feet Under — and then were astounded that I had never watched it. My excuses were good: When it was on, I had a small child. There wasn’t room or time in my life for a TV series (Lost being the exception; OK, so really there wasn’t room or time for one more TV series). Oh — and we didn’t have HBO. At least that was a legitimate excuse.

But in the age of Netflix, Hulu, and library DVD  catalogs — and with an empty nest at home — this year I finally had no more excuses. I was beginning a sabbatical in which I would be learning everything I could about natural burials. I was embracing an amorphous movement loosely called Death Positive — a loose-knit group of people and practices hoping to shift the conversation (create a conversation?) about death in America, away from denial and distance toward acceptance and integration, meaningful rituals, greater harmony with the natural world and its rhythm of birth, death and renewal.

So it was, well, only natural that as 2015 began, I began the project of watching Six Feet Under — from beginning to oh-so-perfect end.

It started with a snowed-in mini-marathon last February, at the beginning of my sabbatical. It ended on an unseasonably warm December evening with the aforementioned tear-fest while I watched, agape, as the writers and producers proved, indeed, that everything and everyone ends. In between, I gladly rode the emotional rollercoaster of the Fisher family. I learned things I never dreamed about funeral homes and the funeral industry (this was, after all, sabbatical work, right?). At a home funeral conference 20151003_175156in California, I even met a vendor named Esmerelda Kent (not the person pictured here, though this is her display). Esmerelda just happened to be the woman who provided the shroud that was used in the show’s climactic green burial scene (which you can just make out in the center of her poster). The simple, lovely burial of Nate Fisher was the American public’s first real exposure to green burial; it served as something of a coming-out party for both the natural burial movement and a wider range of alternative death practices.

In the decade since Six Feet Under ended, articles about natural burial have appeared in major publications like the New York Times, Time magazine and Mother Jones. Television networks like PBS, and numerous local TV stations have spread awareness of green burial even further. The number of locations where one can be buried in an environmentally sound and spiritually satisfying manner has skyrocketed, to the point that some “conventional” cemeteries are now even opening green burial sections. A group of creative young thinkers (led by Caitlin Doughty of “Ask a Mortician” internet fame and Urban Death Project founder Katrina Spade) is changing the cultural rules around death and dying, while inspiring a new generation that will transform how we think about our own mortality.

Which brings me back to Six Feet Under, and its powerful finale, hailed by many critics as the best final episode in TV history. I’ve watched it again now, a couple of times, before I could bear to write about it here. One thing’s for sure: I know that, from now on, anytime I need a good cry — or simply a healthy dose of perspective — I can watch the final six minutes of Six Feet Under, or simply listen to Sia’s “Breathe Me” (like I’m doing right now).

The finale’s potency, I believe — like that of the entire series — lies in the fact that it is an exquisite memento mori, a brilliant, engaging reminder of our mortality. It portrays the simple yet sublime reality that death is intimately interwoven with life. As Steve Jobs once said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered.”

We all have that same tool — but each of us has our own story. It has a beginning, a middle — and an end. “Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.” That is the bittersweet and beautiful truth. Let us embrace it — and one another.