A Gathering at the Funeral Parlour

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We live our lives as we dispatch the dead.

Once a year families in Mexico gather at graveyards to eat with the dead. It's a strangely joyous occasion. There is a flower that the Aztecs called sempix├│chitl, the eternal flower, that people arrange in white sprays before they sit down to dinner at the graveside. On that day people give each other sugar skulls with a name label crudely pasted on the forehead. For weeks beforehand the skulls sit piled high at all the local markets, in bright colours, arranged in a pyramid.

Nothing could be further from the sombre way that we deal with dispatching the dead. Dark suits, black ties, gloomy mood music--it is the moment when the church reclaims the wayward, and promises a terrible revenge expressed through the sombre wailing of the organ. Anyone who has ever arranged a funeral knows how quickly bereavement must translate itself into packages, casket shapes, bureaucracy--in other words, how quickly it is swept away and hidden. In other cultures grief is publicly performed, the weeping audible, the sorrow shared with the collective. In the Anglo-Saxon way, it is an intensely private thing, decently withheld in company. Only occasionally is a public ceremonial allowed, as a kind of ritual act of obedience (a state funeral) or sometimes more cynically used for public purposes--as, in my view, the 11 September commemorations appropriated private grief and, with or without permission, turned it into an official legitimation of revenge.

The brilliant new TV series 'Six Feet Under' doesn't yield to the pact of silence. Each chapter begins with a spectacular death--the porn star electrocuted in the bath, the woman decapitated by hitting a bridge after a girls' night out, the gay man beaten to death in the street. The family undertakers, Fisher Brothers Funeral Home, receive the remains and prepare them, lovingly beautifying them in the white-tiled basement embalming room for the reassurance of the people left behind.

The series began with the sudden death of the patriarch, Nate Fisher, crushed by a bus as he was bending to light a cigarette in his brand new hearse. He returns from time to time to witness the changes and dramas in the life of the family he left behind--to share the gradual peeling away of all the layers of protection and denial that we are led through.

It's an odd contrast--the professionals rebuild the shattered faces of the past to reassure the people left behind to grieve that the passing was smooth, and to provide the most beautiful image for them to remember. Yet at the same time the individual stories of this typical American family are steadily exposed until you see the messy, contradictory, vibrant humanity behind the masks the living sometimes wear (that is, of course, to be expected from the writer of American Beauty).

There's the mother, 30 years repressed and caged in a marriage conducted in whispers. She unlocks her desires piece by small piece in the months after her husband's death--and reveals, by the way, that she'd been having an affair with her hairdresser for 30 years! There's stiff closeted brother David, who wants to be a church deacon ('It's good for business') and cruise on the sly, until he finds that compartmentalising your life is just too tough. But even his coming out is clumsy and confused. Clare, the adolescent sister, symbolically explores her problem, going to and from school in an old hearse painted green. If she's the most complex and (judging by fan websites) the most popular of all the characters, it's probably because she takes it for granted that personal life is always a mess.

There are other things going on too. The independent family firm at first buckles before the giant corporation and its production line methods, then changes and becomes defiant, gathering the little people at the funeral directors' convention and deciding--in the best 'It's A Wonderful Life' tradition--to confront the bullying giants.

Funnily enough, death hasn't often been the theme of TV drama--at least not ordinary death. When Jessica Mitford wrote about 'The American Way of Death', and Evelyn Waugh followed with 'The Loved One', theirs were satires on the sanitising of death, the way in which American values were projected all the way to eternity. Waugh's Whispering Glades Funeral Parlour was simply Disneyland for the deceased, with piped music and the kitsch imagery that reduced every complex human feeling to one of six available selections.

In 'Six Feet Under', you could say the deaths are the pretext. After all, a funeral is always for the living--an occasion to confront (or deny) our fears, our sense of loss, our yearning for the world to be otherwise, our disappointment, our terror. At the end of each episode, the screen fades to white. Another stone is laid, another epitaph written. But there is something oddly comforting about the fact that the Fisher family remains as confused, uncertain and full of contradictions as the rest of us--behind the practised (but increasingly cracked) mask of studied sympathy.