Funeral industry makes way into mainstream TV

Last Sunday, June 3, HBO premiered a new television series called “Six Feet Under” about the Fisher family living in California. The series is nothing new, per se, as the dysfunctional lives of the family members unravel in emotionally darker moments tinged with comedy. One son is a 30-something slacker living in Seattle; the only daughter is prone to smoking crystal meth with friends; the other son is gay and in the closet.

The father dies in the first episode and returns as a ghost to taunt the living, an already old idea when Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet.” Finally, the grieving wife admits to having an affair with a man from their church during the funeral visitation for her deceased husband. Even though I am quickly describing the character profiles, they remain recognizable standard-issue material for well-trained television-viewing audiences.

What does make “Six Feet Under” different from other television programs is the family business woven into the story line. The Fisher family runs a funeral home, “Fisher and Sons,” that functions as a morbidly fascinating backdrop for character development. Contemporary American viewing audiences, broadly speaking, have a tendency toward a complete fascination with programming related to the funeral industry and death.

As a person genuinely fascinated by the morbidity of a funeral home in the story line, I watched the first episode of “Six Feet Under” with an admitted agenda. My father is a funeral director, and I have spent my entire life around the material effects of death.

While I chose not to enter the funeral service industry, I have not completely left that past behind. The current research I am undertaking in graduate school examines the emergence of the contemporary funeral industry with the embalming practices of the late 19th century in America. As a result, the funeral home element in the story is far from morbid in my personal worldview – it is simply a way of life that is actually rather ordinary.

When I use the term ordinary, I am not suggesting funeral-related topics are uninteresting – quite the contrary. The topic is a
never-ending stream of ideas I and others not connected to the funeral industry find fascinating. What makes the funeral industry so
titillating is the lack of representation it receives in public life.

The American public really only encounters the funeral home a few times during the majority of a lifetime. Even though these visits will be few, funeral homes are one of the only places most American people, in the broadest sense, enter over time.

If a common American experience can ever be determined, I believe entering funeral homes is a good place to begin looking. How specific funeral services articulate death and what happens to the body, however, remain unique practices, particular to a faith base or cultural custom. The entering of the funeral home, on the other hand, is different and remains a physical act that acknowledges the presence of death.

Although functioning as an arguably common experience, what the funeral service has lacked over the years is a representation on television (not necessarily a bad thing) that other contemporary professions have not. Current television programs like “The Practice,” “ER,” “Law and Order,” and even the “X-Files” produce a somewhat skewed understanding of how their respective professions function.

Distorted as that understanding might be (these television programs are narrative fictions, after all) audiences assume a familiarity with how convicts are apprehended, courtroom arguments proceed and FBI agents pursue suspects. I do not think most television audiences would assume any familiarity with how a funeral home functions – false or otherwise.

Audiences will regularly watch open heart or knee surgery on television for the sake of edu-tainment. Even household pets appear on television in the operating room on cable channels like “Animal Planet”. I wonder what would happen, however, if the Discovery channel began airing bodies being embalmed on a weekly basis. Even though the embalming process is a great deal less bloody than knee surgery, I imagine many people would find the whole program rather disconcerting.

The mere suggestion of televising an embalming for general viewing sounds somewhat grim to many people. What makes a television program like “Six Feet Under” so fascinating to American audiences is not the family drama involved but something I call the spectacle of the corpse.

Nothing draws attention to a subject more quickly than dead bodies. From school shootings to deaths related to HIV/AIDS, the presence of a corpse makes a situation extremely urgent to understand. “Six Feet Under” simply uses the contemporary American fascination with dead bodies and how those bodies circulate to complicate standardized television scripts wearing thin. I do wonder, however, if the writers and producers of “Six Feet Under” understand the history of how dead bodies became a spectacle in American culture.

The spectacle of the corpse, as used in “Six Feet Under,” is not entirely a 21st century American phenomenon. During the Civil War in America, a man by the name of Dr. Thomas Holmes produced the first reliable and reproducible methods for embalming dead bodies. His embalming methods changed many things, especially the length of time corpses could be around the general public without obvious decomposition. Once the corpse was relatively safe from decomposition, it could remain in public view as preparations for burial were made.

I mention these historical shifts as a way of explaining how the practice of embalming redefined the potential uses of the corpse in America. My favorite example is an advertisement for Bisga Embalming Fluid from 1902 that used a photograph of the “Bisga Man” (a gentleman embalmed for three months according to the caption) wearing a nice suit and sitting in a wing back chair with his legs crossed.

The creator of Bisga Embalming fluid, Carl Lewis Barnes, prided himself on how “life-like” any corpse embalmed with his fluid would appear. Testimonials surround the photo with high praise for the amazing effects of Bisga fluid on various kinds of death-producing disease. The “Bisga Man” advertisements appeared in early funeral service publications not read by the general public.

While that approach to advertising might appear grotesque to a modern sensibility, photographing the dead was fairly common in the 19th century. Before embalming, photography was the only way to preserve the body of a deceased loved one, and the images were often displayed for public view.

Interestingly enough, during the first episode of “Six Feet Under,” a series of commercials ran for fake funeral products, including an embalming fluid that guaranteed life-like corpses, similar in language to the Bisga Man advertisements.

“Six Feet Under” is capitalizing (not necessarily in poor taste) on a contemporary American viewing public that revels in the comic morbidity of something like the Bisga Man advertisements. What “Six Feet Under” will most likely end up accomplishing is a momentary cultural interest in what happens to a body after dying. That curiosity will be disappointed, however, when people see that funeral homes are rather ordinary places – not nearly as exciting as a television program on HBO.