Growing up in my part of Long Island, there seemed to me to be two different kinds of families: those who displayed their best televisions prominently in the living room, and those who hid them away in a den or a finished basement. My family was the former. We had one sitting room that everyone used, and all of its furniture—the beige fabric-upholstered sectional couch, Dad’s velvety grey recliner, the coffee tables and end-tables—was arranged to bask in the glow of the TV.
After dinner and any remaining homework, we would assemble around the TV for the nightly sitcom offering. Mom would be in the corner of our sectional couch, her sciatica-afflicted back propped up with throw pillows, her pack of Marlboro Reds and her cut crystal ashtray within reach on the coffee table. Dad would be across the room in his recliner, with his reading glasses on and his pen-filled pocket protector still in his shirt from his day at the Auto Crime division of the NYPD. He’d unleash a stream of commentary during whatever show we were watching, at the expense of the intelligence of the characters (e.g., the Simpsons were “the Simpletons”). I’d either be curled up on the couch next to Mom, or flopped in front of the TV on the maroon wall-to-wall carpet. My brother John usually took the end of the couch or a spot on the floor next to me.
TV shows weren’t rated for “appropriateness” until 1997 when I was eight and John was eleven, and by then we had already been watching shows that would be rated TV-14 for years. My parents were not concerned with monitoring the media my brother and I consumed. They didn’t care if we watched MTV’s Spring Break, which was essentially Girls Gone Wild with censor bars over the boobs. My parents even took us to go see Titanic when it first premiered in theaters, deeming it in some ways an “educational” film. That one backfired on them because what I saw of the scene post-shipwreck with all of the frozen bodies floating in the ocean—before Mom reached over to cover my eyes—disturbed me so much that I ran out of the theater to vomit and had nightmares for weeks afterwards.
When it came to the ugliness and hardships of real life, Mom and Dad did try to protect us. In 1997, when Dad was first diagnosed with prostate cancer, they never uttered the word “cancer” to me. I thought Dad was just staying home from work because his back hurt and he had to have his gallbladder taken out. This was a half-truth, designed to protect me from worry, from fear, from heartbreak. And it worked, because soon Dad’s cancer went into remission, and I was never the wiser. So it’s curious in a way that my parents didn’t shield me from ugliness that wasn’t real. For whatever reason, protecting my brother and me from innuendo and foul language on cable television wasn’t their priority.
It is true that there were limits to my parents’ laissez-faire approach to TV watching, and for me it mostly came down to whether or not the show would give me nightmares. The X-Files was a no-no for its paranormal creep factor. I remember sitting at the top of the staircase and looking down through the banister at the living room on Friday nights, watching Mom and Dad watch Mulder and Scully. I was also not allowed to watch anything that aired on HBO in the 1990s and early 2000s. HBO almost took pains to make their shows gain the rating TV-MA, with viewer discretion advised for graphic language, violence, nudity, and “adult content,” whatever that means. Sure, there was sex talk on Seinfeld, but it was tame enough for network television, which meant it was tame enough to fly over my head. On HBO everything was in-your-face. Could I watch The Sopranos ? Definitely not. Way too much blood and too many boobs. I was routinely shooed from the living room at 8:55PM on Sundays so my parents could tune in.
The one HBO show that my parents might have let me watch was Six Feet Under. It was the only HBO program that my parents watched that didn’t regularly have discretion warnings for violence and nudity, and its premise—revolving around a family-owned funeral home—was relatively preteen appropriate, at least under my parents’ standards. But my parents knew that it was not a good show for me to watch .
Each episode began with the last few moments of someone’s life. Usually the deaths were untimely. There would be a handsome 34-year-old pyramid scheme honcho smoking a cigar and shilling to potential investors in his glamorous Los Angeles backyard before diving into his pool, only to crack his head open on the shallow bottom. There would be a 57-year-old heavyset bakery owner showing his goon of an assistant how to clean out an industrial dough mixer, climbing in the machine, wiping down the blades, when the goon accidentally trips the switch and sends those blades whirring, chopping up the owner. These openers were startling reminders of our mortality and lack of control over when and how we leave this earth. And that uncertainty—that randomness—would have set off my anxiety.
Not to mention that the show aired when I first had to confront the mortality of my parents, who I considered to be immortal when I was a child. Six Feet Under premiered in June of 2001, which was around the time that I first started to notice Mom’s rattling cough. From behind the closed door of the upstairs bathroom, I heard her hacking up phlegm. She spent afternoons that summer lying in bed under the comforter though it was in the nineties outside. She was able to see all of the first season of Six Feet Under with Dad, as it wrapped up its thirteen-episode run in August. By September, she was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for late-stage lung cancer. By the time the second season aired in March, 2002, Mom was two months dead.
Dad continued to watch the show, when he was able—he was undergoing his own cancer treatments, which were unsuccessful in staunching the spread of his prostate cancer, which reappeared around the same time of Mom’s lung cancer diagnosis. Soon he too was relegated to his bedroom with the TV that didn’t get HBO. Dad missed the last two seasons of the show because he died before they aired, in 2004 and 2005.
The series finale of Six Feet Under famously ends with a montage in which we are with each main character at the moment of their deaths. On Dad’s birthday last May, my brother brought up what he called “the cruelness and beauty” of our parents missing this ending because of their own untimely deaths. His comments made me finally queue up all five seasons of Six Feet Under last summer.
I had been meaning to watch the show for ages. I knew that Six Feet Under ’s creator, Alan Ball, ranked among other television geniuses I worshipped: David Milch, David Simon, Matthew Weiner. I knew that Six Feet Under had been nominated for more than fifty Emmy Awards over the course of its run . I knew that the show had won a Peabody Award for “its sometimes unsettling, sometimes amusing, but always wonderfully humane exploration of life and death.” But what stopped me was that familiar anxiety of the unknown. I knew that to watch this show would be, for me, an exercise in grief.
Last June—some thirteen years after Mom died, eleven years after Dad died, and ten years since the finale of Six Feet Under aired—I sought out that grief. Sometimes, when the surface of my life is running smoothly, when there is calm and comfort in the quotidian of cooking dinner for my boyfriend after an unremarkable day of work and then curling up on the couch with our cats, when the central cleavages of my life seem too distant, I conjure them up, confront them with open eyes, before they get the chance to sneak up on me on their own.
Thanks to my brother’s HBO GO subscription, I had access to the entirety of the show, streaming via Apple TV into the living room I share with my boyfriend, Robby. I convinced Robby to watch the show with me in nightly doses. On a warm night, our air conditioner chugging away, we pressed play on the first episode, which begins with the preparations for a Fisher family Christmas in Los Angeles. The patriarch, Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins) drives around town in his “sleek, sophisticated, seductive” New Millennium Edition Crown Royal Funeral Coach, singing Bing Crosby with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. As I watched, I took the cigarette as a premonition—cigarettes are what killed my mother. Nathaniel is on his way to LAX to pick up his son, Nate, who is coming down from Seattle, where he works at a hippie-dippie health food cooperative, for the holiday. While Nate waits for his father, he fucks Brenda—a shiatsu massage therapist he met on the plane—in a janitor’s closet at LAX.
Nathaniel picks up a call on his cell from his wife, Ruth (Frances Conroy), who nags him about his blood pressure medication. We see her in the Victorian-style Fisher & Sons Funeral Home in the West Adams neighborhood of L.A. The house is all decked out with poinsettias and an evergreen for the holiday, and she’s peeling potatoes, prepping dinner. She hears Nathaniel take an inhale on his cigarette and nags him about that, too: “Forget you’ll give yourself cancer and die a slow, horrible death, you should not be stinking up that new hearse!” So I was right about the cigarettes! Great, why did no one tell me this show has lung cancer in it?
Nathaniel tosses the cigarette out the hearse’s open window and hangs up with Ruth, promising to quit smoking. Then he catches sight of his pack of smokes on the black leather seat next to him and looks at them with what almost seems like love. He pops another in his mouth and bends over to light it, foot on the gas pedal all the while. As the hearse pulls into an intersection, it gets T-boned by a city bus.
When Ruth gets the call that her husband is dead, she throws the cordless phone across the room, slams the Christmas Eve roast to the floor, and lets out a series of guttural howls. When her adult son David checks on her, she says: “There’s been an accident. The new hearse is totaled. Your father is dead. Your father is dead and my pot roast is ruined.” I immediately identified with Ruth, this woman trying to contain her grief, trying to comprehend it.
Over the course of the episode we meet the Fisher children: Nate (Peter Krause), who is in his mid-thirties; David (Michael C. Hall), the middle child, who is the “son” in Fisher & Sons, the one who has taken on the mortuary business as his own; and Claire (Lauren Ambrose), a high schooler and the youngest by about a decade, who is high on crystal meth when she finds out her father has died. We see Federico—the only non-Fisher to work at Fisher & Sons—in the basement, performing “restoration” work on dead bodies. We see Nathaniel Fisher’s body splayed out on a table, being drained of blood and pumped with embalming fluids. The work he had done to countless other bodies is now being done to his own.
As I watched this family going through the motions of loss, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own, couldn’t help but be transported to my own memories of funeral homes.
Franklin Funeral Home in Franklin Square, NY; January 2002
Franklin was the first funeral home I ever set foot in, for the first wake I ever attended: Mom’s. This funeral home—a “mansion” with white aluminum siding, black shutters, and two Doric columns in front—was across the street from our church, St. Catherine of Sienna, and we’d drive by it when we went to mass, or when we went to John’s Catholic Youth Organization basketball games, or our catechism classes. But I had no experience that could truly prepare me for what I would find inside.
No one close to me had died before—not even a family pet. My grandmothers were both still alive, and my grandfathers had both died before I was born. My Dad’s cousin Danny, a firefighter, had died a few months before on 9/11, but there was no talk of my brother and me accompanying Dad to Danny’s wake and funeral. The same was true of the various great uncles and aunts who died when I was a child—they wanted to protect my brother and me from the reality of death.
I did not want to see my mother’s dead body in a box. I did not want to have to face the people who would come to pay their respects, who would now always think of me first as a motherless child. I felt exposed and awkward—I had almost no black clothes and I didn’t even know how to blow-dry my own hair because Mom had always done it for me.
I remember the overwhelming scent of fresh flowers as we walked into the room. For years, the smell of carnations and roses made me think of death. I remember holding hands with Dad and John as we went up to the coffin. I remember thinking that Mom looked pale and waxy, and that the person who did her makeup had tried to compensate with too much blush. I remember that her wig, with its dark brown bangs, still looked eerily perfect. I remember how awful it was to see Dad cry as he sat in the front row of seats. I remember the endless stream of kisses on my cheek from people I didn’t recognize.
And I remember realizing afterwards why we go through these rituals of wakes and funerals. It’s not just to say goodbye, to pay respects. It’s to hold off the real grief and heartache a little longer, to keep busy and to keep up decorum so as to keep at bay that desire to let out guttural howls, that realization that the person you’ve lost is really physically gone, is really never going to pick you up from dance class and cook you dinner and rub your back while you fall asleep ever again.
I fell headlong into Six Feet Under, binging on the first three seasons in a matter of a dozen or so days. I soon outpaced Robby, sneaking in episodes while he was at work, filling him in on important character developments if he tuned in after I had skipped ahead. Robby often anticipates my desires and needs and actions, so he likely predicted that this would happen, that I would develop a connection this deep with this particular television show. Six Feet Under made me remember what it felt like when my grief was raw, and the show forced me to ruminate on its two most affecting themes: the futile endeavor to outrun those most fundamental of human experiences—death and grief—and how we are never truly left by the ones we lose—they stick around in our minds as long as we’re around, too.
I wonder what my parents might have thought about Nathaniel Fisher’s ghostly appearances throughout the series. Although the Fisher patriarch dies in the first episode, he is a regular apparition, popping up whenever his family least expects him but most needs him, only ever appearing to one family member at a time. Nathaniel is never really himself as he was on Earth. Rather, he is colored by the impression of the person who is thinking about him, the person to whom he appears. When we see Nathaniel as Nate imagines him, he is different than when David or Claire or Ruth imagines him. Did my parents imagine how they would appear to each other? To John and me?
In that first episode, when Nate has to identify his father at the morgue, Ghost Nathaniel makes his inaugural appearance. Nate gazes down at the real Nathaniel’s scraped and battered face, and then up at the smirking face of his father as he imagines him.
“Well, well, the prodigal returns,” says Ghost Nathaniel, decked out in his funeral director best. “This is what you’ve been running away from your whole life, buddy boy. Scared the crap out of you when you were young, didn’t it? And you thought you’d escape. Well guess what? Oh, nobody escapes.”
This is Six Feet Under at its most harrowingly direct. The show makes you stare death in the face and understand that you cannot escape it, that you cannot run away from it. Your loved ones will die, and you will die, too. To see a cold body in a morgue drawer, or on a mortuary table, or in a coffin, is to imagine the bodies of those you have lost in those positions, to imagine yourself in those positions. I saw Nathaniel Fisher in that drawer, and then I wondered about Mom’s body, about Dad’s body, about their journeys into the ground.
Though Six Feet Under places an emphasis on coming to terms with our mortality, it is anything but nihilistic. In the season three finale, “I’m Sorry, I’m Lost,” the show meditates on our human impulse to replace the things we’ve lost, so that we can move forward in the face of death and try to find meaning in our lives. The Fishers try to fill various voids: Ruth is about to impetuously marry a man named George to replace Nathaniel; Nate seeks raw, detached sex to replace his wife Lisa, who has gone missing; Claire seeks something to fulfill her lost purpose in life, as she feels disillusioned with art school.
In an extended montage, Claire decides to visit her father’s grave, as though she would find the meaning she is searching for there. As she stumbles around the cemetery looking for her father’s headstone, she happens upon Ghost Nathaniel, who this time is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a fedora. He wraps his arm around his daughter. They walk into a carnival of the deceased, replete with balloons and cotton candy and face painting and rides.
“Is it some kind of special occasion?” Claire asks.
“Nope, it’s like this every day,” Ghost Nathaniel says. This is Claire’s heaven, Claire’s way of coming to terms with the afterlife her father inhabits.
Claire and Ghost Nathaniel walk around the cemetery, shoulder to shoulder. “You know I miss you and I think about you, like, all the time?” Claire asks, searching her father’s face.
“Right back at ya.”
“It’s so weird that Mom is getting married. It’s like you’re being erased or something. Aren’t you pissed off?” Claire asks.
“Nah, that’s you,” Ghost Nathaniel says. It’s just Claire’s anxieties, and she’s mapping them onto her dead father. Claire and Ghost Nathaniel stop walking. “I think this is what you’re looking for.”
It’s Nathaniel’s headstone—well, not just his, his and Ruth’s. Claire kneels down in front of the grave and Ghost Nathaniel disappears. Claire realizes that father and mother will always be intertwined, but the epitaph of “FATHER, HUSBAND, CARE GIVER” does not give her the insight into her father that she was looking for. She only has her visions of him, which she knows are colored by what she wants to believe, a realization she has when Nathaniel says, “Nah, that’s you.”
This is the last episode my father would have watched before he died. I wonder if he imagined John and me visiting his and Mom’s shared grave, imagined putting his arm around me. His own vision of heaven would be vastly different, more colored by his Catholic beliefs, but we wouldn’t be in his vision, we’d be in mine. I never have seen apparitions of my parents in the decade plus since they died. What I do see inside my head from time to time are memories I’d prefer not to recall with such clarity and detail, as though they were screening on a television.
Krauss Funeral Home in Franklin Square, NY; January 2004
When Dad died, I didn’t understand why his wake needed to be at a different funeral home than Mom’s. Dad’s sisters explained that Franklin was too small to handle the crowds of police officers who would come to pay their respects to their beloved colleague and boss. But I now wonder if they didn’t book Krauss Funeral Home so as not to compound our grief, so that we wouldn’t have to see our father’s body in the same place our mother’s had been just two years earlier.
Krauss is bigger than Franklin. It’s a brick mansion, also with Doric columns, with sage green carpet and tacky flowered wallpaper. We would pass Krauss on our way to King Umberto’s, the pizzeria that Dad would take John and me to for Friday dinners after Mom died. He liked their baked ziti.
For whatever reason, Grandma and Dad’s sisters decided not to dress Dad in his NYPD uniform for his final resting place. They put him in a dark suit, and the mortician brushed back what was left of his hair, which was now baby-fine and white where it had previously been dark grey. Throughout the two days of wakes, police officers stood watch over his coffin, one on each side. Honor guard, they called it. I was uncomfortable with them staring straight ahead as John and I approached the coffin. I no longer remember if Grandma came with us for that first look, or if we were alone, bereft. I do remember feeling a vice in my chest, the pain of the loss, and wanting to ignore it, wanting to pretend that this wasn’t really happening.
The same relatives I didn’t recognize at Mom’s wake showed up to kiss me on the cheek, and this time I did recognize them, and this time they looked at me with more sorrow and fear in their eyes. How were we to bear this loss? When I see these people now, years later, they still look at me with disbelief.
I made Six Feet Under last as long as I could. Towards the end, I allowed myself one episode a day at most, so as to put off what I knew was coming: that series finale where we would have to say goodbye to every last character.
On a Sunday in August, I finally queued up the last episode, the aesthetic resolution that my parents never got to experience. Michael C. Hall, who played David, said of the finale : “I'd never seen something so simultaneously surprising and satisfyingly obvious as the way that show ended. And once that first card comes up you're just there as the waves continue to crash over you.” Six Feet Under ends in the only way it could: not with the tying up of loose ends into a bow, but with the inevitability of mortality, forcing its viewers to sit with their grief, their discomfort.
The montage of death after death after death does not occur until the last ten minutes or so of “Everyone’s Waiting,” and I was on edge, anxious for what I knew the show would put me through in its final moments. We see Claire driving into her future, away from Los Angeles and towards New York, where she will pursue a career in photography. Sia’s “Breathe Me” plays on her car stereo as she peels onto the freeway.
First we flash forward to happy milestones: David passing on the mortuary profession to his adopted son; Nate’s child turning one year old; David and his boyfriend Keith finally getting married. Soon Claire is alone on the road, and those cards announcing names and dates of birth and death appear on the screen.
Ruth goes first, seeing visions of Nathaniel and Nate, who has died of a brain hemorrhage, before her eyes go blank in the hospital bed. And though I knew it would happen, I was wracked with sobs. I struggled for breath as more cards flashed on the screen: Keith, David, Federico, Brenda, and finally Claire.
I cried for the Fishers, who felt real to me. I cried for my parents, and for those I lost after them: my grandmothers, my beloved Uncle Joe. And I cried for what no one can protect us from: the deaths that are yet to come. I reached for the remote and made the screen go black, and then I turned to Robby and buried my head in his chest, and later I showered and cooked dinner and read a book, because I am still here.