Death and HBO’s “Six Feet Under”


Jonathan May

Please stop reading if you haven’t watched the show in its entirety.

Say this to yourself: “I’m going to die. So is everyone I love and hate.” Now—stop, breathe, and keep watching. This is the main way I was able to make it through all five seasons of one of the finest series I’ve watched. A show built around cycles of life and death shouldn’t work as well as this one did; I became one with the Fishers and their struggles. I felt bored with Brenda’s inability to change and tired of Nate’s commitment to all the wrong virtues in his attempt to face mortality. I rejoiced with Ruth as she was able to finally find a sense of happiness in herself. I ugly-cried during the last five minutes of the last episode, as the remaining (and honorary) Fishers passed through the veil one by one in quick succession just as Claire was starting on her journey. Honestly if you don’t cry, you’re probably a monster. The fact that we “see” the end through Claire gives beautiful irony to her rheumy eyes as she lies dying, as if we’re experiencing the emotions somehow through both ends, filled with possibility and the fulfillment of that possibility.

It’s funny how the deaths, which precede each episode, become almost anticipatory, but when one of the Fishers or their circle dies, suddenly we’re back at step one, grieving all over again, as they do. The show really builds off its premise in a metanarrative way, imbuing the whole thing with a keen sense of “flow, segmentation, development, and change” (all the qualities of fine abstraction, as Kirk Varnedoe wrote so deftly). When you stand back and examine the show in its entirety, the ending becomes inevitable. We must all reconcile with the reality of our own deaths, but the show succeeds in being more than a constant harbinger of mortality; it spills over with the full and complex lives of the Fishers. Their fights, their drugs, their sex, their dinners, their work, their inner thoughts, their dreams. We are faced with life in all its swift and capricious glory. The show is so infused with life that death seems merely a way of passing into the sequence of history and the hearts of those who remain and love your memory. So, while the show is definitely worth watching (and rewatching), it should stand as an even more important reminder to live fully in your own moments.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at