One of the early TV shows that alerted me to HBO and its ability to craft grownup drama free from the formulaic was ‘Six Feet Under’. Originally running from 2001-05, this dark yet deliciously witty series had an undeniably intriguing premise, being a family saga based in the environs of a funeral home. Each episode opened with the death of an unfamiliar person unrelated to the regular cast, and their funeral would then form the backdrop to the instalment as the ongoing dramas taking place in the lives of the main characters continued. If that opening sounds a bit like the clichéd hallmark of the BBC’s ‘Casualty’ – whereby the viewer immediately meets someone they’ve never seen before and then tries to guess what horrific accident will imminently befall them – trust me, it’s not. ‘Six Feet Under’ was a special series in many ways, but on one level it worked so well because it normalised something we all have to deal with – namely, death.
It’s amazing how squeamish western society in general still is around death and the rituals associated with its resolution, even though funeral directors, along with those who sell food, are probably in one of the most secure professions we’ll ever have need of. We all gotta eat and we all gotta go. ‘Six Feet Under’ brilliantly humanised this otherwise mysterious world by going behind the scenes and showing that a profession which many don’t even like to think about was just another business. As with a coroner, corpses to the Fisher family had none of the morbid aura that those who never come into contact with the dead imbue them with. Whilst the burial ceremony is a staple scene of fiction – especially in TV soaps, where no character is ever cremated – ‘Six Feet Under’ dealt with the less familiar preparation that takes place beforehand; and it was this that gave the series such a novel quality.
At some point in our lives we will all attend at least one funeral, and if we somehow manage to avoid doing so whilst living, we won’t be able to avoid our own. The first I ever attended was my paternal grandmother’s when I was a young and extremely green teenager. I think I was a little overawed by the experience, with my only previous exposure to a funeral service coming from whatever I’d seen in movies and TV shows. I remember it was unsettling at that age seeing stoic grownups I’d known all my life in tears – and funerals back then were perhaps the only social scenario in which it was permissible to cry in public. It was equally eye-opening at my grandma’s house afterwards when the adults – and everyone else present was an adult – seamlessly clicked into a routine that they’d evidently been through many times before; I was the only one who didn’t know what you were supposed to do in that situation. Of course, I’ve been to a few since then and whilst they can rarely be viewed as enjoyable occasions, they’re never dull.
When it comes to family, funerals are often the only time I see various aunts, uncles, cousins and so on nowadays – though I’m hardly unique in that respect; and there’s no escaping the fact that some actually look forward to a funeral. There can be a degree of theatricality to the trimmings, none more so than if the star of the show arrives in a horse-drawn hearse. Whilst traditionally a speciality of decrepit East End villains, even this can have its poignancy; I remember once seeing both hearse and horses coloured white as the cortège drew to a halt outside a church I was passing and it did look rather lovely. Moreover, some women can appear inappropriately attractive in their funeral outfits. Many years ago, I lived opposite a middle-aged Italian couple; when the wife died, the female family members gathering outside the house before departing looked like they were lining-up for a Vogue shoot. Lots of sexy Italian ladies in black preparing to bury a loved one – yes, I felt very guilty.
One of the best episodes of ‘Steptoe and Son’ deals with the funeral of one of old Albert’s numerous elderly siblings. It perfectly captures just how such events bring out the worst in people and how they can highlight the sham of blood being thicker than water as the various interested parties greedily stake a claim on the possessions left behind by the recently deceased. This episode also serves as a wry comment on the way in which some try and claim ownership of the occasion, something I remember witnessing at the funeral of my maternal grandfather. The service inexplicably concluded with the unlistenable power-ballad that is Whitney Houston’s execrable rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’ – a song that had no relevant association with my last grandparent but had been selected by relatives intent on stamping their own personal (lack of) taste on someone else’s send-off. If anything, this selfish action upset me more than the service itself. It was bad enough when the song was No.1 for what felt like six months, but I certainly didn’t want to hear it there and then.
A degree of sober solemnity has always characterised the Great British Funeral, particularly the austere C-of-E variety; other cultures often seem to do it in a manner that reflects the personality of the deceased rather than adhering to a one-size-fits-all approach, celebrating the individual life as well as mourning the loss of it. I suppose the ultimate example that most will be familiar with is the jazzy ‘New Orleans funeral’, but there has been a tendency here in recent years – certainly as we morph into a more secular society – to bend the accepted rules a little; one innovation I was made aware of re the funeral of a friend of a friend was the wearing of bright colours as opposed to customary black in order to mirror the colourful character being buried. Ditto the move away from the more traditional hymns and similar religious dirges in favour of the deceased’s favourite pop songs – which is fine unless one of them happens to be ‘I Will Always Love You’, I guess.
Yet, for all this, death remains an unpleasant eventuality many pretend happens to other people somewhere else. Care homes, hospices and hospitals tend to be the locations we like to think of where people go to die, whilst the final resting place of the cemetery has a habit of being on the edge of town, far enough away for us not to have to look it in the eye. At one time, it was commonplace (whatever one’s denomination) to have the open coffin in the front parlour, where family, friends and neighbours would pop in to pay their respects as though ogling Lenin’s pickled cadaver. There was less squeamishness surrounding death because people were more accustomed to it, whether down to war, wider poverty, or diseases and ailments which have subsequently been rendered non-fatal due to advances in medical science; a century ago, larger families also meant many tended to lose some children or siblings at a criminally young age. Death was certainly a bigger part of life then – or seemed to be – whereas we have become more insulated from it now.
I think there is a certain dignity in the old way of saying goodbye, but there’s much to be said for giving such a ceremony the personal touch too. A marriage of both is probably the best way – especially if the dearly departed had the opportunity to specify what they wanted before they went. I know I’d hate for my own funeral to be along the lines of some of those I’ve attended, but I equally wouldn’t want it to resemble a fancy dress party in a tacky nightclub. I’m hopeful whichever friend is entrusted with the unenviable task of overseeing it knew me well enough to get it right; it’s just a pity I won’t be there to see it. Mind you, I remember Reggie Perrin managed to attend his own in the guise of ‘Martin Wellbourne’, so there’s always the possibility I might make it. Don’t say you haven’t fantasised about it; we all have.
© The Editor