Digging Beneath Six Feet Under
The visual media that saturate our lives are a powerful and evocative language for art and entertainment, a language that can easily persuade us—before we have even thought about what is being communicated. The HBO production of Six Feet Under, for example, raises big questions about life and death, in darkly comedic, sometimes satirical, sometimes profane, yet often compelling ways. (Note 1) This is a drama with outstanding dramatic performances that create complex characters. At times their choices make me cringe; at other times, I am stirred by their desire to engage with the truth of their lives. The writers of Six Feet Under may not often give us explicit answers to the questions they so deftly raise, but their answers are embedded in the drama nevertheless. We do well not only to engage the evocative storyline that our favorite characters portray, but also to evaluate the philosophy of life that they are presenting. This last task is the more challenging, especially when seeking to interpret our image and experience-saturated visual media.
One of the ways the writers raise the big questions in Six Feet Under is by setting their story in the context of a family mortuary, using death itself as if it were a character in the drama, and showing us how various characters struggle with it. For example, main character Nate Fisher (played perceptively by actor Peter Krause) fled the family funeral business, only to return for his father’s own funeral. Having realized how unsatisfied he is with the sanitized ritual he grew up watching, he shouts that this sterilization insulates us from dealing with the reality of death and that other cultures are not afraid to wail at their losses. At the graveside service, he screams out his grief and loss emotionally and unapologetically. He publicly and passionately laments that the “only father we ever had is gone forever.”
Thus the writers raise important questions: What are our customs surrounding death and dying? Do they help us deal with death well? What is lacking in our society’s view of bereavement and how we cope with our dead? Nate’s reaction to his loss gives us clues about how the writers might answer these questions, and here their answers seem true. Death is sanitized in our culture. We are not comfortable with it. We move quickly to resolution; the wheels in motion move swiftly. Nate may be right that, as a result, we can miss out on an important part of saying goodbye, of sitting still or wailing aloud with our fears, our loss, the overwhelming sadness of such a permanent and profound parting.
My own father died suddenly in his own home. I remember sitting in the room with his body, his spirit clearly gone, as he lay motionless and cold on the floor. There was a fireman there and a coroner and someone from a funeral home. The “machine” had begun its motion. There was official business to do, papers to sign, arrangements to be made. In Ireland, I hear, mourners stay at home with a body for three days, the Irish wake occurring in its presence. In spite of the pressure to move forward quickly, a friend encouraged me to remain with my father’s body for a good while. And so I did.
Looking back, I am so grateful for that time. As strange as it may sound, I needed to say goodbye privately. As I sat alone with his body, I held his hand for the longest time. I studied every detail, as if to memorize it, as if his hand held the very key to who my father was—something I needed to know with certainty about this man who was suddenly so mysterious to me. I tend to agree with Nate that we can learn good things from other cultures about death and dying. I think Nate is right that the funeral business “machine” can rob us of vital aspects of our grief. As a society, we are wise to consider such questions—and the answers presented in this drama.
The writers of Six Feet Under raise other important questions, too, but not all the answers they imply seem so true. As death is ever present around him, Nate faces the question of meaning in life. He seeks to live honestly, awake to the reality that we all have to die. In one episode, he comforts grief-stricken Tracy, a character who has lost her dear Aunt Lillian to a freak accident. As Tracy reflects on the life of her aunt, who was “the only person who ever loved” her, Nate listens attentively, caringly. In this poignant and stirring scene, Tracy finally asks him, “Why do people have to die?” Nate pauses, considering her heartfelt question. It is one he has also asked. Thoughtfully, slowly, he replies, “To make life important.” He goes on to say, “None of us knows how long we’ve got, which is why we have to make each day matter. Sounds like your Aunt Lillian did just that.” Tracy agrees, and Nate concludes by saying, “So you can be happy for her—a life well lived. That’s the most anybody can hope for.” Again, a vitally important question is raised by the writers of this show. Because they have skillfully used death itself to raise the question, we find ourselves in the audience asking, “What is this life for, and why do we die?”
Although death raises these important questions, it does not answer them. It is our worldview that answers them, and different worldviews answer these questions differently. Nate’s explicit answer to Tracy’s poignant question about death reveals some of the writers’ assumptions, from which we can piece together parts of their worldview. The answer that “death makes life meaningful” seems to assume that there is no existence or meaning beyond this life. It implies that we must live each day to its fullest because that is all we have; once we die, our chance is over; we cease being. This sounds a lot like the modern, naturalistic view.
Most cultures throughout history have not assumed this view that prevails today. And interestingly, Nate and the other main characters continue asking these questions in different ways throughout the show, and they seem dissatisfied with the answers they are finding. In the end, they do not seem satisfied with the view that death marks the end of life forever. They seem to want to believe something more exists, something beyond this life, something to which we move through death. Still, they also seem to assume—as the writers’ naturalistic worldview peeks through—that chaos reigns, with randomness and futility as the only certainties.
Other answers to the age-old question about the meaning of life are available, however. The Greeks believed that virtue—the highest of human pursuits—gave life its meaning. To be virtuous was to be fully human and to have a life “well lived.” The Apostle Paul held the view that a life well lived is a life that perseveres in faith. Near the end of his life, Paul wrote this to his friend Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day…”
The Greeks’ view and Paul’s view of the “life well lived” arose from different worldviews than Nate’s view that a “life well lived” is one where we make “every day matter.” Both the Greeks and Paul assumed that an immaterial reality exists beyond this life, whereas Nate’s view—which we might suppose is the perspective of the writers embedded in the drama—assumes that no reality, and thus no meaning, exists beyond this life. Death is the inevitable final absurdity in a fundamentally meaningless existence.
Nate’s view is the more currently fashionable one. “Making each day matter,” is the clarion call of our age. And our visual culture is in love with “moments.” Add a good soundtrack, and the most mundane moments of life are imbued with deep meaning and significance. And while it is true that even the simplest moments of our lives can carry deep meaning and significance, even apart from a good soundtrack, it is also true that their meaning comes not from their mere existence alone, but by our understanding them accurately in their context. Moments are meaningless apart from their meaning. And their meaning is derived from our interpretation of them, from our having an accurate perspective and understanding about what they actually mean in the context of a coherent worldview.
Friendships, relationships, pleasurable interests, beautiful settings, meaningful experiences—we can fill our lives with them, and they enrich us. In the end, however, if we have depended on those moments to give life its meaning and significance, then they can only decay. Even these moments cease to satisfy because they were never meant to satisfy our deepest longings. They are meant as good gifts, pointers, to be enjoyed in the midst of understanding that the true meaning of life is found in our inward knowledge and deep understanding of who we are before our Creator. Apart from this context, the “moment” itself has to carry too much weight, weight it cannot hold up. If the moment has to be meaning itself for us, it simply rots. Moments can HAVE meaning but they cannot BE meaning.
The race the Apostle Paul was finishing was about knowing and understanding what God values and about living a life in light of those values. Our life gets its meaning not from filling our days with the fullest moments possible, but rather in living out the role our Creator has assigned uniquely for us—a role we may live out in joy or sadness, prosperity or poverty, or more likely, in a combination of many experiences.
Understood in this way, we can dive into all manner of pursuits and interests, and they can be what they are: amazing experiences, joyful moments, incredible gifts. But that is all they can be. In other words, only if I know in my bones that my life does not depend on them are they truly rich. They become valuable, meaningful, when God imbues them with purpose—His purpose. And we can enjoy them thoroughly—and hold them loosely—because of this perspective.
In the Bible we read that God has “shortened our days” so as to bring wisdom. Certainly, living our lives with our death in mind gives needed perspective. Considering the inevitability of our own death raises important questions, questions we are wise to ponder: Why are we here? What is this life for? Where are we going? What lies beyond this life? How will we face our Creator?
A feature of our postmodern world, however, is that we have ceased assuming that we can find and sort through coherent answers to the big questions. We have come to expect disorder and confusion as a part of life. Fortunately, God has not left us without clues and even explicit answers to life’s big questions. The Scriptures, accurately interpreted for their author’s intended meaning, can give us much insight and clarity into both the explicit purposes of God and a coherent and comprehensive worldview. The Bible is not our answer book, but it is our ultimate source for God’s perspective on this life and our experience. It takes work to interpret this ancient text in order to find sound and consistent perspectives on life’s biggest questions, but the work is well worth the effort. May we turn to God in His mercy for this clarity and understanding.
Copyright January 2006 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.