It's been awhile, but the moment still resonates: On the night of August 7, 2005, many Americans got their first glimpse of a kind of funeral earlier generations took as perfectly normal. The occasion was the airing of episode ten in season five of HBO's acclaimed series Six Feet Under titled "All Alone," in which one of the main characters is given his final wish of receiving a "green funeral." The episode is a heartbreaking, tearful experience for both the characters and viewers alike. The Emmy-Award-winning series follows the fascinating and often turbulent lives of the Fisher family, who owns and operates Fisher & Sons Funeral Home in Los Angeles.
In this episode, the Fishers are reeling from the loss of the eldest brother in the family, Nate Fisher (Peter Krause), who had just died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of forty. A week before his death, Nate changed his mind about his disposition preferences, shifting from his documented pre-need choice of cremation to a green funeral. Early in the episode, Nate’s brother David (Michael C. Hall) explains to Nate’s wife, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), that a green funeral is “an environmentally friendly process. It’s natural, the body is placed in the ground wrapped in a shroud, no embalming or casket. People often purchase a resting place in a designated park kind of area. It’s a way to conserve the land.” Brenda, tearful and grief-stricken replies, “That sounds nice."
It does sound nice. It sounded so nice to those of us who are Six Feet Under fans that we never forgot it.
What Can We Learn From This Episode?
Every emotional and poignant scene in “All Alone” is worth savoring and reflecting on, especially now as the “Death Positive” movement is taking hold and the awareness of green burial alternatives are becoming more widely known. There are several important takeaways about preplanning and coping with loss from this episode that are worth listing here:
1. Complete your death documents (Will, Power of Attorney, Advanced Care Directives) and keep them updated. Nate had expressed his wishes for a green funeral privately to David but had not yet made his wishes official on the signed pre-need document. Circumstances and preferences change over time. Updating your legal documents will assure there is no confusion about your wishes at the time of your death. If you do change and update your documents, be sure to destroy the old copies. Preplanning and sharing your wishes with those who care about you is an act of great love and kindness. At the time of your death, it will allow friends and family members to focus on healing and celebrating your life. In his conversation with Brenda, David explains why Nate didn’t have the legal document updated. While choking back tears David utters, “He didn’t have time,” which leads me to my next point.
2. Plan like you are running out of time, because you are. In Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, author Jack Kornfield reminds us “The trouble is, you think you have time.” As difficult as it is to think about, life is uncertain. The thought that there is ample time to get one’s affairs in order may or may not be true. In episode nine, called “Ecotone,” Nate’s death at forty years old comes as a shock to his friends and family. His surgery goes well after his brain hemorrhage. He awakes from his coma and is completely lucid when speaking and interacting with his family and friends, but then he flatlines while daydreaming about swimming in the ocean. Just when his loved ones begin to express a sense of relief that Nate is going to survive, he dies.
3. Share your wishes with multiple people. David was the only person who was aware of Nate’s desire for a green funeral, which causes a moment of discord and tension in "All Alone" when David has to break the news to their mother Ruth (Frances Conroy) that Nate would not be buried in the family plot. The episode portrays Ruth struggling with Nate’s decision. She wants Nate to be “buried in the family plot next to his father.” When David reiterates Nate’s natural burial wishes, Ruth replies emphatically “but I want him next to me.” If possible, share your wishes with multiple people, and ideally, when they are all together in the same room so everyone is clear about your stated preferences and can ask questions. Be sure to respect everyone’s feelings as this may be a difficult discussion for them.
4. After a loss, do your best to honor the wishes of your loved one. As difficult as it is for Ruth to accept that Nate would not be buried in the family plot, she respects his choice. Ruth’s immediate reaction to the news of Nate’s wish for a green funeral mirrors the response that some family members might have when a loved one chooses natural burial. It may sound new, unusual, and unexpected to them. This is a time when love, patience, and understanding are essential as friends and family members come to learn what natural burial is and what to expect.
A key moment in “All Alone” occurs when Ruth, her sister Sarah (Patricia Clarkson), Sarah’s friend Bettina (Kathy Bates), and Ruth’s second husband George (James Cromwell), are sitting down eating dinner together after the burial service. They are all processing their grief and trying to understand how to move forward after this loss. Words of wisdom come from Ruth’s inner circle in this moving dialogue:
Ruth: “I forget how anyone ever gets over anything.”
George: “…with time.”
Sarah: “…by remembering love.”
Ruth: “What the hell does that mean?”
George: “Slowly you fall back in love with whatever really mattered to you.”
Remembering love. The idea that deep inside love’s pocket is a balm for the sorrowful and brokenhearted. Ruth is understandably inconsolable in this scene.
An illuminating article by Hilda Bastain published in The Atlantic titled “There Are No ‘Five Stages’ of Grief” describes the author’s desperate search for relief from the anguish she experienced after her thirty-eight year old son died. As a scientist and researcher, Bastain discovered that “the internet of grief is crammed with conflicting theories and advice.” When Bastain lost her son, like Ruth, she had forgotten “how anyone gets over anything,” and went searching for answers.
From her research, Bastain was able to draw a few conclusions, the most crucial point being that “for most people, after most deaths, grief starts to ease after a few weeks and continues to reduce from there. There can still be tough times ahead, but in most circumstances, by the time you reach six months, you’re unlikely to be in a constant state of severe grief.” At the end of her article, Bastain seems to have found comfort in Sarah’s advice to Ruth about “remembering love.” She concludes, “I held on to a thought about my boy that helped me face a future without him: He had loved me his whole life. That love is precious, and it’s for keeps. I will not waste it.”
Separation Is an Illusion
There are only two more episodes remaining in season five after “All Alone” and then the season, and the series, comes to an end. The grief that consumes the characters in episode eleven called “Static” is devastating. Still, in “All Alone” Nate receives the green burial that he wanted, and that is something. He is wrapped in a simple shroud without being embalmed and is lowered into a grave by his family with no concrete vault or large, varnished casket.
Although the episode does not clarify where exactly Nate is buried, it is clear that it is not in a conventional cemetery with rows of concrete tombstones. Nate’s heartbroken family fills in and closes the grave, shovel by shovel. His grave marker, as we see in episode eleven when Nate’s sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose) returns to the gravesite, is an engraved natural stone placed flat to the ground.
There is no minister present for Nate’s burial, but during the graveside ceremony, Sarah reads the poem “Our Death is Our Wedding with Eternity” by Rumi. The essence of the poem conveys that all life in its spirit form is everlasting and one with the divine. All life emanates the light of the divine and “death of the carnal soul is a blessing.”
We can speculate that Sarah shares this poem to bring comfort to Nate's family, to express that his spirit lives on bonded with an eternal origin, and to emphasize that his body will become one with the earth without anything inhibiting his ability to soften into soil. The heart and soul of green burial is to mend our broken relationship with the earth and to amplify the idea that separation from our earthly home is an illusion.
Six Feet Under deserves all the awards, accolades, love, and widespread critical acclaim that it has received. In addition to being a captivating series with great writing, complex characters, and superb acting, it played a vital role in introducing natural death care to its viewers. It taught us all the importance of remembering love, an intention we can carry with us to recover from loss and implement as a daily practice.
Ball, Alan. (2001-2005). Six Feet Under [TV Series]. HBO; Actual Size Films; The Greenblatt Janollari Studio.
Kornfield, Jack. (1994). Buddha's Little Instruction Book. New York: Bantam Books.