Dying With Laughter

In some cultures, the poor used to be called upon to serve as “sin eaters” for the rich. They ate food over the body of the deceased and consumed their sins, preparing them for the afterlife. Not exactly glamourous work, perhaps, but you take what you can get.

Too bad the custom isn’t still around. In this age of self-improvement, it could serve as a quick fix to help people banish all sorts of demons—particularly those of the kind that plague the Fishers, the family at the center of the new HBO series Six Feet Under.

Created by Alan Ball, author of the wonderfully dark American Beauty, Six Feet Under is about a family in California that owns and runs a funeral home. Like most families, the Fishers are fraught with secrets, deceptions and betrayals; this time we watch them unfold through the prism of death.

Within the first few minutes of the premier episode, the Fishers are confronted with a tragedy of their own. The father, jetting off in his brand-new hearse to pick up his son Nate, who has fled the family business and is visiting for the holidays, is blindsided by a bus. The hearse is destroyed, the father dies, and the family of morticians has to bury one of their own. Needless to say, the tragedy opens up old wounds and creates new ones.

Suddenly the show cuts to commercial. Wait, HBO doesn’t run ads.

Suddenly we’re being sold luxury hearses, “wound filler” and embalming fluids that promise “living splendor.” A musical number à la The Gap hawks a salt-shaker-like product you can use to make “ashes to ashes and dust to dust easy as pie.” (The latter is made by a company that puts the “fun back in funeral.”)

Impressive media planning, no? Mortuary products for a show about a funeral home? Nice.

They are, of course, spoofs—cleverly executed and a nice touch for a show that walks a fine, morbid line.

There’s even product placement in the show. Another brother, Dave, for example, uses the wound filler to carefully reconstruct his father’s face for an open-casket viewing.

Certainly, a funeral home is an unsettling backdrop for a drama, even one as imaginative as Ball has created. And following the lighter, brighter Sex and the City, it’s no wonder Ball chose to lift spirits with some lighthearted ad spoofs. Though I was hooked without them, they did add some comic relief to a bleak plot. (The show itself has comical touches, too. I love the mint-green hand-me-down hearse the teenage daughter Claire tools around in.)

All told, the comical edge serves as a reminder that not everything in life—or death—needs to be taken so seriously.

The spoofs won’t be around for the rest of series. (I suppose there aren’t enough products to satire without bordering on the disgusting.) But like the premise for the show, the talent behind it and the network that made stars of a violent mafia family, they were another welcome reminder that this isn’t commercial television.

And since there are no sin eaters left, we’ll have 12 more episodes to watch the Fishers chase the shadows of their sins.