Six Feet Under’s Alan Ball on grief and dying, American-style
Photo courtesy HBO
Who better to unpack our culture’s bizarre relationship with death than Alan Ball? The creator of the funereal drama Six Feet Under, which recently ended its 5-year run on HBO, Ball also penned the Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1999 film American Beauty. Utne recently caught up with Ball, 48, to chat about mortality and the sweet hereafter.
What inspired you to come up with Six Feet Under? Why tackle the subject of death?
Actually, I wrote the pilot, but the idea of doing the show set in a funeral home belonged to Carolyn Strauss [an HBO executive]. Granted, I think I responded to it because when I was growing up a lot of people in my family died, and I spent a lot of time in funeral homes.
When you were 13, your sister Mary Ann died in a car accident while she was driving you to a music lesson.
And my dad died two years after that. And in between, a grandfather, a grandmother, a great-aunt. There was a period when we were always going to funerals.
What kind of impact did that have on you?
It certainly taught me that death exists and it just comes out of nowhere. I remember, at the time, finding the whole ritual and the whole American funeral home experience to be surreal.
Well, my sister just disappeared. And then all of a sudden, we went to a funeral home and there she was, lying in a box. They had done her hair in a way she would never do it, and she was wearing a color of lipstick that wasn’t her. She didn’t look like her—she did and she didn’t—and it was weird and creepy. There was weird music playing, and everything was very secluded. The whole experience was muffled, and that stayed with me. When my mom broke down and really started to cry and grieve, somebody swooped out and carried her off behind a curtain.
The subtext was that this is too personal, we shouldn’t see this, it’s too upsetting. I’m not saying that’s true of the American funeral industry in general. But it struck me as a bizarre, muffled way of confronting grief that actually avoided grief.
Do you think denial is a uniquely American response to mortality and death?
I do feel like America is an extremely immature culture, with a frantic focus on youth and maintaining the appearance of youth. We go out of our way to sweep death under the carpet. Even what’s going on right now in Iraq: The administration refuses to allow the returning bodies to be photographed. It’s all about hiding the reality of death. And I think it’s profoundly unhealthy.
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