From The Casketeers to Six Feet Under: Our strange obsession with funeral homes

Joanna Wane on six of the best films and TV shows set in funeral homes that you should be dying to watch

“Do you use dog rolls?” Auckland funeral director Rachel Benns thought she was prepared for pretty much anything until someone asked her that after watching Six Feet Under, a hit television drama that premiered in 2001 and was set in a Los Angeles funeral home.

In one memorable episode, the body of a former porn star is being arranged in an open casket and the strategic placement of two dog rolls is what holds her enormous breasts in place.

“I didn’t know what they were on about,” says Benns, in a candid interview with Canvas on becoming president of the Funeral Directors Association — the only woman to head the organisation in its 85-year history. Read Joanna Wane’s story here.”People kept asking me questions like that and I thought, ‘I need to start watching this show!'”

A fan of “dark humour”, Benns enjoyed Six Feet Under, even if it wasn’t always a realistic portrayal of life in a funeral home. “There was a lot of sex going on in — that doesn’t happen. Hearses don’t get taken to [fast-food] drive-throughs, either, and we don’t spray paint people’s faces. It’s all very natural.”

Our fascination with the rituals surrounding death and the inner workings of a funeral home has spawned two local productions: reality series The Casketeers and Kiwi comedy Good Grief. Both have made our top six must-see films and TV shows where funerals take centrestage.

Six Feet Under (2001-2005)

Over five seasons, every episode begins with a death — from the banal (choking on lunch) to the bizarre (the aforementioned porn star is electrocuted when her cat knocks electric curlers into her bubble bath).

The winner of nine Emmy awards, Six Feet Under follows the tangled lives and loves of the Fisher family, who run a funeral home in LA. Among the standout cast are Rachel Griffiths (Muriel’s Wedding) and Michael C. Hall, who moved on to do some serial killing himself, in Dexter.

The finale, considered one of the greatest of all time, breaks tradition by opening with a birth, and closes with a series of vignettes showing how each of the main characters dies. It’s that rare thing for a long-running show, a perfect ending.

The Casketeers (2018-)

Childhood sweethearts Francis and Kaiora Tipene were working as teachers in Kaitāia when Francis first told Kaiora he wanted to get into business — the funeral business. They’re now New Zealand’s most famous funeral directors and their reality TV series has become a Netflix staple.

With its liberal use of te reo and candid portrayal of birth, death and marriage (their fifth child is born during season three), The Casketeers brings tangihanga to primetime with a winning mix of humour and heart.

The couple have published two books, Life as a Casketeer: What the Business of Death Can Teach the Living and Tikanga, on the traditional values of te ao Māori. Legions of fans will be happy to know a fifth season of the show is set to air this month on TVNZ 1.

Good Grief (2021-)

When their grandfather dies, two sisters (played by real-life sisters and co-creators Grace and Eve Palmer) inherit Loving Tributes, a funeral home in a small New Zealand town. There’s blood and vomit during an embalming scene within the first two minutes of the opening episode, so this is not for the easily offended.

Filmed on a shoestring budget between Covid-19 lockdowns in a community hall in south Auckland, its awkward, irreverent humour is Kiwi-as. Think bogan funerals, mediums and hapless mortuary makeup.

The first season, available on TVNZ on Demand in six snack-size episodes, largely flew under the radar. Then US broadcaster AMC Networks picked up the show and commissioned a second season, set to screen here later this year.

My Girl (1991)

Dan Ackroyd plays a widowed mortician in 1970s Pennsylvania alongside Jamie Lee Curtis, who bonds with his 11-year-old daughter after being hired as the funeral home’s new makeup artist.

A coming-of-age story, it was the breakthrough role for a young Anna Chlumsky, most recently on screen as journalist Vivian Kent in the Netflix series Inventing Anna, based on the true story of fake German heiress Anna Sorokin’s infiltration of Manhattan’s elite.

Trivia for film buffs: Chlumsky and her My Girl co-star Macaulay Culkin won an MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss.

Departures (2008)

A young Japanese man returns to his hometown after a failed career as a cellist and stumbles across work as a “nokanshi”, a traditional ritual mortician.

Lead actor Masahiro Motoki wanted to challenge ingrained prejudices towards those who handle the dead after watching a funeral ceremony along the Ganges while travelling in India and later reading the autobiographical Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician.

The first Japanese production to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Departures was described by one reviewer as a moving meditation on the transience of life. “It’s a beautiful film but take two hankies.”

Harold and Maude (1971)

Not strictly set in a funeral home, but close enough. Controversial and a box-office flop at the time, this offbeat black comedy-drama has become a cult classic — sort of a litmus test dividing the world into those who get it and those who … well, aren’t really worth bothering with in the first place.

A young man obsessed with death (Harold) falls in love with an eccentric, life-affirming 79-year-old (Maude) who shares his unusual hobby: gatecrashing funerals. Yes, they do end up sleeping together, and no, it’s not in the least bit creepy.

“By turns exuberant, psychedelic, hilarious and heartbreaking, it’s a product of the most prolific decade of Hal Ashby’s directorial output,” wrote the Guardian last year, on the 50th anniversary of the film’s release. “His skewed, sweet-natured stamp is all over it.” Soundtrack by Cat Stevens.

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