Thanatophilia
The grim reaper goes pop.

By Gabriel Roth

IN THE FIRST of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels – among the best-loved books ever written for children – the boy wizard hides in an empty classroom at night and discovers a magical mirror. In it he sees himself surrounded by family: the parents who died when he was a baby, the grandparents and aunts and uncles he never knew. "He stared hungrily back at them," Rowling writes, "his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them." He returns to visit the mirror night after night, losing interest in his friends, his current adventure, his life. The mirror, of course, feeds on fantasy: it shows the viewer his deepest wish.

Like the Harry Potter books, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones – probably the best-loved novel for adults written so far this century – is about death. So are two of the most talked-about shows on television, HBO's Six Feet Under (about to enter its fourth season) and Showtime's Dead like Me, which premiered this season. Between them, these four works suggest that right now there are two competing stories about death that have caught the public's imagination. Rowling's novels tell us that death, like magic and adventure, is a fact of life. And Sebold's, like Harry's enchanted mirror, tells us that what we most wish is true: that death is not really death, and the dead are not gone.

The Lovely Bones begins gruesomely. Susie Salmon, the 14-year-old protagonist, is raped and murdered by a neighbor in the book's first chapter. It's horrifying, obviously, and Sebold's narration, from Susie's perspective, is credible. It's hard not to go into chapter two feeling shaken up. That charged beginning leaves readers urgently needing comfort in the face of human evil and death's brutal unfairness – and that need sets them up to accept the rest of the book's sentimentality.

The payoff for suffering through Susie's murder is this: her death doesn't constitute the end of her existence or her consciousness. Susie has gone to what she calls "my heaven," a place that looks like the high school of her fantasies, where she watches her family on earth. After she dies, Susie gets to do wonderful things. She transmigrates into the body of a classmate to lose her virginity to the gentle boy who loves her. She takes revenge on her murderer. In a scene that might challenge even those with an unusually high tolerance for the saccharine, she is reunited with her dog: "I waited for him to sniff me out, anxious to know if here, on the other side, I would still be the little girl he had slept beside. I did not have to wait long: he was so happy to see me, he knocked me down."

It's tempting to call this a fairy tale for adults, but that's giving fairy tales a bad rap. Fairy tales teach children that there are wolves in the woods. The Lovely Bones lets adults pretend that the wolves can't hurt us, that our lost little girls and dead childhood pets are still waiting for us. That fantasy is Sebold's gift to her readers – or rather, it's what they're paying her publisher for.

Those readers have kept The Lovely Bones on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list for more than a year, a remarkable success for a literary novel. But Rowling went Sebold one better: the Harry Potter books spawned their own bestseller list, a separate category for children's books to keep them from clogging up the Times's fiction rankings.

Rowling's artistic achievement is as extraordinary as her sales figures. Rather than offer readers a Sebold-style imaginary escape from death's reality, the Harry Potter books admonish readers to face that reality squarely. Sebold sells adults a childish fantasy; Rowling offers kids a serious dose of grown-up reality.

The villain of the Harry Potter series is Voldemort, the so-called Dark Lord. Most wizards are afraid to speak Voldemort's name, calling him He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named, or, more colloquially, You-Know-Who. Only Harry and Dumbledore, the wise and paternal headmaster of Hogwarts Academy, call him by his true name. "Always use the proper name for things," Dumbledore tells Harry in the first volume. "Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." Refusing to say "Voldemort" is an attempt to wish the monster out of existence – an attempt that's doomed to failure. Harry knows firsthand about Voldemort's – and death's – irreducibility. Voldemort killed his parents, and all the wishing in the world won't bring them back.

The futility of such attempts to wish away everything that scares or saddens us is Rowling's biggest theme, and it comes most plainly to the surface in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth of her planned seven volumes. Voldemort is preparing to seize power again. Harry has seen him, fought him; at the end of the previous volume, he watched Voldemort kill a fellow student. But the wizarding establishment denounces Harry's report as fantasy and punishes him for fear mongering. These denialists are spearheaded by minister of magic Cornelius Fudge – a Dickensian surname for a man with a tendency to blur the truth.

Harry's struggle in most of Order of the Phoenix is not with Voldemort himself but with Fudge and his allies – frightened people who can't bear to believe Voldemort is real, and thus become complicit with him. If The Lovely Bones were published in Harry's world, in other words, it would be a bestseller there too.

What Rowling is telling her mostly young readers is that death and grief are real; to deny them is to choose a kind of death in life. "It does not do," Dumbledore says, "to dwell on dreams and forget to live." Rowling isn't cruel. She allows Harry to see his parents again, in the ways we really can see the dead – in his memories and the memories of others, and in the moments he finds their strength and love inside himself. But these magic-filled books stand firmly against magical thinking: they insist reality cannot be wished away.

I think this realism is why so many readers – children and adults alike – trust Rowling so deeply: she tells them the truth, and she reassures them they can handle it. Whereas Sebold's cheery shell game – Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, kids! Look at the puppy! – is actually deeply frightening, because it implies that reality is too scary to contemplate.

When Rowling's readers outgrow Harry Potter and buy cable, Six Feet Under will be waiting to cater to their taste for the tragic. This critically acclaimed show, which appears to be succeeding The Sopranos as HBO's most talked-about series, is perhaps the most unusual hit on TV: an hourlong drama about death. About a family of undertakers, the show finds death in every cranny and pore of life. Love and work and family, weddings and births and sex and dreams, all are touched by the morbid.

The series begins when a bus slams into a hearse, killing patriarch Nathaniel Fisher. During the first season, all three of Nathaniel's children encounter death again and again, on and off the job. Nate is diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain tumor; David's homosexual adventuring is accompanied by fears of AIDS; Claire's boyfriend's six-year-old brother finds a gun under his mother's bed and shoots himself.

Each episode opens with a death. The deceased is usually a stranger to us; we'll subsequently see the bereaved family arranging the funeral at Fisher and Sons. The scenes resemble a realist version of those Faces of Death snuff videos: they show us ordinary people from all walks of life doing ordinary things and then dying. A baby in a crib; an AIDS patient surrounded by queeny friends; an elderly woman under a blow-dryer at a salon; a gang member in the wrong neighborhood: they all die, most quietly, some violently, and a black screen appears with their name and the dates of their birth and death.

Once you know the format, these opening scenes trigger an instinctive foreboding. As the show's credits dissolve, we cut to what could be anywhere in Los Angeles, and we get a sudden chill: someone is going to die. After three seasons, Six Feet Under's title screen has become a memento mori.

There's another motif: characters who have died come back as if alive, walking around, talking, interacting with the living. But this is no Lovely Bones, and these reincarnations are not ghosts but memories. In an early episode, Nate is confronted by his dead father. Nathaniel's appearance doesn't reassure us that, like Susie Salmon's, he's not really gone. It drives home the fact that he is. Nate says he's full of questions about who Nathaniel really was. His father answers, "You're never going to know."

Three seasons later, Nathaniel still appears sometimes – but less frequently, the way the dead slowly fade from our memories. Earlier this year, Claire, his youngest child, saw heaven in a dream. It looked like a carnival, in a park, on a sunny day. Nathaniel was there, and he was happy; her dead boyfriend was happy; her aborted baby was being looked after. Claire has seen more than her share of death, and so, dreaming, she writes her own Lovely Bones, to soothe herself.

But Six Feet Under's characters have darker fantasies too. In the same episode, Nathaniel's widow, Ruth, marries a kind man she met only a few months earlier. Ruth is swept up in a happiness she never expected to find – until, back home, she hears sobbing and finds Nathaniel sitting on the floor in the laundry room, alone, weeping. Together, the two sequences painfully capture the real ways we keep the dead with us – when we try to remember them and when we try to forget.

A thanatological focus gives the show the special intensity of the taboo. With sex on every channel, death alone still has that "can they show this on TV?" thrill. But the appeal goes beyond shock value. Death (real death, not the death-as-plot-device of cop shows) is rarely welcome in the anodyne bubble of popular culture. Seeing it treated the way Six Feet Under does – as an omnipresent part of life's structure – is sometimes sad, but it's never depressing. It's a relief.

I think relief is behind the deep thirst Six Feet Under's fans feel for the show. Commercial culture, endlessly returning to Lovely Bones-style reassurance, has abandoned tragedy as a bad investment. And the purpose of tragedy, as Aristotle had it, is to let out our painful feelings – fear of death, anger at the unfairness of the universe – so we don't have to carry them around all the time. As it shows us human beings forced to make accommodations with something that will not compromise, Six Feet Under offers not reassurance but catharsis.

It's impossible to imagine Six Feet Under outside the economics of premium cable: what advertiser would pay to rub shoulders with death? But success is its own justification, and HBO wanna-be Showtime has launched its own mortality-themed drama, Dead like Me.

Beneath a self-consciously unsentimental surface, though, Dead like Me is closer to The Lovely Bones than to Six Feet Under. As in Sebold's book, the show's narrator is a recently deceased teenager. And like Susie Salmon's, her death is little more than the gateway to exciting new adventures.

In the pilot, 18-year-old George dies and becomes a "grim reaper" – one of the folks who remove our souls from our bodies after we die. The series follows George and four colleagues in their work. The humor is black, but more centrally, it's sophomoric: George is killed when she's hit on the head by a toilet seat from a disintegrated space station. A TV newscaster, confronted with an escaped bear, looses a trickle of piss, which streams down to his microphone cable and electrocutes him. Meanwhile, George and her colleagues take money from the deceased's pockets, squat in their temporarily vacant apartments, and say bitter things like "There's no sugarcoating that turd."

This kind of cloying cynicism is the flip side of The Lovely Bones's cloying sentimentality: death is still a Hallmark card, but now it's the kind with a toilet joke instead of an inspirational message. No one in Dead like Me gets a happy reunion with a beloved pet. Instead, George gets to go to her own funeral and hear her uptight mom say, "I don't think I was a very good mother." It's every bitter teenager's fantasy: They'll be sorry!

Dead like Me isn't treacly like The Lovely Bones, but it's just as mendacious and just as off-putting: it's rank with the smugness of those who need to imagine themselves superior to death and the living. Not only do you not have to die, it promises, but you can also hang around to laugh at the chumps who do.

Dead like Me and The Lovely Bones are like the stories we tell children when they encounter death: their dog has gone to chase rabbits on a farm; grandma has been reunited with grandpa in the sky. We think children can't or shouldn't know about death – that it takes us away forever, that it will happen to all of us. We might be right to spare children this; I don't know. Adults turn to stories for help as well – and to be of any use, those stories have to offer more than reassuring fantasies of the afterlife.

Most episodes of Six Feet Under contain a scene in which the Fisher brothers talk to potential customers: recently bereaved people, variously distraught, angry, frightened, relieved, uncomprehending. The Fishers try to help them, and to make a sale. These small scenes offer more than Sebold's dizziest fantasies: people suffering and people trying to comfort them. They're windows onto death as it actually is: multifaceted, impossible to look in the face except at moments of great strength or abject desperation – and, above all, nonnegotiable.

A young couple sits on the Fishers's couch. Their three-week-old baby died in his crib a few nights ago. "Of course, it's difficult for anyone to come to terms with something as unexpected as this," David Fisher says gently.

Nate interrupts. "It's not just difficult," he says. "It's not even remotely possible."


August 20, 2003