5 Funeral Director Misrepresentations That Need to Die Off
Feb 05, 2019
I am a self-proclaimed TV-O-Holic. I was watching self-recorded VHS tapes and DVDs of WB teen dramas on repeat before the term ‘binge watching’ even existed. Netflix was created for people like me.
One of the side effects of watching entirely too much TV is you begin to notice patterns emerging. You pick up on story lines that have been recycled and the same character conflicts repeating themselves. As a writer, this often becomes difficult to ignore because it’s very obvious when a script takes a lazy approach to a storyline.
Since I began writing for the funeral profession, I’ve become much more attuned to portrayals of funeral directors on TV shows and in movies. I pay attention to the dialogue written for them and the motivations of these characters. One thing I have noticed is if a sitcom or drama is on TV long enough, eventually the protagonists are going to be faced with death. When this happens, there is often a one-off episode that revolves around the characters making funeral arrangements or attending a memorial service.
What I find so frustrating is how little time and creativity entertainment writers invest when creating mortician characters. Funeral directors on TV shows and movies have little to nothing in common with the real people who live this profession. The service hearted and dedicated folks I have had an opportunity to spend time with at conventions across the country are nothing like their on-screen counterparts. These one-dimensional roles fail to ever consider what motivations or layers might exist within a funeral director. They are so one-note, in fact, that I’ve begun noticing these misrepresentations repeat themselves across genres and time periods.
TV shows and movies that are completely unrelated to one another share this common blind spot, like a bad tradition being handed down through generations of scriptwriters. Not only are these portrayals decidedly negative, but they reinforce false ideas and misinformation about the death care profession. What makes this even more disappointing is when one of these mischaracterizations appears in an otherwise very original or inspired show.
In 2018, our culture was treated to not one, but two accurate depictions of funeral directors. In March, the film Getting Grace was released and introduced the character of Bill Jankowski, a disenchanted mortician whose perspective is completely transformed by a 16-year-old girl dying of cancer. The movie also includes the character, Mary, Bill’s more approachable sister, and does a superb job of showing how differently funeral professionals might approach their work. Then in October, the Netflix phenomenon, The Haunting of Hill House premiered and the world fell in love with the character Shirley Crain, a sensitive and complex mortician with a bit of a control problem who is tasked with embalming her sister’s body.
While Getting Grace is a family film and Hill House is a horror series, these two entertainment offerings overlap when it comes to their fresh and fully-developed funeral director characters. While these characters were not without imperfections, they were written and acted with authenticity. Rather than serving up undercooked caricatures, the movie and show creators were driven to fully examine what motivations, fears, experiences and thoughts dictate the actions of a funeral director.
These characters make previous representations of morticians appear all the more stark in their lack of originality. A message to Hollywood: when it comes to portraying the funeral profession, you can do better.
Here are 5 funeral director character tropes that need to be put out to pasture.
1. The Greedy Vulture Funeral Director
Entertainment writers do a disservice to funeral homes in many ways, but the worst offender is the depiction of a funeral director as money-hungry and willing to scam grieving families. Sadly, this is also the most re-used stereotype. This character shows up in both TV shows and movies and can be found in comedies as well as dramas. Most often, the mortician clashes in someway with the story’s protagonist, exacerbating the grief of the main character whom the audience is rooting for. The reason this overused trope is so harmful to the funeral profession is because it perpetuates the idea that funeral directors should not be trusted.
One particularily glaring example of this occurred in a later episode of the critically beloved TV show, Friday Night Lights , which aired from 2006-2011. I enjoyed this show so much that I’ve watched the entire series twice, and the character Matt Sarancin, was always my favorite. One of the most highly praised episodes of the show was titled “The Son.” So much about this episode feels like a real and authentic study of grief and loss. Yet, there is one scene I find so difficult to watch due to its startling inaccuracy. (Warning: spoilers ahead).
After Matt’s father is killed in Iraq while serving in the Army, he visits a funeral home to make arrangements. Matt brings Tammy Taylor, his football coach’s wife who is like a mother to him, to help him through the process. In the scene, the unnamed funeral director is shown reviewing funeral options with Matt. Here is a list of some of the major factual errors you’ll find in the span of this two minute clip.
- The scene implies the funeral director is attempting sneak in charges for things that are completely unnecessary. The general takeaway is that he gets caught in the act of doing this by Tammy.
- After the director states he thinks a closed casket would be best, Tammy begins naming line items from the bill. “Viewing, visitation day, use of facilities, use of staff, that wouldn’t be necessary if it’s closed casket.” The director then nods his head and says ‘of course, we’ll just remove those fees’ rather than explaining the fact that visitations and wakes are very often held even if there is a closed casket.
- The funeral director incorrectly labels a “funeral service escort” as the vehicles that transport the family, rather than the vehicles that direct or control traffic during the funeral procession while escorting the procession through the streets. It is implied that this is some sort of expensive and superfluous extravagance.
- When Matt leaves the scene and Tammy accusingly says, “You look me in the eye and you tell me Veterans Affairs is going to pick up a $9,000 bill” , the mortician just stares with a blank face like he’s been caught in the act. There is no mention that Matt’s father died while serving in active duty and therefore the Department of Defense does cover most expenses including those not paid for by the VA, such as cremation, embalming, casket or urn, funeral director services, and transportation of remains.
The lack of fact checking in this scene is astounding. The idea that a funeral director would ever sit in front of the next of kin of someone killed in the line of duty and not fully explain what military funeral assistance covers and what this family would be entitled to is so far removed from reality. Although most of the series and even the rest of this episode sparkle with originality, this scene feels so contrived. It’s obvious the producers wanted to set up a hero moment for Tammy to come to Matt’s defense, but it’s such a shame they had to discredit morticians and spread false information to do it. If the writers had shown this scene to just one single funeral director or anyone even remotely tied to this profession, they would have learned just how unfairly exaggerated it truly was and how poorly it reflects reality.
Friday Night Lights is just one of many examples of the mortician swindler that appears in movies and television to either literally or suggestively ask protagonists, “But don’t you want the very best for your loved one ?” There’s the funeral director in The Big Lebowski who guilt trips Walter and The Dude to try to convince them to purchase an expensive urn for Donnie, which they don’t want or need. There’s the mortician in Shameless that secretly pays Frank to convince terminally ill people to select expensive caskets for their preplans. There are countless funeral directors in sitcoms that pop in to brazenly ask characters about the health of their older relatives. Even funeral professionals across the pond in the UK have communicated their frustrations over characters on British soap operas like EastEnders that portray directors as dishonest and fraudulent.
These on-screen distortions have real world consequences for the many funeral professionals who feel pressure to distance themselves from the morally bankrupt misrepresentations that appear on screen. The image of a mortician needlessly pressuring grieving family members has been repeated on so many television shows and movies that it has nearly eclipsed the actual work and dedication of the funeral service profession. Fortunately, many funeral professionals have been able to disprove these misconceptions within their own communities. We’d like to see more entertainment writers focusing on these true-life examples instead of relying on false constructs.
2. The Unfunny Funeral Director Who Thinks Death is Hilarious
He puts the FUN in funeral. People are DYING to see him. Every word out of his mouth sounds like a bad joke from a Popsicle stick. You know the character I am talking about. You’ll find him in old sitcoms and recent ones, reciting nearly identical lines. Recently, I spotted him while binge-watching the 90s family sitcom Step By Step (which, incidentally, I don’t recommend). On a double date, he ruins everyone’s appetite by sharing embalming jokes throughout dinner. Because, you know, funeral directors aren’t capable of talking to people without commenting on their veins or telling prep room jokes.
Then, nearly 20 years later, a new version of this character emerges on the sitcom Parks and Recreation . When lovably sarcastic April Ludgate begins to rethink her career choice, she decides to visit a local funeral home, only to be hit with a litany of bad funeral puns from the resident funeral director. While Parks and Rec is one of my favorite shows of all time, I cringe every time I see this scene. For a show that makes me laugh harder than just about any other TV show ever created, it was disappointing to discover the writers could not find a way to make this scenario authentically funny.
Let’s get one thing straight: most funeral directors have very animated personalities and appreciate a good joke. Their unpredictable schedule usually has insanely long hours and they are reminded constantly that life is too short not to appreciate humor when you can. That being said, most funeral directors do not find death and mortality to be all that funny of a subject. They see firsthand the tragedy and grief that surrounds death and understand the importance of treating those in their care with reverence, not as a source of amusement. Sitcom producers want to make audiences laugh, but these same old tired funeral home jokes have been on life support for years now. Fingers crossed that these writers will check out this list of hilarious funeral home GIFs for some fresh material next time!
3. The Creepy Funeral Director
The funeral profession has been inextricably linked to the horror genre for so long, its no wonder the creepy mortician trope is continually recycled. Going back as far as 1979’s Phantasm or 1983’s Mortuary, you can find a score of examples of funeral directors who are characterized as sketchy or sinister. Anytime a plotline revolves around vampires, zombies or serial killers, there is an increased likelihood a mortician will show up in the story as either the main culprit or as a ruse to distract you from the real bad guy. These characters are nearly always male and are played with type of stoicism that borders on sleepwalking. The tall, pale and quiet man who just seems to appear out of nowhere with lines like, “I’ll be seeing you soon.”
From these depictions, it is almost as if fear of death has been replaced by fear of death care professionals. Those that work in the funeral profession are easy and obvious targets for horror scriptwriters simply because they work with dead bodies. And while most people don’t turn to horror movies when they want to experience something real and authentic, these writers are still doing a disservice not only to the funeral professional, but to society as a whole by portraying the funeral home as a place one should be afraid of. Our culture’s reluctance to talk about death is rooted in these types of negative associations. Rather than feeding into these unrealistic fears, horror creators should strive to find more imaginative ways to use funeral homes in their stories. The Haunting of Hill House proved this is possible, so we’re hopeful that others will follow their lead.
4. The Incompetent Funeral Director
You had one job, Mort!
Occurring most often in comedies that involve a funeral service as a major plot point or dramas with a murder mystery, this character trope serves a very specific (and very predictable) purpose: to set off a chain of events. He or she shows up specifically to drop the ball so the main protagonists are forced to react to the created dilemma. When a funeral director’s ineptitude is necessary to drive a plot point, it’s hard not to just walk away shaking your head. Most often, the scenario presented is so unlikely when you consider how detail-oriented directors must be and how many precautions they must take in order to be compliant with the laws and regulations that govern this profession. That aspect of funeral service seems to be absent in just about every portrayal of the profession, but the recycled incompetent funeral director trope really takes this distortion to another level.
“This type of thing almost never happens”
Whether it is a mortician putting the wrong body in a casket, mishandling cremated remains, or having a major mishap in the prep room, the story trajectory is the same. The funeral director is not written into the story as a character so much as a plot device. It is a simple equation – if you’re writing to get to the end result, which is that something is going to happen to a dead body, you have to figure out a way to make that happen. "Let's make it the mortician's fault" becomes the easy answer, time and again. Both TV and movie comedies love to come up with outrageous and completely unrealistic memorial service shenanigans for their protagonists and as a result the funeral profession is often used as the obvious scapegoat.
While there are real instances that have transpired where funeral directors have stepped out of line, to paint this picture over and over again in movies and TV as though it is a common occurrence is insulting to both the funeral profession and the audience. You would think, from watching TV and movies that funeral service is like the Wild West of career professions when in fact it is one of the most heavily regulated and monitored. It is unfair to present this image as the norm when the true reality is almost never explored. Plausibility is often sacrificed so that writers can reach their end result more quickly. However, a well-crafted plot device should emerge in a story naturally. Writing a one-dimensional, inept funeral director character solely to facilitate a completely unrealistic narrative takes a lot less effort (and talent) than allowing a storyline to develop organically.
5. The Invisible Funeral Director
In many cases, entertainment professionals are too hesitant (or lazy) to even write a funeral director character at all. Rather than rising to the challenge, they take the easy way out by taking the funeral director out of the equation entirely. You see this in sitcoms and dramas so often, a funeral scene will play out without any funeral professionals present at all. In many ways, this is the worst of all because it appears as though the family has taken care of everything themselves, with no help at all from anyone. It completely diminishes the role of a funeral director in our society and perpetuates a false impression that families are given no assistance or guidance when planning funeral services.
With so many mortician characters lacking depth and humanity, you can hardly blame real-life funeral directors for cringing whenever one comes into a scene. Yet, there have been a handful of interesting, complex and fully-developed roles we wanted to mention as well.
Below is our list of the top 10 funeral director movie and TV characters
- Bill Jankowski in Getting Grace
- Shirley Crain in The Haunting of Hill House
- Nate Fisher on Six Feet Under
- Harry Sultanfuss in My Girl
- Bill Murray in Get Low
- Mary Jankowski in Getting Grace
- David Fisher in Six Feet Under
- Goodenough in The Six Wives of Henry Lefay
- Alfred Molina in Undertaking Betty
- Frederico Diaz in Six Feet Under
While not every funeral director on this list is a likeable character, they are all relatable in one way or another. Their story arcs have a defined and unique progression that does not rely on assumptions, stereotypes or recycled tropes. When it comes to depicting those in the funeral profession, we are not asking for flawless representations. We are simply requesting that writers make more of an effort to create more richly-drawn characters like the ones above that accurately reflect the real life people who live this profession day in and day out.
What are your thoughts on funeral director character portrayals on TV and movies? Are there any misrepresentations we left off our list? What are your favorite/least favorite funeral director characters? Please share with us in the comments below.
About The Author
Jess Farren (Fowler)
Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD's company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at Jess@myASD.com