Funerals in popular culture – the good and bad in ‘This Is Us’

US drama ‘This Is Us’ incorporates several funeral scenes, but how accurate are they? Spoilers ahead whilst Becky tells us more...

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Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Community Co-Ordinator and ‘This Is Us’ superfan, Becky

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855.  The company now has a further three offices across the county – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – and continues to serve all communities with a wealth of knowledge and experience.  Occasionally, personal lives and professional lives cross over, as Community Co-Ordinator Becky has found when watching one of her favourite TV shows.  Warning – the following post contains significant spoilers for popular (and ongoing!) US drama, ‘This Is Us’…

The topic of misrepresentation of funerals in film and television was raised again in our office recently.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first crime for British soap, EastEnders (on this occasion, it was the fact that the Coroner delivered a verdict regarding the cause of death on the morning of the funeral taking place – in reality, an inquest would be opened and adjourned at this point, in order that a funeral could go ahead), but it got me thinking about other inaccuracies.

One of my favourite shows in recent years has been US drama This Is Us.  The show focuses on the story of the Pearson family – Jack and Rebecca, and their children Kate, Kevin and Randall – and is told via a non-linear narrative, with timeframes ranging from the 1950s to the present day, in order to tell the backstories of the characters from different perspectives.  Thanks to being a five-person household of people with varied personalities and interests, and covering a range of social and political issues, the show is full of layers, and plots conveyed with great displays of emotion.

I highly recommend enjoying the show for yourself, and am delighted that, for the first time, Season five is airing in the UK at the same time as it is in the US (the show is available via Prime Video, and I am a little conflicted – Series three and four were available in a satisfying chunk to binge, whereas viewers now have to be patient and consume episodes weekly!).  With fair warning now given, if you’d like to avoid spoilers, save this page for later and binge the show before reading more…

Seasons one and two cover funerals of two major characters – plus there is a lot more about grief and bereavement in these and subsequent series.  What has always interested me about these funerals is how they’re depicted – I instantly found one to be very accurate, and one to be highly inaccurate to the point of being confusing, however both stories are beautifully told.

It’s foreshadowed early in the show that Jack Pearson dies without reaching old age – new viewers enter into the show waiting to find out how and exactly when Jack dies, rather than if he does so peacefully as an old man – and season two covers his death in an appropriately-dramatic fashion.  It is his funeral which I find bizarre.  Rebecca and the teenage children are seen with many other guests at a graveside service (which is common in the US, and not the part I take issue with)… along with an urn of Jack’s ashes.

In fact, we were already aware that Jack had been cremated, as his cremated remains have been referenced previously.  The backstory goes a step further via a flashback in the episode where Jack’s funeral is ultimately seen – he is shown prior to his death expressing his wish to Rebecca that he be cremated rather than buried.  For me, all of this begs the question of why a graveside service takes place (for we are also aware that his ashes are to be kept by his family, rather than interred in the ground), and why it’s taking place post-cremation.  Having watched the episode again to write this post, I found myself with more questions than answers, and may return to the differences between funerals in the UK versus the US another day!

The focus with the entire storyline is on emotion more than anything else which, by this point in our journey of being a fan, we are well aware is the show’s priority, however many gritty issues are covered throughout the show – mental health issues, alcoholism and other forms of addiction, racism, baby loss, to name but a few – and these are clearly carefully researched in order to ensure their accuracy, so why writers throw this out of the window when it comes to funerals is beyond me.

I was far more pleased with the narrative surrounding season one’s big funeral.  From the beginning of the show, it’s clear that Randall is not Jack and Rebecca’s biological son.  This is never concealed from him or his siblings (partly as it’s impossible: Randall is black, whilst Jack, Rebecca, Kate and Kevin are white), though his journey to learning who his biological parents are and establishing a relationship with them is another storyline which is highly emotional!  Ultimately, Randall meets his biological father, William, and it is sadly William who dies towards the end of season one.

The death storylines for Randall’s biological and adoptive fathers are very different: William is aware that he is dying of cancer, as are the characters around him, whereas Jack’s death is a complete shock.  By the onset and deterioration of William’s illness, he is living with Randall and his young family – Randall is married with two daughters – and all of them are involved in William’s care.

Following William’s death, it is revealed that his wish is for his granddaughters – Tess and Annie – to organise the celebration of his life, much to the chagrin of the adults around them.  When I first watched this storyline unfold, I believe I actually cheered with joy.  My working life is spent encouraging people to be more open about death, dying, and funeral wishes, and to see such a novel approach to a sad time was heart-warming.  It isn’t clear how old Tess and Annie are, but I’d estimate that they are between six and ten years old.

The celebration they plan is predictably light-hearted and fun, with them ultimately stating that they have decided to recreate William’s favourite kind of day.  Nothing is said at this point about the young characters’ previous experiences of death or bereavement, but in a letter that William leaves for the family to read, he says that, ‘Adults make these things [funerals] sad’, and that he would like to give the girls their smiles back at a time which they may be struggling.

It was a great approach by the writers: William’s wishes were accurate for the character he’d been written as, and Tess and Annie’s reactions felt true to their characters too.  It also allowed various other interpretations from adult characters – Beth, Randall’s wife, is put out that she has to step back and allow her young daughters to lead the way; all of the adults are confronted by the difference of having a child-orientated funeral which challenges their beliefs, whilst also dealing with their feelings about William’s death and memories of other bereavements.

This plot is a fantastic demonstration of the nuances of the show, and makes it very re-watchable in my opinion – I had initially seen season one a few years ago, and re-watched it to check my facts for this post, yet picked up on different points this time around, perhaps because I was less focused on following the narrative itself.

Whilst this is a fictional show, and we can therefore question how realistic elements of it are, it gives us plenty of food for thought.  I’m pleased that it offers an alternative narrative to funeral planning, and I think that if even one person who sees it is encouraged to change their plans in order to suit them better, or is inspired to think a little differently, then it has done a great job.  I hope though that viewers are more inclined to follow William’s funeral plan, than regard Jack’s as realistic… and I’m very much looking forward to the next series still!

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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

November 18, 2020

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