Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 22, 2002

HBO show about a funeral home has won over Hawai'i funeral directors

By Tanya Bricking
Advertiser Staff Writer

Ken Ordenstein and his daughter, Cherie Akina, say they can relate to HBO's "Six Feet Under," which is about a family-owned funeral home. Ordenstein and Akina are the fifth and sixth generations of their family to go into the funeral business.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Quick facts about Hawai'i's dead

Number of deaths a year: a little more than 6,000

Number of funeral homes: about 11 companies running 19 mortuaries

Six feet under?: About 60 percent of Hawai'i families opt for cremating their loved ones.

The things that make a mortician laugh can come from the dark side.

Like the episode of HBO's "Six Feet Under" with a scene about a man who dies of a heart attack in Seattle but must be returned to his grieving family in Los Angeles. The funeral director offers to make arrangements to have him flown back, but the grieving family member insists that "Dad won't fly."

For Ken Ordenstein, the fifth generation of a family of Hawai'i funeral directors, that's true wit. It's art imitating life. He has, after all, seen the real thing.

"What makes it so funny on the show is that on one hand, it sounds so incongruous," he said, "but you understand the truth of the sentiment."

The acclaimed HBO series has turned that brand of dark comedy into a cultural phenomenon. It was the highest-rated program ever to debut on HBO last year, a bigger first-year hit than "The Sopranos."

Not since Dan Aykroyd played the mortician who won the heart of the Jamie Lee Curtis character in the 1991 movie "My Girl" has Ordenstein found his profession portrayed on screen as being so cool.

The show, which entered its second season this month riding on two Golden Globe victories (best drama and best supporting actress for Rachel Griffiths), tells the story of

Fisher & Sons, a dysfunctional family of undertakers.

Ordenstein took to the show immediately, seeing parts of himself in the sons who run the fictional funeral home.

In some ways, he said, it mirrors his own life. He and his brother, David Ordenstein, took over their family's funeral business and have dealt with the same themes of life and family, corporate takeover and anguish in the face of death.

"I think it's witty. I think it's offbeat, touching, provocative," he said. "It's just about people finding their way. All of us recognize the stories or some aspects of the stories."

Relating to story lines

At Leeward Funeral Home, manager Kathy Morikami has been laughing in front of the TV screen herself. But she's also taking serious mental notes.

"I've got it all on tape," she said, "and I pass it along to some of my people and ask them to look at it and see what they can learn from it."

She has taken pointers on what to say to a husband who doesn't want to let go of his wife's body, and how she might try to ease the guilt feelings of a family who can't afford to buy a fancy casket.

Morikami admits she has taken great delight in the ongoing story line, which delves into the struggle of an independent, family-run funeral home going up against a conglomerate that wants to to buy it out.

"We're independent," she said. "We're very small, and we're fighting with the giants. We hold our own. We have a niche."

And she sees herself in Nate, the son on the show who returns from working in Seattle to switch careers, the way she switched from being an accountant to dealing with death instead of taxes.

For Morikami, the biggest comfort of the show is the way it dips into the psyches and fears of the Fisher family.

"I've got a bleeding heart," she said. "That's what everybody tells me: 'Boss, you've got a bleeding heart.' My work is to help people. I just want to learn how other people handle things."

Her only complaint with "Six Feet Under" is the risque HBO twists it takes, touching on everything from teen drug use to homosexuality.

"I think there's too much sex," she said. "I think they could do without that much sex."

An affirmation of life

Ultimately, the life-affirming quality of "Six Feet Under" is what is making it catch on with those connected to Hawai'i's funeral industry, as well as others among the 5 million who watch the show each week.

"It kind of incorporates everyday family stuff in their dilemmas," said Ken Ordenstein's daughter, Cherie Akina, who has watched a couple of episodes.

She, too, sees herself echoed in Nate, the son who returns to the family business. Akina, a former waitress, came back to work part time and never left. She has found her calling as the sixth generation of her family in the funeral business and is an administrative assistant at the family's Williams Funeral Services branch.

Each episode in the series created by Alan Ball (who won a best-screenplay Oscar for "American Beauty") begins with a death. But the theme ends up being much more about life.

Local funeral home managers say they can overlook the outlandishness when the "Six Feet Under" plots turn wacky, like the episode when the daughter, Claire, steals a foot from the embalming room.

"Seventy-five percent of it is not real," said Carrie Ordonez, manager of Mililani Downtown Mortuary.

But she can identify with the TV characters who work in the morgue "fixing the face" for an open-casket viewing. For her, the most touching parts of the show are the scenes showing people like herself helping others adjust to the raw emotions brought on by death.

"In reality," she said, "that's what's so hard."

Reach Tanya Bricking at tbricking@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8026.