The process of dealing with death is a universal one. A popular axiom is also one of the great truths, “time comes for us all.” How one’s life or death is honored or celebrated upon passing can be influenced by culture or community, sometimes it’s influenced by personal belief. However it’s faced, it’s ultimately a personal decision, whether by the individual themselves or a loved one. The real surprise is the variety of ways in which we all come to our final resting place. Burials and cremation are the most common, but they no longer remain the only options. The introduction of HBO documentary Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America presents several new options in the setting of the National Funeral Directors’ Association (NFDA) convention held in Boston, Massachusetts. There the audience learns of a company that will provide the dirt of your homeland so that your ashes will be buried in the land of your ancestors. Another organization offers biodegradable caskets. There’s also a market for memorial art — busts, paintings, and more — which serve as replacements for urns. While all of these are fascinating, co-directors and co-producers Perri Pelta and Matthew O’Neill (a member of HBO’s Axios) opted to focus on six other ways in which Americans are choosing to celebrate life as they greet the end. Grab your tissues. You’re going to need them.
The expectation of a documentary like Alternate Endings is a deep dive, a true exploration of six individual ways Baby Boomers are selecting as alternatives to a simple burial. The options themselves are fairly straight-forward. The context of the title of each section offers enough for any audience member to understand what each may be: Sea Burial, Living Wake, Green Burial, Space Burial, Medical Aid in Dying, and Celebration of Life. Rather than drilling down into each one academically, Pelta and O’Neill offer an exploration of why these specific options are being chosen, opting for a focus on humanity over industry. This decision is what makes Alternate Endings the most compelling and what keeps the documentary from losing its grip on the audience.
After the brief opening showcasing the NFDA, Pelta and O’Neill shift into the first method: Sea Burial. Rather than just a quick cut with expositional text, they open by shifting locations to the Gulf of Mexico while introducing Leila Johnson and her recently-deceased father. As she sits trying to figure out what to write on a card, the camera shifts from a direct position to over-the-shoulder and back until Leila begins to talk. Using Leila’s story as the introductory piece, the camera crew follows her, her mother, her aunt, and other relatives as they go to Memorial Reef International and learn what the organization does before beginning the process of interment. Following Leila and her family as they make their selection, mix the ashes with cement, and then set the newly created reef ball in its resting place within the ocean offers a focus on the emotional decisions which each loss brings to the forefront and reduces the drier demonstrative elements. It’s not just honoring the life lost, but the life lived.
This structure lays the groundwork for the rest of Alternate Endings from the introduction of people, introduction of funeral type, tracking of events, to closure on the individual at the center. It’s systematic, to be sure, yet it never feels robotic or distant. The interviews with the subjects (where possible) or their relatives protect each method of burial from the reductiveness of the audience’s preconceived notions. Relying on empathy creates an insulation of the ideas, enabling the information about each method to be received more easily. It may not be a method that the audience may choose for themselves, but there’s no denying the logic of the choice for each individual at the center of each story. This method comes in handy in the section for Medical Aid in Dying when the subject of this section, terminal ill former engineer Richard Shannon, is followed to doctor’s appointments all the way to the taking of the medicine. Of the methods presented, Medical Aid in Dying is incredibly controversial and Pelta and O’Neill carefully capture Richard’s ideas about the method without judgement or scrutiny. The directors’ methodical approach extends into the final moments of Richard’s life, which they treat with incredible care and sensitivity. This is, perhaps, the hardest segment of all because the audience is invited to join his family as Richard drifts off. Even as the family offers their final respects, the profound emotions the scene conveys are not merely for the life lost, but are in recognition of Richard’s determination to end on his own terms.
What the documentary teases in the beginning but fails to explore more fully is how these alternate methods of traditional funerals pose a threat to the $16 billion funeral industry. It seems to be the narrative they’re starting with, but it’s an element which is not more intensely explored. The methods presented by Perri Pelta and Matthew O’Neill in Alternate Endings are just a few ways in which the grieving or soon to be aggrieved can translate their pain into something lasting and meaningful. Most importantly, in all the examples shown, Pelta and O’Neill beautifully present the living and dead with a tenderness and reverence which all wish to have in their final moments. Death is the one thing none of us can avoid. It cares not how much money or influence you possess nor your age or promise. Some are taken suddenly, some last far longer than they ever expected. When asked in earnest, most merely want to pass with dignity, aware that their loved ones are taken care of. From the six stories Pelta and O’Neill include, it’s the only other universal truth and it may be the one which matters most.
Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America premieres at 8pm ET on HBO, Wednesday, August 14th. It will also be available on HBO Now and HBO Go for streaming.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.