‘Alternate Endings’ Explores the Strange New Ways Americans Are Confronting Death
The new documentary “Alternate Endings,” premiering Aug. 14 on HBO, chronicles the unique ways people have chosen to honor their loved ones (or themselves) before they pass on.
No matter how tasteful and moving, funerals are never easy events to attend. But just think, wouldn’t it be nice if your local funeral parlor had a drive-through window where you could quickly pay your respects from the comfort of your own car—and then keep motoring right along to your next midday errand? That’s just one of the many unique offerings now being peddled by the funeral industry, whose annual National Funeral Directors Association convention is a showcase for an astonishing array of death-related products, including holographic memorials made by the soon-to-be-deceased, customizable caskets, funeral webcasting, and handy services like 1-800-AUTOPSY.
Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America opens with a survey of this eye-opening gathering, but its primary aim isn’t to astound viewers or ridicule its subjects. On the contrary, Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz’s hour-long HBO documentary (premiering Aug. 14) is a touching examination of the novel means by which modern Americans are now confronting death. They’re not what most would call conventional approaches to end-of-life situations, but as this affecting and considerate film elucidates, they’re all rooted in affording those at the end of their paths the dignity, respect and love they deserve.
O’Neill and Peltz dispense functional information via on-screen text but don’t bother with narration to underline their overarching points. Instead, they allow their six vignettes to speak for themselves. Perhaps none of the alternative memorials on display in Alternate Endings is odder than the first, which involves Leila Johnson’s decision to encase her father’s cremated remains in a “reef ball” that’s buried at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. That structure is designed to last for 500 years, and to serve as an engineered reef that will offset the loss of coral reefs throughout the ocean. Given Leila’s father’s close connection to the water, she believes that it will, per Memorial Reef International’s Steve Berkoff, aid the environment by “creating new life.”
The sight of Leila scuba-diving down alongside her dad’s memorial reef—this after she mixed his ashes into its cement with her bare hands—is, invariably, a bit peculiar. And yet as she caresses and hugs the aquatic object, it’s also difficult not to get a bit choked up. That’s true of virtually all of Alternate Endings’ snapshots, which are strange and poignant in equal measure. Certainly, Leila’s course of action isn’t much weirder than the choices made by others depicted in the film, who are all, in their own unique ways, looking to make one final gesture of love toward those they’ve lost—and, in doing so, to attain some consolation during a time of great grief.
In San Antonio, the family of Guadalupe Cuevas attains comfort and peace by staging a living wake for the terminally ill 80-year-old man. According to Guadalupe Jr., who happily performs the Sunday morning ritual of preparing his mom and dad’s weekly drug regimens, the reason for such an occasion is simple: “They’re good parents.” Showing off collections of old photos, his sister Alicia contends, “It’s very important to know where you came from.” Their effusive devotion is clearly felt by Guadalupe, who predicts about his upcoming living wake—a farewell party full of friends and relatives, with him as the guest of honor—“I’m going to feel great. I’m going to feel like the luckiest person in the world.” The ensuing footage of the festivities, unsurprisingly, proves him right.
The Cuevas’ get-together is an attempt to accept death’s inevitability, as well as a celebration where individuals can say what they truly feel to their loved ones while they still have the opportunity. A similar process plays out in the case of Dick Shannon, a former Silicon Valley engineer who’s exhausted all available treatment options for his fatal cancer. Destined for nothing but escalating discomfort and deterioration, Dick—as a resident of California, one of six states (along with the District of Columbia) that allows it—opts to medically end his life via a doctor-prescribed drug cocktail. Before long, he’s even making his coffin with his son-in-law Will, who praises how much he’s learned from Dick over the past three-plus decades, and then adds “This is the one project I wish to hell we didn’t ever have to build.”
The arduousness of Dick’s decision, not only for himself but for his wife and children, is plain to see in sequences set in his physician’s office, and at a party where friends commend him on his courage. But as unbearably sad as Dick’s last days/nights/moments are, there’s also a sense of solace—however minor—that comes from this brave man taking control of his demise, going out on his terms, and making sure that everyone knows just what he thought about them before he departs. The tears that Alternate Endings elicits here are significant, as is the admiration one feels for Dick.
Pancreatic cancer-stricken Barbara Jean’s “green burial” is likewise an act of autonomy in the face of that which she cannot control, or prevent. Her body washed by those closest to her, wrapped in a shroud, and placed in a shallow grave along with a tree—thus allowing her to share in nature’s rebirth—it’s a practice that borders on the bizarre. Yet the ceremony nonetheless radiates intense warmth and esteem for Barbara, especially with regards to honoring her particular demands, and as such, comes across as an appropriate and affecting tribute.
More moving still are Alternate Endings’ portraits of the space burial for 65-year-old Alfred “Tuna” Snider—his ashes rocketed off to the cosmos, as his daughter and her two sons watch with stirring enthusiasm—and the celebration of life for 5-year-old Garrett Matthias, whose wish to have a giant blowout bash rather than a funeral becomes a reality courtesy of his parents, replete with bouncy houses, face-painting, and actors dressed up as his favorite superheroes. In those two heartrending segments, O’Neill and Peltz’s film illustrates that, ultimately, the best way to say goodbye is with unbridled love, appreciation and deference to the desires of those gone too soon. When that happens, there can even be joy in sorrow.