Cake Film Review: Alternate Endings, HBO Documentary

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Guadalupe Cuevas (right) at his living wake; one of the many featured "alternate endings" in HBO's new documentary. (Photo from HBO)

Streaming: HBO | Release Date: Aug. 14, 2019 | Runtime: 1hr 8min | Directors: Perri Peltz and Matthew O’Neill

In their new HBO documentary, Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America, directors and producers Perri Peltz and Matthew O’Neill illuminate the ever-growing alternatives to traditional deaths, burials, and funerals. The strength of this film, however, is not just that it exposes Americans to new choices disrupting the funeral industry, but rather, is that it sparks our imaginations on how we might personalize our own endings, and those of our loved ones, in a way that best honors our lives and legacies.

More than burial and funeral alternatives

The documentary opens with footage of a massive convention for funeral directors, which showcases such novelties as holograms of deceased loved ones, funeral web-streaming services, and customized caskets. It then quickly turns personal and the remainder of the film takes us through the journeys of six families’ unique approaches to death. While each story focuses on a different concept, including green burials, living wakes, and medical aid in dying, the segments are more than just educational. The honest footage and limited voiceovers help craft compelling vignettes about why these families chose the endings they did.

  What's important is not that such options exist but that they empower us to make the end of our life a meaningful expression of our values and relationships.  

Peltz and O’Neill are wise to structure Alternate Endings in this way. For the many Americans who have never thought much about non-traditional endings, the range of death-related innovations featured at the convention shocks one into recognizing that we have quite a bit of choice in how we can shape our ends. By focusing most of the documentary on deeply personal stories, however, the directors make a clear statement that what’s important is not that such options exist but that they empower us to make the end of our life a meaningful expression of our values and relationships.

Honoring our loved ones

One of the more unexpected takeaways from the documentary is the impact these unique endings can have on the loved ones of the person who is dying or who has already passed. In the first vignette, Leila mixes her ocean-loving father’s ashes into what will become part of a “memorial reef” in the Gulf of Mexico. She chose this option after spending considerable time “figuring out what would be right, how to honor him.”

  ...bouncy castles, snow cones, and superheroes...  

Other families, too, share the same desire to honor the deceased in a way that connects to his or her life passions. Forty-five families gather together to watch as the cremated remains of their space-enthused loved ones are launched into the beyond as part of a “space burial.” Likewise, the “life celebration” Emily and Ryan Matthias throw in memory of their five-year-old son Garrett, who died from cancer, includes bouncy castles, snow cones, and superheroes. By breaking from traditional funeral norms, they created an event that embodied Garrett’s young spirit.

For these families, organizing these personalized endings is an act of love. It’s why Leila wished, “[her father] could know the decision I made.” What’s particularly inspiring, however, is that by creating endings that uniquely honor the memory of their loved one, they are helping to ensure that when they reflect on these experiences it will remind them not just of their loss but, more importantly, the legacy of their loved one.

Endings of love and gratitude

For some of the families featured in Alternate Endings, the opportunity to honor their dying loved one comes before the actual death. At the “living wake” for Guadalupe, who is terminally ill, family and friends have the chance to hug him and say their thanks and goodbyes. Guadalupe, too, is empowered to express to those in attendance “how much I appreciate all of you.” This theme of creating opportunities to express love and gratitude is also seen in the story on Barbara Jean, a woman battling pancreatic cancer. While the focus of her segment is on planning her environmentally friendly “green burial,” an especially moving moment is when she explains that her friend TJ and others have agreed to wash her body after she dies, an act which evokes an “overwhelming feeling of love and support so unconditional.”

  The opportunity to honor their dying loved one comes before the actual death.  

These emotional clips highlight how preparing for our death can create opportunities for meaningful exchanges. After all, expressing love and gratitude is even more rewarding when the recipient is there to hear what we have to say. While we may not all have an opportunity to arrange a so-called living funeral ahead of our deaths, these stories remind us to tell and show our loved ones how we feel while we still can.

Death with dignity

Arguably the most powerful segment of the documentary is the one that follows Dick Shannon as he prepares to utilize California’s “death with dignity” law. Dying from cancer that has now spread to his lungs, Dick is determined to “end his life in a way that I choose,” which he will do by taking special medications, referred to as “medical aid in dying.” Before the specific day that Dick chooses to be his last, he prepares by building his own coffin alongside his son-in-law, hosting a celebration-of-life event to say farewell to loved ones, and planning the details of his final moments.

For so many, avoidance of death stems from a fear of lack-of-control. Dick’s story shows that we can reclaim control over our end of life. While we may not all have the ability or desire to organize our ends to the level of detail Dick did, the fact that we can play a role in directing our own endings is still a revelation. And this is the magic of Alternate Endings. In reminding viewers that we can have some control over our end of life, the documentarians help make space for us to contend with death in a new way. They open our eyes to the unlimited possibilities we can explore as we navigate how to make our endings matter.

  There is no one way to die or remember a life.  

In the end…

Alternate Endings gives viewers a close-up, personal look into intimate end-of-life moments, conveying a clear message: There is no one way to die or remember a life. Whether the intention is to shape an ending that deeply aligns with the person we were in life, to create opportunities for powerful expressions of love and gratitude, or some combination thereof, everyone must decide for themselves what type of end they want. And it’s a question that’s worth thinking about now rather than later. So, I ask you, how do you want your story to end?