13 Best Documentaries About Death & Loss

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How does one prepare for death? How does one prepare for what happens after a loved one has died? What happens when you are alone? In truth, death always leaves something behind. A loved one. A photo album. A purpose. Sometimes, seeing others deal with these questions on screen can help us prepare to face them ourselves.

Jump ahead to these sections: 

  1. How to Die in Oregon
  2. A Will for The Woods
  3. Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America
  4. Griefwalker
  5. Dying Alone: Kodokushi
  6. Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
  7. The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
  8. From Grief to Gratitude
  9. Bridegroom
  10. My Love, Don’t Cross That River
  11. 306 Hollywood
  12. Learning to Grieve
  13. After the End: A Journey Through Loss to Hope

Each of the films collected below approaches death from a different angle. One touches on new ways for burial and explores how we can exert control over our fate. Another film looks at traditional and non-traditional celebrations of life. Some of the films explore what happens if strangers must come to your aid. The documentaries also show how the death of a loved one can give the bereaved the gift of intent. And, that sometimes, when hope and ambition spring from tragedy, gratitude follows.

1. How to Die in Oregon

Death with dignity or assisted suicide is the main focus of this documentary. Sometimes, people with incurable or terminal diseases would like to have the option to end their life on their own terms, and so they're in control of their suffering.

Passed in 1997, Oregon's Death With Dignity Act (DWDA) allows people to self-administer a lethal dose of medicine. However, the people showcased in this documentary don't want to die. They want the right over state and religion to determine their path in life.

As you will find as you watch, opinions on the DWDA are varied, but the patient has the last say. 

ยป MORE: Lost someone recently? We've been there. Let us guide you.

 

2. A Will for The Woods

Clark Wang was diagnosed with lymphoma. When it became clear he needed to make some end-of-life decisions, he made a discovery. Clark embraced the option of natural burial in a preserve rather than a cemetery. As a result, he sparked a significant cultural response.

The film is engaging if you have questions about green burials. It also looks at how Wang’s family and friends react to his choice to stray from cultural norms. For Wang, choosing a green burial is more than a decision, but a motivational statement about our planet.

As Wang shows in this documentary, our end-of-life choices can help a forest remain a forest—a beautiful final gift. 

3. Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America

This documentary looks at six different ways of non-traditional death and dying. Burial on a coral reef will create new habitats for dying coral. Living wakes let you experience the love of your friends and family. Green burials are ways to bury your loved one with the forest.

Space burials are for those who dreamed of the stars. More common is the celebration of life over the traditional, somber funeral. Finally, the film explores the death with dignity. For more, read our full Alternate Endings review.

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4. Griefwalker

In this brilliant film by Tim Wilson, Griefwalker Stephen Jenkinson asks, "how firmly in your life are you?" The film explores how success, growth, and happiness have less to do with your life and more to do with your death.

Referred to as a death midwife, also known as a death doula, Stephen Jenkinson cradles the dying. His words and his wisdom help guide the dying out of fear and away from anxiety. He helps the dying to pass as authentically as they have lived so that the sequence of life is not a withering—it's an embrace. 

5. Dying Alone: Kodokushi, Japan's epidemic of isolation through the eyes of a 'lonely death' cleaner

In Japan, three men die alone every hour—a startling statistic. The Japanese film Dying Alone follows one man responsible for cleaning up after those who have died without family. It's not an easy watch. Horrifying scenes of death are only surpassed by the emotions and sadness which drove the deceased to death. No family comes to see them.

Often, no family is looking for them. Their memories, photos, and belongings become trash—not keepsakes or memorials. The film takes a stark look into a growing reality. 

6. Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall 

In this 2014 documentary, filmmaker Edgar Barens shows the raw details of dying in prison.  In the Iowa State Penitentiary, inmates are specially trained to deal with death. Rooms in the infirmary become hospice care, allowing inmates to care for the dying. In Prison Terminal, Barens points his lens at the next to go, Jack Hall.

Hall, a war hero driven mad by the suicide of his son, was denied a military burial. But his life would still end with dignity. Prison Terminal is a genuinely touching story about discarded humanity.

7. The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Holocaust survivor Aliza Herz-Sommer's life was spared because of music. The Nazis had traded her death for her piano playing skills when she joined the orchestra. As she said, "There was a certain amount of logic in it." Although Alice and her son survived, she grieved as her mother and husband died in the gas chambers.

Music was an escape to an island of peace, beauty, and love, not just art. Because of the Terezin concentration camp, Aliza developed an outlook of gratefulness. For the rest of her life, she would play the piano and laugh.

8. From Grief to Gratitude

In this short documentary, Debbie Savigliano retells the tragedy of her niece's death. When a car accident took Bianca's life, Debbie's world changed. She also discovered a purpose through the pain. Debbie started a nonprofit called Bianca's Kids to help needy and foster children. Bianca's Kids feeds the soul of those who contribute as well as those who benefit. Debbie used this nonprofit to keep her Bianca's memory alive.

Then she realized that she was bringing purpose and hope to her community as well. The film shows that the expression of grief in positive ways is healing. 

9. Bridegroom

Bridegroom is an indispensable documentary for those who are most affected by prejudice. The film also discusses politics, biases, and religion in the scope of bias, but it is mostly about love.

When Tom died, he had been in a relationship with Shane for six years. Because Tom's family didn't accept Shane, they banned him from the funeral. Shane turned the loss into a path of living. He decided that the best way to remember Tom was to live a life of joy.

10. My Love, Don’t Cross That River

In the Korean film, My Love, Don't Cross that River, we first meet 98-year-old Jo Byeongman picking yellow wildflowers for his wife's silvery hair. We are then introduced to Kang Gyeyeol, who is 89 years old and remains an ever-doting wife. The story is as delightful as it is sweet. They laugh and they play.

And after 75 years, the couple still poke fun at one another. The film follows their story as they navigate age, sickness, and death. You will walk away with admiration and perhaps even jealousy for their love. Their bond is something to aspire for.

11. 306 Hollywood

Sibling filmmakers Elan and Jonathon Bogarin explore their late grandmother's home. Approaching this experience as an archaeological dig, they discover the life and energy left behind in her things. The clothes, trinkets, dishes, and furniture once held significant value. How does that transfer to anyone else? Elan and Jonathan attempt to answer this question artistically.

They weave in film of their grandmother so that you, too, can make your assumptions. It would seem, though, that with everything we leave behind, a part of us clings to it.

12. Learning to Grieve

This film is about the bond between brother and sister. For younger brother George Shelley, his sister Harriet was a role model and mentor. When she dies, after a brief dark period, George takes intentional steps to keep his sister in his heart. He revisits the places that remind him of Harriet so that he can maintain his bond.

He joins a therapy group so that when he talks about her, she remains alive. Throughout the documentary, George describes how her absence affects him. If you miss a close sibling, this film will help guide your loss.

13. After the End: A Journey Through Loss to Hope

Filmmakers Andrew Morgan and Michael Ross journey across America to explore how people process loss. In their documentary, After the End, each person interviewed has discovered the path to embrace their sorrow. By grieving with honesty, they do not lose themselves in their loss. However, insurmountable pain is debilitating for some.

Brothers, mothers, husbands, and wives each experience their way to fill the void. And in most cases, it links to conversation and sharing. The filmmakers of After the End take care to approach people with humanity.

Managing Death and Loss

The passage from life to death touches all of us. There are ways to plan, manage and cope—and many people out there willing to assist you or your loved one. Hopefully, by viewing these documentaries, you can find some solace knowing that around the world, others share the pain of a lost loved one.

If you're looking for more film and book recommendations, check out our picks for the best books about death, the best books about near-death experiences, and the best movies about the afterlife.

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