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HBO feature documentary Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America, peers behind the curtain and delves into one of humankind’s great (if least-attended) existential questions: Who gets to determine when and how one dies? The heartfelt film takes an affecting look at the unique ways people are delivering and acting out their last rites.
DIRECTORS: Matthew O’Neil, Perri Peltz
The touching documentary explores one of humankind’s greatest questions: Who gets to determine when and how one dies?
A funeral convention opens the hour-long film, highlighting the disruption occurring in the business of death. One presenter notes that the plethora of options, including customizations and tech alternatives, are putting a formerly stable institution in jeopardy.
Directors and producers Matthew O’Neil and Perri Peltz (who also produced HBO’s Axios) visit six families across the country, almost all of which have a baby boomer member with a terminal illness. Each participant has decided on an unorthodox way to honor their relationship with the end. These options range from celebrations of life, “living” wakes, green burials, the controversial medical aid in dying, and space burials—shooting the dead’s ashes into space via rocket. O’Neil and Peltz are careful to not insert themselves; they don’t employ narration and provide minimal information on the subjects.
Possibly the most affecting vignette belongs to Dick Shannon, a former Silicon Valley engineer with terminal lung cancer. Shannon, who is adamant about maintaining agency in his passing, utilizes California’s “death with dignity” law, which allows terminally ill patients to request medicine to hasten their death.
“My observation about the way people die, at least in America, is they… are not allowed the opportunity to be part of the process,” Shannon says. Most of the documentary participants echo this sentiment. “The part that bothers me just immensely is not being allowed to be part of that process. It’s my death. Go with what you believe, but don’t tell me what I have to do.”
Shannon does not second-guess himself. He mixes his medication in a nondescript steel cup and promptly swallows the formula. With his wife by his side, he tells his family, “Just know that I love you—each and every one of you.”
Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America serves as an ongoing study in both loss and the warmth of humanity. Here, death becomes a graceful performance that is purposefully artful—a unique canvas of emotions and experiences for those dying and those left to remember. The film is more of a gallery than a straightforward documentary looking for deeper meaning. Alternate Endings doesn’t push the viewer down particular philosophical alleys. Each story, each life, yields its own lessons.
Kahron Spearman is a music and film critic whose work can also regularly be regularly found in the Austin Chronicle.