In the new HBO documentary Alternate Endings, one woman hand mixes her father’s cremated remains with concrete she will have cemented inside an artificial coral reef. “That is the legacy,” a guide tells her. “Not only is it a resting place for your loved one, but it is an active, producing part of the environment. It’s creating new life, and will do so for hundreds of years to come.”
That’s either a hopeful or a dismal notion based on one’s spiritual understanding, but filmmakers Perri Peltz and Matthew O’Neil offer viewers little help in grappling with the real questions of mortality. Instead, they present death as yet another consumer choice that Americans, especially Baby Boomers, are approaching with more individualism and less respect for the sanctity of life.
Death has become an industry in the United States.
Alternate Endings opens with a national funeral convention featuring the latest offerings in death-related products, including customized, eco-friendly urns and caskets, video eulogies, funeral webcasting, even “handfuls of home”—canisters of Irish dirt to sprinkle over one’s grave, purportedly to connect with ancestral lands.
The film zooms in on personal narratives that range from baffling—a rocket carries one deceased man’s cremated remains into space—to trivializing or deeply sobering as individuals and families wrestle with the sting of death. At its best, the film shows a large Hispanic family praying, eating, and playing bingo together before honoring their terminally ill father and patriarch with a “living wake.”
But mostly, the film shows how the culture’s self-empowered “do what makes you happy” mantra has seeped into how people approach the end of life.
One terminally ill woman chooses a “green burial”: Her dead body is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud and buried in shallow ground on a rustic plot with a tree planted on top. “Some lay down and say, ‘This is what I’ll be looking at,’” a guide tells the woman ahead of time. “But I don’t suggest it because you’ll get chiggers.”
For one man, the ‘satisfaction’ of choosing his death does not alleviate his fear of the unknown.
The film’s most troubling narrative occurs more than halfway through, when Dick Shannon, a former Silicon Valley engineer with terminal cancer, decides to take his own life under California’s assisted suicide law. As Shannon carefully plots his final moments, from building his coffin to hosting a life-celebration party for himself, he expresses satisfaction that he will die on his terms. He and his wife keep a box containing a morphine cocktail in the top of their closet next to a “dressy clothes” bin until the day he decides to use it.
But while Shannon clings to his perceived autonomy, he knows death has the final say: “It’s bothersome to me not knowing what it’s going to be like. Is there anything after that?” That question lingers during the painfully raw scene when Shannon commits suicide. His wife tells a room of family onlookers, “I think he’s passed, whatever that means.”
Even with its powerful storytelling, Alternate Endings falls strikingly flat. While it glorifies human autonomy, it is unable to alleviate the sting of death. What it leaves out: The enduring and everlasting hope of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, one that enables believers to say with the Apostle Paul, “Death is swallowed up in victory. … O Death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55).