Documentary Review — “Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America” is a real tear-jerker

A dying grandpa is feted by his family at a “Living Wake.”

An ocean-loving father dies and becomes part of an artificial “Memorial Reef.”

An environmental Texan checks out the scrub pine forest where she’ll be laid to rest without an expensive coffin or toxic preservatives, a “Green Burial” in “Moondancer Garden.”

A professor who loved spaceflight is sent into orbit in New Mexico, part of the “Space Burials” idea that’s come to fruition after decades of promise.

A dying Silicon Valley engineer bravely faces, with his wife, the toxic cocktail that will end his life “on his terms,” part of the new “Death with Dignity” trend.

And a little boy, dying of cancer, decrees that there be no funeral, but a “Celebration of Life” that includes bouncy houses, snow-cone making, a cookout and fireworks.

Whatever else they can claim as legitimate contributions to the culture, the Baby Boomers can be celebrated for reinventing death and funerals, a point driven home by the poignant HBO Documentary, “Alternative Endings: Six New Ways to Die In America.” It’s shifting attitudes and an overnight sea change in the extravagant, expensive and increasingly disreputable funeral “industry,” changes driven by a generation that has done precious little the way their ancestors always did it.

Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz’s film covers no real new ground, as most of the six segments in their film cover widely reported trends and mimic feature stories we’ve seen on newscasts and news magazines in recent years.

They structure their film from the easiest burial — the father buried at sea has already passed and been cremated — to the most wrenching, and earn their tears the old-fashioned way.

They focus on people facing the end with a dignity and openness that this subject didn’t really allow until recently. It’s still sanitized, in some ways. We see no one wasting away in a nursing home, vegetative and barely cognizant of their surroundings. These are all pioneers who are taking charge of the end, having it their way and getting all that love, in several cases, before they’re dead and can’t appreciate it.

“It’s my death,” Dick Shannon, the engineer says, and he’s taking charge of it. He takes advantage of California’s “assisted” death laws to plan his departure via a prescribed cocktail that he, his wife and close friends will help him mix for him to take when the lung cancer that’s eaten him alive brings him close to the end.

Following the Green Burial of Barbara Jean in Texas with the Celestis missile launch in New Mexico creates the contrast between an environmentally responsible, carbon neutral funeral where friends wash her body and put it in a bio degradable sack with a tree seedling, “a big ask” of friends, Barbara Jean notes, and the polluting, ostentatious and somewhat pointless rocket into orbit burial.

Then you see how delighted friends and family are with the spectacle, the grandkids hearing mom’s glee that “Grandpa Tuna’s an astronaut, now!” It’s downright joyous, and who are we to quibble?

An opening scene, capturing footage at a recent Boston National Funeral Director’s Association convention, is accompanied by graphics showing the nation turning away from metal casket/rent-the-funeral home/hire a preacher funerals that have cost people a fortune for a century, towards cheaper, lower impact cremations.

We also see all the ways funeral homes are adjusting, upscale urns, holographic “last messages” and other up-selling points added to their business as the ground falls away underneath them.

Many such enterprises will fail, we hear. But as cremation costs rise, there’s little reassurance in that. They’re still going to get you coming and going. Maybe not as much.

And if “Alternative Endings” hastens the sea change that takes this stressful, wasteful expense off people’s mind a bit sooner, HBO is doing us all a public service.


MPAA Rating: unrated

Credits: Directed by Matthew O’Neill, Perri Peltz. An HBO Films release.

Running time: 1:07

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