On Halloween 2017, the producer/directors Perri Peltz and Matthew O’Neill attended an expo for the National Funeral Directors Association in Boston. The date was entirely coincidental, according to O’Neill, yet the conference room floor abounded with a disarming frankness, if not outright humor, about the rituals of ferrying a person from the living to the past (you can, it turns out, purchase a bust of the president of your choice to hold your ashes). Peltz and O’Neill, in their first day of filming for HBO’s Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America, found plenty of coffins – camouflage-lined, customized, styled with baseball bats – but also apps for funeral webcasting, hologrammed eulogies, ashes crystallized in glass sculptures, biodegradable caskets and jars of certifiably Irish earth (so one can be buried with a handful of an ancestor’s home).
What Peltz and O’Neill didn’t find was stasis. “Let’s rethink funerals,” one banner proclaimed. “What became readily apparent is the death industry – the funeral business – is being disrupted,” Peltz told the Guardian. Case in point: in 2018, for the first time, more Americans opted for cremation over a traditional burial. “We take for granted that the way one has an end-of-life celebration is you go into a coffin and you’re buried in the ground,” Peltz said, “and what we saw at that convention is the number of different ways that people are embracing the ends of their lives, and thinking about doing that final act in a way that’s meaningful for them.”
If you haven’t thought about custom urns, or a drive-thru funeral, or your digital footprint captured in a profile, or even your or your loved ones’ memorial plans at all, you’re not alone. Many Americans hardly stop to interrogate why we consider it normal, if not necessary, to go about the elaborate ritual of embalming to coffin to six feet underground.
Peltz hardly thought about it, either, until she started on a film that was originally focused on extending time before the grave. “Who doesn’t want to know about what’s happening in this space, about extending life, about new molecules that are being created that hopefully will extend the lifespan?” Peltz asked. But the producer Sheila Nevins encouraged Peltz to focus on the one subject everyone both shared and wanted to avoid. “She said, ‘You know what? We’re taking our eye off the ball,’” recalled Peltz. “We’re all looking at how to stay alive longer and quality of life, but really the one thing we all share is that we’re all going to die.”
The experience of death – how to honor a loved one, how to plan your final hours, how to laugh in one’s own sunset – form the through-line of Alternate Endings, which, as O’Neill told the Guardian, “brings you, in intimate, granular detail, into the lives of people who are very consciously figuring out how they want to handle their own end of life, and how to do it in a thoughtful, conscious, positive way”.
After five minutes of exploring the funeral market floor, Alternate Endings fades to a more tranquil view: a balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, where Leila Johnson labors over a letter to her recently deceased father. She and her family have arrived to place her father’s ashes in a “memorial reef”, a cement stand that works as both grave and replacement for devastating coral loss.
Johnson’s vignette – reflecting on how best to send the memory of her ocean-loving father along, mixing ashes with cement and tears with laughter – is one of the film’s six alternate endings. Around 10-15 minutes in length, the individual stories – poignant, moving, punctuated by laughter even as one’s window is closing – offer a glimpse into a more conscientious way, for those lucky with time, to define one’s passage on the earth.
Peltz and O’Neill found their six families through a series of networks, from end-of-life groups to funeral parlors to death doulas. Being a two-person crew allowed them to develop relationships with subjects that were “very intimate”, said O’Neill. “From the beginning, we said: we really want to be part of this. We want to show this in all of its detail and we think there’s a value in an audience understanding your situation fully.”
They had many insightful conversations with families, he said, that did not translate into filming, because of hesitations over the intimacy of the cameras; at certain points in Alternate Endings, they capture a loved one’s final goodbye or last breath. The families who did consent to filming “had a shared sense of purpose with us as film-makers that there’s real value in provoking a conversation about death and end of life and choices”, said O’Neill. “I think each of these families shared that sense of a mission in this.”
Besides Johnson and her father’s memorial reef, Peltz and O’Neill attend a living wake for the ailing Guadalupe Cuevas hosted by his boisterous family; a lunch date between Barbara Jean, a terminal cancer patient, and her best friend as they pick her plot for an environmentally friendly “green burial”; the launch of a rocket carrying Sara Snider Green’s father’s ashes to space; Dick Shannon’s last supper before he ends his cancer battle with a drug cocktail, an occasion that is searingly heavy and comforting at once; and the celebration of life party – bouncy houses and snow-cone machine included – for Emily and Ryan Mathias’s five-year-old son Garrett, who requested, before his death from cancer, that he not have a sad funeral.
The portraits are “wildly different”, said O’Neill, but linked by “a deep love and respect in each of the stories, for the people who are trying to navigate these moments. Part of that love is humor, part of that love is thoughtful conversation.”
Both Peltz and O’Neill maintain that those conversations – the potential to look at the end of life directly, with dignity instead of fear – hold the purpose for the film. Death is a topic characterized by avoidance and discomfort, but “we’ve all got to figure it out”, said O’Neill. “The stories that were shared with us, we think, are really constructive for other people to use and reflect on and pivot off of and provoke, hopefully, that conversation that you weren’t sure you wanted to have with your mother, or your brother, or your child.”
Peltz added that even having the conversation was a step in a positive direction. The film demonstrates that, of course, there are moments of sadness inherent in such discussions. “But they are conversations worth having,” she said, “and the people’s lives that we’ve followed and their stories are inspiring and empowering and uplifting.”