Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America

Today things tend to change quicker than we can keep up with them. This includes everything, not just technology. An aspect of being human today which is undergoing a radical shift which you might not have noticed is death. The whole way it is looked at and dealt with. Out of this comes this Perri Peltz and Matthew O’Neill directed and produced addition to the HBO Documentary Films stable.

Told from an American perspective (though I would not be surprised if the same goes for Canadians), it is all about the changing ideas, feelings, rituals, and attitudes surrounding the end of our lives. From how we die to how we mark that life stage are all looked at. In today’s world we have become much less freaked out about it and much more of the attitude that it is just an inevitable part of life. Less scary and more “normal”.

Alternative ways of marking death or even dying have become more and more common over the last decade or so. This is in response to the world changing and our search for ways to find meaning of life – even in death – with celebration instead of pure grief.

This change of thinking or even action has led to a huge change in the funeral industry. In the 2018 in the U.S. it was the first time which more chose cremation over traditional (and more expensive) burial. This is significant as the funeral industry is an over $16 billion dollar a year one in that country.

Six different people, families or groups are followed over the course of this just over one hour documentary. Telling the tale of how they have decided to die or mark deaths. Their stories involve alternative death rituals like green funerals, living wakes and even having control of how you die via assisted suicide.


Drive through viewings are now possible. Urns are no longer called urns rather memorial art. Space burials are possible in which a person’s cremated remains are launched into space on a rocket. All this was news to me. All this is to switch something in our brains and hearts to make the ritual of death something easier to deal with for those left behind and something that fits better into our style of living today.

Living wakes are when someone is terminal throws a celebration allowing them to say goodbye to those important to them. Almost like attending your own funeral without as much grief. There are still tears, but somehow it seems easier to deal with than a body lying in a coffin.

In America there are six states and the District of Colombia which have laws allowing assisted deaths. Terminal patients are explained the process by a doctor and then given a cocktail of drugs which will end their lives. Anyone, including a doctor, can mix the cocktail, but the person has to drink it unaided. This allows someone to die on their own terms. Rather humane way of dealing with the inevitable along with reducing the pain that sometimes accompanies it.

This last part is what really wrecked me. It was hard to watch. Partially because it was beautiful and partly because you could feel how hard it was. Former Silicon Valley engineer Dick Shannon had been diagnosed with lung cancer which had spread. He was terminal. With no treatment options. Walking around with an oxygen tank he had mad the decision to end his own life when the time came which he could take it no longer. Dick, along with his son in law, builds his own casket, organizes a gathering to say goodbye to friends and selects the date. Sad, but you feel the relief he feels in going out on his own terms.

Interesting watch which made me happy seeing that we are turning, as a society, more towards celebration than mourning.

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