Leila Johnson looks toward the camera, sad-eyed and visibly weary, the Gulf of Mexico behind her. “He loved the ocean and spent his whole life on the water,” she says of her deceased father. “So I did research and spent a lot of time on trying to figure out what would be right, how to honor him, what felt good.” What Johnson decided was to bury her father’s remains, with the help of an organization called Memorial Reef International, in a “reef ball” at the bottom of the ocean. The reef ball structure is designed to last 500 years and is supposed to help offset the global decline of coral reefs — new life created from death.
What Johnson decided was to bury her father’s remains in a “reef ball” at the bottom of the ocean.
Johnson’s story is one of several vignettes in a new hour-long HBO documentary (which premiered Aug. 14) “Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America.” The camera stays with Johnson, her mother and her aunt, as the three women prepare their loved one’s cremated remains for their centuries under the sea. They include family photographs with his reef ball — “to keep him company,” Johnson says — and write him messages. Johnson dons a scuba outfit to submerge the reef ball and bid her father a final goodbye. It’s an undeniably odd scene, but a moving one, too — a daughter choosing to lay her father to rest in a way that would have meant something to him in life.
“Alternate Endings,” directed by Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz, follows six Americans who forgo the classic funeral. Instead of more traditional burials, the filmmakers follow an eco-burial with at-home body preparation, a carnival, a living wake to allow the guest of honor to say goodbye, cremains rocketed into outer space, a drive-thru casket viewing and self-given eulogies via hologram, among others.
The point of the film is that Americans, who often define themselves as people in pursuit of independence and individuality in life, are now seeking those same ideals in death. The film credits the baby boomer generation, now reaching its older years, with this change. As subject (and baby boomer) Dick Shannon, who is terminally ill and chooses to take advantage of California’s “death with dignity law” says, “My observation about the way people die, at least in America, is they ... are not allowed the opportunity to be a part of the process.” He dies on camera in this film, on his chosen day and in his chosen way.
“Seeing death as it is is something that’s worthwhile,” one of the “Alternate Endings” filmmakers Matthew O’Neill told me. “Part of the theme of this film is that death is hidden and kept at a distance and worthwhile, but death is a part of life.”
While the film gracefully handles these personal stories, it is also a reminder that the $16 billion a year funeral industry is in the midst of immense disruption. Since roughly the Civil War, funerals in the United States have mostly followed a formula; when a person dies, their body and the mourning preparations are handled by a professional. The process is sanitized, depersonalized and expensive — the median price for a funeral including embalming, a casket, a viewing and a burial, costs $7,000 to $8,000.
While the film gracefully handles these personal stories, it is also a reminder that the $16 billion a year funeral industry is in the midst of immense disruption.
But over the last half century, things have begun to change. For one, cremation has grown exponentially in popularity due to a combination of economics, environmental concerns, and changes in religious allowances. In 1960, 3.6 percent of Americans chose cremation; in 2016, 50.1 percent did, according to the National Museum of Funeral History.
“I have budgeted for funeral homes since 1983, and it used to be like clockwork,” David Nixon, a management consultant who specializes in funeral homes, said in an interview. “This industry was once considered recession proof, but the Great Recession proved that to be false. There’s also a shrinking middle class and they oftentimes don’t have the resources to be spending $6, 7, 8 thousand dollars on a burial. And guess what? Cremation is cheaper.”
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Genevieve Keeney, president of the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, believes a lot of the changes in funeral practices are, in part, a factor of changing generational priorities. “I think the way we live life today, a traditional funeral is not fitting,” she told me.
One of the “Alternate Endings” subjects, Barbara Jean, who is terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, chooses a green burial. It is a process that forgoes toxic embalming fluid and in exchange opts to bury the body wrapped in organic materials so that it can decompose, filling the soil around it with nutrients. “Being able to give back to the earth just really resonated with me,” Jean says of her decision. She also chose to forgo the work of a funeral home, having her friends wash and prepare her body for burial, which they do in her home and on camera. Tanya Marsh, a professor who teaches a course on funeral and cemetery law at Wake Forest University, argues that practices like this, which may seem "new age" to outsiders, are in fact a return to the past. “For most of human history people have taken care of their own dead. People are trying to return to a neo-traditional way,” Marsh says. “What is artificial is what we’ve been doing for the last 100 years.”
Dani LaVoire, who is the president-elect of the National Home Funeral Alliance — which educates and advocates about home and after-death care — believes this return to a more hands-on approach will also help people with grief. “Any way that you choose to participate more fully in the death care process can have an impact on your grief process,” she says.
What becomes clear in watching “Alternate Endings,” and considering its message, is that an increasing number of Americans want something different when it comes to death — they want to be a part of it. During the opening of “Alternate Endings,” an interviewee on the floor of the National Funeral Directors Association convention says: “In the next 10 years I believe a lot of funeral homes will end up closing just because they’re afraid of change. Those who are unafraid of change, they will be very successful.”
Watching this film, his words ring true. Funerals as we know them are changing, and perhaps for the better. Death doesn’t have to be impersonal and sanitized — why not use our final act to reflect what mattered most to us in life?