We consider death rituals savage only when they don’t match our own.Caitlin Doughty, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death
A few nights ago, I was at a friend’s birthday party when someone asked what we wanted done with our bodies after we died. I answered honestly: throw my naked body to carnivorous animals (hyenas, ideally!).* Everyone else wanted cremation.
As noted in HBO’s upbeat death-doc Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America, cremation is increasingly common in the Western world, overtaking burials in popularity for the first time in 2018. However, not everyone is getting cremated. The documentary dips into the deaths of six different people and their ‘alternative’ death rituals, though remaining somewhat limited by a Western perspective.
Some of the rituals are driven by environmentalism. At Memorial Reef International, cremated remains (“cremains”) are mixed with concrete and cemented into an artificial reef that is used to combat coral bleaching, allowing Leila Johnson’s dead father to be an “active, producing part of the environment” for centuries to come. Similarly, Barbara Jean’s “green burial” forgoes toxic embalming and wasteful caskets, instead simply wrapping her body in a biodegradable material and placing her in a shallow grave, allowing her body to “go back to nature” as quickly and effectively as possible.
Other rituals focus on the celebration of life, like Guadalupe Cuevas’ ‘living wake’ — a party held to commemorate someone nearing the end of their life. Many grieving people struggle with the feeling that they never got to tell the deceased what they wanted to say, but the living wake affords people this opportunity. As one of Guadalupe’s sons explains: “That’s what the wake is about — making sure the guy that’s leaving knows he’s loved.” Witnessing the ritual, it seems so incredibly obvious — as a way to find closure, and confront a loved one’s death as a community — that one wonders why it hasn’t been universally adopted.
There’s also a celebration of life for five-year-old Garret, who died from cancer. In life, he maintained that he didn’t want a sad funeral — he wanted five bouncy houses, Batman, snow cones, and fireworks. Here we can see the value of speaking openly about death. Silence, avoidance, and denial make things more difficult for the grieving loved ones who are left when you’re gone — with no clue what you want, they feel helpless. But because Garret expressed precisely what he wanted for his funeral, his parents, Emilie and Ryan, were able to fulfil all these requests. As Emilie says, “It’s okay to have these conversations.”
Then there’s ‘space burial’, in which 45 people’s ashes hitch a ride on a scheduled NASA rocket launch. The ashes are held at the tip of the rocket, “just above the American flag” — a moment of cringey patriotism that the documentary appears to take seriously. In spite of its bombastic and dramatic nature, space burial is perhaps the least interesting ritual explored in the film. One relative romantically describes it as “sending a bit of humanity up there to see what happens” (nothing will happen, they’re ashes), and it all feels a little anthropocentric, severely in contrast with folks like Barbara Jean and her eco-burial.
But the standout character of the documentary is undeniably Dick Shannon, a former Silicon Valley engineer who is terminally ill when we meet him. He has chosen the “Death with Dignity” route, in which he will “take a drug cocktail that will end [his] life” — an option that is only available in eight U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
Shannon dresses in yellow tie-dye shirts, slouchy, comfy pants, and an iconic combination of socks and Birkenstock sandals (Silicon Valley to the end), and maintains a sunny, cavalier attitude about his own death. To him, the choice is practical and reasonable, so there is no cause for distress. “Planning the final days of my life,” he explains, “gives me a sense of participation and satisfaction.” And participate he does, even building his own coffin with his son-in-law — a wonderfully morbid take on the masculine bonding rituals of carpentry.
Shannon organizes a ‘living wake’-esque get-together for friends to say goodbye to him, and even here, he remains lighthearted. As if it’s a graduation, he invites his friends to sign his coffin lid: “Feel free to write upon it, uh… but try to keep it clean.” Though people laugh and toast with him as he says “here’s to checking out cheerfully,” the party illuminates North America’s pervasive discomfort with death, with guests clearly unsure how to behave at Shannon’s final going-away party. “Frankly, it’s difficult for me to watch the people watching me,” he says when the party’s over. “You can see it in their eyes — you can see it in their discomfort as to what to say.”
Shannon’s final moments are communal, too, though this time limited to close friends and family. Holding the drink that will kill him, he toasts and says, “I love you all.” Surrounded by loved ones, imbibing poison with equanimity, Shannon here resembles Socrates in his final moments — unafraid, poised, and acquiescing peacefully to the Grim Reaper.
The only way to combat discomfort around death is to confront it head-on — to demystify and normalize this universal process. Alternate Endings’ willingness to expose viewers to dead human bodies — even more startling, the dead bodies of people who had been moving around and speaking to us just a few minutes ago — is one of its strongest and most significant elements.
Dick Shannon takes his death cocktail, and his loved ones watch and wait for him to pass. Where we might expect a cowardly cut or a ‘respectful’ fade to black, the camera remains on him. We witness his passing, even hear his ‘death rattles’. We see him go from living man to corpse. This is necessary, useful, and healthy. We are witnessing a process that is going to happen to all of us. It’s nothing to be afraid of — besides, how many living beings have you already watched die in nature documentaries?
Party guests described my request to be torn apart by hyenas as “apocalyptic” and “metal”. I didn’t say it to be shocking or edgy (again, this is a Western response — animal burial already exists in Tibet, through ‘sky burials’ with vultures). It just seems like a way to be useful, to give back to the animals we’ve exploited our whole lives. And it’s a truly zero-waste death ritual, something the world desperately needs right now. But somehow, the horrendous pollution of cremation, the toxic chemicals of embalming, and the “landfill” approach of burial are not viewed as “apocalyptic” in the West.
Remaining within the U.S., Alternate Endings does not expose us to a wide range of cultural perspectives on death (for that, try Caitlin Doughty’s novel From Here to Eternity, or photographer Klaus Bo’s Dead and Alive project), but it nonetheless manages to challenge some dominant Western views on mortality. The documentary doesn’t delve into radically different rituals, but its existence in an overwhelmingly death-denying Western world will hopefully move the needle somewhat, encouraging its mortal viewers to start thinking outside the box — or in this case, coffin.
*I’m still not sure what to do with my bones. Suggestions welcome.
Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America is now showing exclusively on HBO.
Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She also makes lil videos. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.