In one of the wackier gags in the 1965 film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved One” a funeral ends with the dear departed blasting off in a missile bound for outer space. Today that’s just one of the latest funeral possibilities seen in Perri Peltz and Matthew O’Neill’s lightheartedly morbid and often poignant documentary
“Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America.”
Given the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the missile option has special appeal. In a service provided by Celestis Memorial Spaceflights, the ashes of the deceased — here a beloved dad and husband with a love of the extraterrestrial — joins several other cremated fellow passengers as extra baggage, “a secondary payload,” on a NASA flight. Loved ones gather at a safe distance and cheer at the familiar but always stirring spectacle of a successful blast-off. They cheer again minutes later when a loudspeaker announces that the missile has entered outer space for a voyage which, depending on what you want to spend, can be suborbital, orbital, lunar, or infinite.
For the environmentally conscious, there are more eco-friendly options available. Memorial Reef International will mix cremated ashes with cement and insert them into one of its Coral Balls, concrete structures that, according to the website, are “engineered to facilitate new coral growth, house an array of marine life, and withstand current and wave action.” A grieving daughter in scuba gear follows her father’s Coral Ball into the Gulf of Mexico, to join a small village of similar sepulchers, one of which cozily houses an octopus.
More down to earth, Eloise Woods Back to Nature Burials, in Austin, Texas, offers a plot of ground in an un-landscaped patch of woods. There your loved ones can gather and bury you in a shallow grave, your body enclosed only by a biodegradable shroud. One customer checks out her future resting place and looks at the light dappled through the trees onto the hardscrabble patch. “Some lay down and say, ‘this is what I’ll be looking at,’” the guide comments. “But I don’t suggest it because you’ll get chiggers.”
Ever fantasize about attending your own funeral? It can be fulfilled with a “living wake.” The family of a Mexican-American patriarch stricken with terminal cancer gathers in a hall shortly before his expected demise to celebrate his life with a banquet. A mariachi band plays, people eat barbecue, look at a display of photos of his life, kiss his head. and make tearful speeches. The man says he is happy and without fear knowing he is loved. He dies shortly afterward.
A former Silicone Valley engineer, also with terminal cancer , prefers not to leave the circumstances of his death to chance. He has packed away a kit with a lethal dose of drugs (it’s a box on a closet shelf next to a plastic bin labeled “fancy clothes”). A few days before his final farewell he invites friends and family to a party where he jokes and serves drinks but afterward can’t help but observe that people seemed awkward and didn’t know what to say to him. A smaller group joins him on his last day, he drinks the fatal cocktail and lies down, his wife of 57 years by his side. Some are disturbed by the death rattle, but his wife sadly reassures them, saying that it is just his body fighting to stay alive.
All of these deaths are of people who have lived long, fully realized lives. They are sad but not necessarily tragic. But what about the death of a child? The parents of a 5-year-old son who has died of cancer are acknowledging his request not to have a sad funeral but a kind of carnival with bouncy houses, fireworks, Slurpees, and a solemn Batman who hugs people. His older sister has put together a memorial of her own: it consists of rows of small, plastic skulls, a toy Thor’s hammer, and her brother’s stuffed blue bunny.
“Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America” debuts Aug. 14 at 8 p.m. on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.