Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America

Attitudes about death and end-of-life choices are rapidly changing in America. As the baby boomer generation is aging, more and more people are rethinking the ways end of life is recognized and are deciding to take control of what will happen when they die.

Some people who are nearing death and others who are recently deceased have chosen through planning non-traditional end-of-life options and meaningful remembrances. These deviations from the typical traditional funeral can range from celebrations of life and living wakes, to being launched into space, and more. We have discussed many of these unique burial methods and celebrations of life through the years in past blog articles, but never got an inside look at the people involved. The film, “Alternate Endings—Six New Ways to Die in America,” looks at what it means to be near death, either from age or terminal illness, and captures the healing power of honoring, giving thanks, and staying true to loved ones who have passed away.

The film focuses on six true stories of lesser-known ways people choose to die and be buried in America. In each vignette, we meet the family of the deceased or those currently in the process of dying. The film was aired a few months ago but can still be accessed online if you have HBO or Amazon Prime. For those of you who don’t, I will highlight the fascinating real-life stories it covered:

A Coral Reef Burial

Leila Johnson’s father always loved the ocean. When he read how ocean life has been devastated by dying coral, he wanted to do something to improve the situation. Mr. Johnson was dying and decided that if he couldn’t make a difference in his lifetime, he would do so at death. After much research, the Johnsons had Mr. Johnson’s cremated remains included in a living underwater memorial coral reef, through a company called Memorial Reef International. The film showed Leila mixing her father’s ashes with cement, adding a family photo she says will keep him company, and dropping the cement into the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. Leila then scuba dives to the seafloor to say a final goodbye, believing her father’s life has been given added meaning.

A Living Wake

Guadalupe Cuevas was dying of terminal cancer and was in renal failure. Guadelupe had lots of family and friends and wanted to be there to say goodbye to everyone and to celebrate his life before he died. Guadalupe’s son and daughter, Guadalupe, Jr. and Alicia, planned a living wake for their father, who said before the event, “I’m going to feel like the luckiest person in the world” because his wife, children, and grandchildren would all be with him at the gathering. On the day of the event, friends and family enjoyed food and music and made emotional tributes to Guadalupe. On their decision to have a living wake, Guadalupe, Jr. says they wanted to make sure that “the guy who’s leaving knows he’s loved.” Guadalupe died peacefully in July of 2018 at the age of 80.

A Green Funeral

Barbara Jean Simon, in Austin, Texas, had pancreatic cancer and planned her green burial, an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional burial. In the film, Barbara travels to Eloise Woods Back to Nature Burials with her best friend TJ to pick out Barbara’s burial plot. Describing the process in which TJ will wash her body after she dies, Barbara felt overwhelmed by the unconditional love she felt. When Barbara died peacefully at home in April of 2018, her friends and family wrapped her body in a biodegradable cloth and carried her to where she chose to be buried, in a shallow grave next to a newly planted tree. To Barbara, this burial allowed her to “share in nature’s rebirth” and experience an act of autonomy in the face of that which she cannot control or prevent.

Being Launched into Space

Sara Snider Green chose a space burial for her father, who she says was fascinated by space and time travel for as long as she could remember. Sara, her two kids, and a family friend, Lisa, were among forty-five families who came to Sierra County, New Mexico, to memorialize their loved ones by sending their cremated remains into space. Hitching a ride as a “secondary payload” with NASA, the families cheer as the rocket with the ashes of their loved ones is launched into space.

A Celebration of Life for a Child

Emily and Ryan Matthias had a five-year-old son, Garrett, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. When Garrett died, his parents respected his wishes not to have a funeral and instead held a party, a celebration of life, which took place ten days after his death. The event had everything that Garrett wanted – bouncy houses, snow cones, and lots of kids having fun.

Medical Aid in Dying

Dick Shannon, a former Silicon Valley engineer in Grass Valley, California, had terminal cancer. Having exhausted his treatment options, Dick decided to use “medical aid in dying” (MAID), a legal procedure in the state. At a doctor’s visit, Dick and his wife learned the parameters for how he should take the drug cocktail that will end his life. Six months later, with his lungs failing, Dick hosted a get-together of close friends to say goodbye, and later shared a last dinner with his family. With his loved ones at his side, Dick died on his own terms in May of 2018 at the age of 76.

Medical Aid in Dying is not legal in Virginia or Maryland, but is legal in Washington, DC. In fact, according to the Washington Post and other reliable sources, three D.C. residents used D.C.’s Death with Dignity Act (one of whom does not show up in the DC Department of Health’s statistics, which is likely why she isn’t mentioned in the Washington Post article) and another two filled prescriptions but did not choose to use them. With D.C.’s Death with Dignity Act of 2016, D.C. became effective on February 18, 2017 and applicable as of June 6, 2017. This act allows terminally ill adults seeking to voluntarily end their life to request lethal doses of medication from licensed physicians in the District. For more details on Medical Aid-in-Dying, please see our blog articles here.

To access “Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America” on Amazon Prime, click here. You can watch it at no charge if you don’t have HBO, and can cancel the HBO trial afterwards to avoid paying $14.99/mo.

Want Your Wishes Followed When You Die? Talk About It and Plan!

Some of us want to avoid the topic of death and dying altogether. As you can see from the examples presented above, the documentary, “Alternate Endings,” spotlights the subject rather than avoiding it. It presents planning in advance for what you want to happen when you die in a positive and thought-provoking manner, featuring stories of empowerment instead of avoidance.

The first thing you should do to convey your wishes to your loved ones is to talk about it. The following resources are helpful to discuss end-of-life plans:

The Conversation Project
This is a public engagement initiative with a goal that is both simple and transformative: to have every person’s wishes for end-of-life care expressed and respected.

Compassion & Choices
The goal of this non-profit group is to improve care, expand options and empower everyone to chart their end-of-life journey.

American Psychological Association | End of Life Issues and Care
This site includes information addressing end of life issues and palliative care. Resources include research and articles from APA and links of non-profit organizations that work on end of life issues.

Make Your Burial Desires Known While You Still Can

What if you were like Barbara Jean and wanted a green burial or Mr. Johnson and wanted a coral reef burial? How would your loved ones know if you haven’t indicated your wishes in your Advance Medical Directive?

Our proprietary 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive® enables you to set forth your preferences with regard to organ donation, funeral arrangements, and disposition of remains. The document also accomplishes several essential things. In your 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive®, you can appoint an agent and give that person the power to consent to medical and health care decisions on your behalf. This person can decide whether to withhold or withdraw a specific medical treatment or course of treatment when you are incapable of making or communicating an informed decision yourself. Our 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive® also contains our proprietary Long-Term Care Directive® that allows you to address dozens of important issues that arise if and when long-term care is needed and you’re unable to communicate your wishes. If you’re an existing member of our Lifetime Protection Plan®, you’re encouraged to contact us to create a new Advance Medical Directive with our Long-Term Care Directive®.

If you have not done Incapacity Planning (including our 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive® and Financial Power of Attorney), Estate Planning, or Long-Term Care Planning, or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, please contact us to schedule your appointment for our initial consultation:

Estate Planning Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Estate Planning Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Estate Planning Rockville: 301-519-8041
Estate Planning DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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