9 Insightful End-of-Life Documentaries Everyone Should See

Published December 18, 2020
senior woman grieving

Preparing for the end of life is not an easy task. Conversations about death and dying, or about the particular wishes of a loved one, can be difficult and awkward. End of life documentaries can help you observe how others handle the difficult issues, providing a way to prepare to navigate the decisions and the accompanying feelings.

End of Life Documentaries Worth Seeing

Here are nine end of life documentaries that everyone should see. The films are listed in no particular order.

End of Life

This moving film captures the last years of five different people in the process of dying. Their stories are told in very personal settings, from very real homes and hospital rooms. The intimacy of the project allows the view to reflect on personal situations and feelings almost without pause. Even with a very disruptive subject, End of Life remains a beautiful and uplifting film.

Passing On

Conversations about death and dying are sensitive and uncomfortable, almost regardless of the time or the culture. The documentary, Passing Onproduced by the Arizona Public Media, explores the end of life through a series of stories about real people and touching situations. The film emphasizes that everyone may address the idea of death differently, but that it is one of the few things that everyone has in common.

Gates of Heaven

Losing a loved one is a difficult process, and many books and films have documented the journey that some choose to take. Gates of Heaven speaks to people about the pets they have lost and about the story involved in deciding to bury them. Through the stories of profoundly normal people and profoundly quirky circumstances, the documentary presents a story of the respect there is for life.

Heaven Is for Real

A book made into a feature-length film, Heaven Is for Real is the true story of a four-year-old son of a pastor who, during an emergency surgery, slipped from a conscience state to a state that he can only describe as heaven. His survival story recounts being able to see doctors operating and his father praying. Told by the father, but often in the boy's own words, the story has a simple message that is still likely to rattle the mind and the heart. People from a faith perspective will be encouraged, but everyone should leave the film thinking and talking.

How to Die in Orgeon

Assisted suicide, sometimes known as death with dignity, provides the main focus of How to Die in Oregon. The documentary touches decisions that people with terminal illnesses are forced to make as they attempt to control the end of their life on their own terms. Oregon was monumental in passing a Death with Dignity Act (DWDA) in 1997 allowing people to self-administer a lethal dose of medicine. The interesting take on the people in this film is they did not want to die, but they particularly did not want the state nor a religion to make the decision for them.

Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America

Non-traditional experiences of death and dying are becoming increasingly popular. Green burials provide a more environmentally friendly alternative to a typical cemetery. Even celebration of life ceremonies rather than the traditional funeral remembers a loved one differently. Alternate Endings looks at six non-traditional ways of death and dying including space burials, coral reef burials and death with dignity.

So Much So Fast

Many sports fans remember the movie, The Pride of the Yankees, chronicling the story of Lou Gehrig who died of ALS - a disease often associated with the famous first baseman. So Much So Fast documents the lives of two brothers who were forced to face death squarely. The disease was again the rare Amyotrophic Lateral Scleroris (ALS). Stephen Heywood resolved to live is life in the best way he could, carrying on a normal life until he could no longer do so. His older brother Jamie decided instead to throw himself into the fight, hoping to find a way that his brother Stephen could live. The story is not only moving to watch Stephen calmly approach death, but to see Jamie do everything in his power to champion a cause that few others even knew existed.

The Bridge

On average, once every two weeks someone attempts suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The total suicide rate in the United States has increased 35% over the last twenty years to become one of the top ten leading causes of death. The Bridge captures 23 of the 24 known suicides that took place on the bridge in 2004. The director filmed the bridge for the entire year, then tracked down the friends and families of the victims. The troubling fact emerges that if you view the film, you will watch people die. You will also hear of the lives, pain, and turmoil of real people, and you will hear the real reactions of those left behind.

Life Itself

Gene Siskel was an American journalist for the Chicago Tribune and a film critic for public television. Siskel learned that he had a fatal brain tumor and kept the knowledge secret from all but his closest family. Even his television partner, Roger Ebert, did not know the extent of the illness until after his death. Ebert vowed to not react the same way if facing similar circumstances. Ebert later developed jaw cancer and approached his final days with candor and humor. Life Itself serves as a biography of Ebert's journey. As Ebert undergoes painful medical procedures, the camera rolls, and Ebert's legacy will be just as powerful for his calm attitude towards death as it was for his scathing criticism of movies.

Watching Others Navigating Problems Has Benefit

The emotions felt and decisions made during the passage from life to death of a loved one touches everyone. While all progress through stages of mourning differently, understanding that others have similar feelings and difficulties helps manage the process. Viewing end of life documentaries provide comfort and encouragement by knowing that other share the pain of losing a loved one.

9 Insightful End-of-Life Documentaries Everyone Should See