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Scott Z. Burns

Series
Most Americans have a special way of discussing issues of death and end of life: they don’t. In this documentary series by filmmaker and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), five terminally ill people offer testimonies about life, faith, love, and fear from a place where death is imminent. At the time of filming, all five individuals were living in Washington State, where it is legal for terminally ill patients to have physicians end their lives under the state’s Death with Dignity Act.
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“Nature gives us a chance to have a last gift, which is really to give up our bodies so that there is more room for others to be born,” Sally, 84, told director Scott Z. Burns when he filmed her back in summer 2018. The piano player and singer, who passed away on October 27, 2018, was also an avid swimmer who imagined that dying might be like dissolving into water, or even turning into stardust.
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David, 54, said in summer 2018 that he didn’t know how his ALS would progress—and he wasn’t sure whether he should try to guess. But one thing his fall 2017 diagnosis had made him even more certain about was the profound importance of his family and his Christian faith.
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When chemotherapy no longer seemed to be working on Lee’s cancer, she had to decide whether to keep pursuing treatment or accept what her body was telling her. Her five children were clear about how they felt: it was her body, and her decision. So she opted to stop the chemo. Still, the 75-year-old said in summer 2018, “It’s so funny how you can get pretty darn greedy when it comes to your own life. I don’t want to die just yet.”
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There was a time when Brian, 64, said he felt he knew for sure what happens after death. Then, in 2013, he was diagnosed with ALS. (About 5,600 people in the US are diagnosed with the disease each year.) And despite believing he no longer had a future, he went on to run around 50 marathons after his diagnosis, and even to remarry—something he described, during this summer 2018 interview, as “a forward-looking act.”
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One of the most surprising things for Linda about being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer was how clearly she was able to see which relationships were most meaningful—and therefore worth her dwindling energy. Before her death on October 26, 2018, at the age of 71, she said her illness lent new gravity to moments of ephemeral beauty, and that having the right to choose when she would end her life made her weigh the value of each day.
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