The idea of attending your own funeral or wake has been employed as a joke premise for movies and sitcom episodes, and it tends to be depicted as a narcissistic endeavor. Living wakes and “pre-funerals,” which do actually exist, definitely seem vain, but not all circumstances of celebrating a person’s life before they die are so egocentric. Ondi Timoner‘s Last Flight Home follows one family seizing a devastating opportunity to pay their respects to their patriarch before he takes his own life through medical means.
The family is Timoner’s own, and the patriarch is her father, Eli Timoner. He’s 92 years old and has been partly paralyzed for the past four decades due to a stroke. He’s also been living with a lot of shame because of his disability, which led to employment and financial struggles. Once a notable and well-to-do businessman who co-founded a pioneering and profitable airline and who hobnobbed with world leaders and celebrities was left feeling humiliated. But his family and friends never stopped loving him, as they now remind him.
Through California’s Death with Dignity Act, Eli Timoner was able to request the drugs that would terminate his life. Because the law requires a waiting period of a few weeks, for a variety of guidelines and pieces to the process, the whole family, including another daughter and grandkids in New York, is able to visit and spend his final days together with him. They’re also able to invite other visitors — most of them masked, as this all happened last year, amidst the pandemic — and schedule many video calls with old friends and colleagues.
What is so special about the documentary, aside from it being a way for Ondi Timoner to share her father, her love for him, and her experience with her audience, is that it welcomes us into the experience alongside her. We become another participant in the service and celebration, and by the end of the film, we are moved to tears as if we’ve also just embraced and lost a loved one we’ve known for much longer than the 100-minute runtime. More than mournful emotion, though, Last Flight Home leaves us with a shared catharsis, too.
The documentary never means to be a biographical portrait or tribute to Eli. We don’t even start to learn about his life prior to this moment, be it his career, achievements, or marriage and fatherhood, until well into the film. The archival footage and photographs and the stories of his past are just superficial aspects of who he is. To truly know and appreciate a person, we need to spend time with them, and his daughter grants us that. Sure, he’s not in his best condition, but it’s impossible not to care about who he is by the time we learn who he was.
Eli Timoner didn’t choose to plan his death in order to receive all the outpourings of love and affection and admiration (and documentation) he encounters during his leadup to his death. Ironically, it does turn out to be a means to shamelessness, though, albeit in a positive sense. His New Yorker daughter, Rachel, is a rabbi, and in his final hours, she helps him to shed the shame that he’s carried for so many years in order to move on in peace as well as with dignity. Just before death, it might be the greatest achievement of his life.
As if the past two years hasn’t been a big enough indication, Last Flight Home reminds us that we need to acknowledge and enjoy the time we have with loved ones before they’re gone. With most people, there isn’t this sort of plan and timeline for death. It’s sudden, no matter how old they are. Sit with them, hug them, tell a dumb joke with them, talk about memories and recount career highlights and hobbies as if you’re co-writing their obituary with them. There’s no time like the present, and there’s no feeling like the presence.
For more essential films about death and dying, including more about assisted suicide, check out our list from 2014.