I’ve lost track of how many dizzying, sleep-deprived days I’ve endured since March 2020. I’ve struggled with occasional insomnia for years, but as the stress of the pandemic set in, my eyelids began fluttering open at ungodly hours of the morning much more frequently. Sleeping through the night became a rarity as illness, mortality, and the future of humanity consumed my every thought. These past few years I’ve spent countless nights tossing, turning, and staring at the ceiling while contemplating chaos in solitude.
One random Wednesday last August, however, a writer, a comedian, an Emmy winner, a film scholar, and an all-around savior of humanity called Brett Goldstein unexpectedly saved me from yet another pre-sunrise spiral.
Mere minutes after my usual 4 a.m. wakeup that day, I committed the cardinal sin of insomniacs and grabbed my phone to scroll through Twitter, where my groggy eyes zeroed in on two words: Free Willy. Goldstein had just tweeted a new episode of the podcast he started in 2018, Films To Be Buried With, which I’d been meaning to check out for months. Before bothering to read the rest of the tweet or learn what exactly the episode was about, I smashed play. I needed a distraction, and the thought of his alluring voice discussing one of my favorite childhood films for an hour sounded idyllic. I lowered my iPhone’s volume to a whisper, held the speaker to my ear, and prepared for what I assumed would be a relaxing, nostalgic discussion about a boy who befriends an orca. Instead, Goldstein and his guest, comedian Camille Ucan, launched into a deep conversation about…death.
Films To Be Buried With has a delightfully unique, albeit morbid, premise. “Every week I invite a special guest over, I tell them they’ve died, then I get them to discuss their life through the films that meant the most to them,” Goldstein explains at the top of each episode. He asks famous actors, directors, comedians, and other prominent figures in entertainment how they think they’ll die, if they fear death, how often they mull over mortality, and if they believe in some sort of afterlife.
After all that heavy shit, Goldstein lightheartedly welcomes his guests to Films To Be Buried With heaven, where all your favorite things are present and everyone’s obsessed with cinema. Then he talks to his guests about the most formative, memorable, impactful movies in their lives through his list of thought-provoking questions, which include, “What’s a film other people hate but you love?” and “What’s the film that means the most to you?” and “What film made you cry the most?” Finally, he asks each guest to choose one flick they’d bring with them to their grave to show at heaven’s movie night.
That August morning, while listening to the podcast for the first time, I heard Ucan tell Goldstein about the death anxiety she’s had since she was a child, and how the pandemic, the rapidly rising global death toll, and the feeling that danger lurked around every corner had taken her fears to another level.
She was just like me, only she had a name for what she was experiencing.
Death anxiety, also known as thanatophobia, is its own specific form of anxiety brought on by contemplating death, the process of dying, and all mortality-related unknowns. While already common, a study published by Cambridge University in 2020 found that death anxiety around the world has surged in response to the pandemic.
As I listened, I heard my own fears about mortality articulated for the first time. It was a topic that terrified me, yet listening to people speak so openly about it comforted me in ways I never anticipated. I rarely find time for podcasts, but in the weeks following that early morning listening session I started taking three walks a day and consuming Films To Be Buried With episodes in 15- to 20-minute chunks. I fell more in love with the podcast each episode, and rewound to start at the beginning and work my way up through all 182 episodes (and counting).
I found the philosophical-yet-funny discussions about mortality, chased with meaningful conversation about films — from critically acclaimed classics like The Godfather and scarring horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Goldstein’s underrated favorites like The Muppet Christmas Carol and Grease 2 — created a perfect balance.
Hearing others reflect on death anxiety and afterlife uncertainties not only broadened my own perspectives, but helped me feel less alone in my fears. As the pandemic raged on, new variants emerged, and more and more people I knew contracted COVID, listening to Films To Be Buried With became a surprising act of self-care.
Listening to thoughtful artists discuss their own imagined death scenarios helped get me out of my head, if only for an hour a day.
“Oh, shit. You’ve died.”
As an overly-cautious only child who’s always watched way too much television, I think about death more than a person probably should. I do my best to avoid perilous situations, but I still find myself worrying about everything outside of my control: car crashes, being attacked, getting shot, This Is Us-level slow cooker fires, every wild occurrence from the Ryan Murphy series 9-1-1, and, you know, global pandemics.
There’s something about making light of one’s death, however gruesome, that wrests its power away. In an early episode, Ricky Gervais imagines he meets death while trying to avoid a cliché comedy ending, like a safe falling from the sky. In doing so, however, he falls onto a spike that pierces his rear and exits through his mouth. Brutal. Later, Succession star Sarah Snook dreams of dying a hero so it’ll cushion the blow for her loved ones: She perishes in a space accident on a mission to save the planet. These episodes made me do the previously unthinkable: laugh at the thought of death.
Others force me to consider mortality through a more realistic lens, normalizing my fears. Actors Toheeb Jimoh and Yvette Nicole Brown claim the dream death: peacefully in one’s sleep at a very old age. Others touch on a number of very real and relatable scenarios, from getting pushed into the path of an oncoming train to dying from a broken heart, which is apparently a real thing that can happen. Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins, like many of us, fears dying in some sort of aviation catastrophe.
‘I can’t worry about dying and worry every single day about living…I have to just let one of them go,'” she said. “So I put all of my energy and worry into living.”
Another guest simultaneously echoed, challenged, and reshaped my views on death. In March last year, actor, comedian, and living angel Yvette Nicole Brown tells Goldstein that she used to think about how she’d die a lot.
“I don’t do things that could lead to it,” she explains. “I don’t go into large bodies of water, I don’t like flying over large bodies of water, I don’t bungee jump, I don’t ski, I don’t fence, I don’t accept duels.”
Then she reveals she simply stopped worrying about it.
“Real life became so perilous with COVID, and we had Donald Trump for a while, and there’s been racial unrest here, and just so many other things. I was like, ‘I can’t worry about dying and worry every single day about living…I have to just let one of them go,'” she said. “So I put all of my energy and worry into living.”
Simple, yet profound. Death is inevitable, and worrying about how, when, and why it will happen takes a ton of energy — energy that could be better spent trying to live life to the fullest.
Accepting the unknown
The uncertainty of what happens after death has long loomed in the back of my mind, and I’ve never let myself sit with the thought for long — that is, before my Personal Journey of Enlightenment With Brett Goldstein. Now I’ve imagined it all.
Several podcast guests are convinced that death is final and that no sort of afterlife awaits. Even if eternal life were an option, they fear it would come with agonizing boredom, restlessness, and inevitable eventual discontent.
“I don’t believe in heaven and hell,” Gervais says. “I think my reward is here and now. I think it’s finite, and beautiful, and amazing. We never live again. The chances of us being here at all are 400 trillion to one. That’s incredible.”
Others don’t care if there’s an afterlife. Instead, they wonder if they’re living their best life here on Earth. Comedian Pete Holmes reminds listeners of the futility of waiting around for something better: “This is it. This is it. And it’s enough.”
Some, like Jenkins and Snook, aren’t quite sure what awaits us, but feel it would be presumptuous to assume there’s nothing else out there. Brown and Ted Lasso star Hannah Waddingham, on the other hand, are certain an afterlife exists.
“I don’t even know how to live my life not believing that there’s a grander plan for all of us,” Brown says.
Waddingham wonders, “How can we be such balls of energy—For the body to break down, that energy has to go somewhere.”
Listening to talented people whom I respect and admire discuss important ideas that so rarely come up in interviews (or daily life at all, really) has been enlightening. Hearing some of them confidently place faith in an afterlife gives me extra solace in my many moments of fear and doubt. The podcast has no definitive answers for listeners, but simply listening to artists talk through ideas, articulate their own confusion, and share their personal beliefs is both calming and compelling.
Such wisdom is not limited to the pod. In a well-timed-for-me-personally episode of Ted Lasso Season 2, the team attends a funeral and lots of my favorite characters opine on their mortality. Goldstein’s character, the gruff Roy Kent, is initially kind of a dick about it all, but later hits us with the following truth bomb.
“When my granddad died I spent every single night for a whole year praying that I could just talk to him just once or see him just one more time like he was Obi-Wan Kenobi or some shit, and I got fuck all,” Roy says. “But it did make me realize we only got this one life and I don’t want to waste a second of it.”
Same, Roy. Same.
‘Til death do us part … or not?
Despite what you may assume from the title, Films To Be Buried With is a fun, uplifting, genuinely insightful podcast about films, life, and, yes, death. I started listening to it at 4 a.m. that day because I adore movies and Brett Goldstein, and those two things dominate each episode. The discussions about death are relatively brief and almost always buoyed by jokes, but they add a layer of depth that sets the podcast apart from any other I’ve heard.
Before I started listening to Films To Be Buried With, pandemic-related death anxiety weighed on my mind like an anvil. This isn’t to say that Goldstein or his podcast have completely eliminated my fear of dying (or that any of tit is a substitute for care from a trained professional if you’re feeling overwhelmed).
It’s done a hell of a lot, however, to help me process and unpack the dense, daunting subject of mortality during this pandemic while also making me laugh and providing a plethora of solid film recommendations.
“It did make me realize we only got this one life and I don’t want to waste a second of it.”
When I desperately needed help making sense of the utterly nonsensical, the podcast’s thoughtful discussions challenged me to keep an open mind and reminded me that death is inevitable, so we should make the most of life. For that I’ll always be grateful.
We might not know what happens after we die, but now, rather than stressing over endless possibilities, I find some peace thinking of Brett Goldstein’s daffy idea that “when you go to the other side it’s movie night every night.”
I still don’t know which movie I’m bringing, but I’m having fun, and feeling a little less afraid, while I figure it out.