In the United States, funerals often seem to be at war with death’s decay. Rather than let our bodies decompose into the soil, we embalm and coat them in makeup, seal them in wood and metal caskets, lower them into waterproof vaults. Despite their prevalence, these funerals are far from “traditional,” in contrast to the simpler way most people have been laid to rest in the centuries — just a body placed in the ground. A Will for the Woods follows one man at the end of his life as he plans for a meaningful death through green burial.
The documentary, opening this weekend at Village East Cinema, is a collaboration between co-directors Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale, and Brian Wilson. It premiered last year, but the small budget film is still gradually getting attention for its intimate look at how burial can have an ecological impact.
“I’d like to use whatever time I have left to help set a pattern in our community of going back to really traditional and natural ways of handling our dead,” says Clark Wang, the central figure of the film. Diagnosed with lymphoma, Wang has his coffin built from reclaimed wood, learns about the washing by hand that his partner Jane Ezzard will carry out on his corpse, and visits the Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest, North Carolina. There he hopes that his death will help preserve a section of woods from being razed by turning it into a green burial section of the cemetery.
“I think what people really want to know is that their last act isn’t contributing to the pollution of the planet and maybe in some way is helping to heal it,” says Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council, in the film. Billy Campbell, cofounder of Ramsey Creek in South Carolina, the first conservation cemetery, later adds: “The best examples of tall grass prairie left in places like Iowa are all cemeteries […] If by accident a cemetery can save significant biodiversity elements, why couldn’t you do it by design?”
The film briefly touches on the harmful toxins used in embalming, the fuel burned for cremation, and the magnificent waste of material used in mainstream cemeteries in the United States, issues famously confronted in Jessica Mitford’s 1963 The American Way of Death. But it doesn’t go into much detail on the benefits of green burial, where a biodegradable shroud or urn are the only things between you and the land. Mostly the film centers on Wang, who is an engaging figure in his activism for green burial and in his harrowing decline. It’s remarkable that the team of young filmmakers got access to such vulnerable moments of his life, and death in 2011, such as the excruciating scene at his final hospital bed, his body riddled with machines (a major contrast to the leafy nature he loved) and his slack body in its coffin, family and friends gathering around in his home to mourn.
As someone who leads cemetery tours around the New York City area and frequently writes on memorialization, I probably get asked more than most: how do you want to be buried? Usually people are surprised when I don’t say in a cemetery, as it still seems like the only option to many (although cremation is gaining ground). What you do with your last act, or what you do for a loved one as your last act for him or her, can be something that has meaning beyond one life. A Will for the Woods is arguing that it can help preserve something beautiful.