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Determined that his last act will be a gift to the planet, a man prepares for his own green burial.
What if our last act could be a gift to the planet? Determined that his final resting place will benefit the earth, musician, psychiatrist, and folk dancer Clark Wang prepares for his own green burial while battling lymphoma. The spirited Clark and his partner Jane, boldly facing his mortality, embrace the planning of a spiritually meaningful funeral and join with a compassionate local cemeterian to use green burial to save a North Carolina woods from being clear-cut.
With poignancy and unexpected humor, A Will for the Woods portrays the last days of a multifaceted advocate – and one community’s role in the genesis of a revolutionary movement. As the film follows Clark’s dream of leaving a legacy in harmony with timeless cycles, environmentalism takes on a profound intimacy.
What if our last act could be a gift to the planet? Musician, psychiatrist, and folk dancer Clark Wang prepares for his own green burial in this immersive documentary.
While battling lymphoma, Clark has discovered a burgeoning movement that uses burial to conserve and restore natural areas, forgoing contemporary funeral practices that operate at the ecosystem’s expense. Boldly facing his mortality, Clark and his partner Jane have become passionate about green burial, compelled by both the environmental benefits and the idea that one can remain within the cycle of life, rather than being cut off from it. The spirited pair have inspired a compassionate local cemeterian, and together they aim to use green burial to save a North Carolina woods from being clear-cut.
Making the most of the time that he has, Clark finds joy in his music and dance, connection with his friends and family, and great comfort in the knowledge that his death, whenever it happens, will be a force for regeneration. The film follows Clark’s dream of leaving a loving, permanent legacy, and environmentalism takes on a deeply human intimacy.
Documenting one community's role in the genesis of a revolutionary movement, A Will for the Woods draws the viewer into a life-affirming portrait of people embracing their connection to each other and to timeless natural cycles.
what is a green burial?
Green burial is a simple and natural alternative to resource-intensive contemporary burial or cremation. The deceased is laid to rest in the earth using only biodegradable materials and without a vault or toxic embalming, in a woodland or other natural setting, often with a fieldstone or indigenous plant marking the grave. This practice can be used as a conservation tool, enabling the acquisition, restoration, and stewardship of natural areas. Simple natural burials were prevalent for thousands of years (and still are in many parts of the world, including in traditional Muslim and Jewish burials) before the contemporary funeral industry propagated the standard of expensive and elaborate funerals divorced from natural processes.
Stuck in traffic over the vast Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York, Amy Browne decided to make a film about green burial. She had first learned of the concept two years earlier from her sister, Sophie, who was researching the topic with Professor Roger Short of the University of Melbourne. While Amy had been curious about Sophie’s work, at twenty, she had not given death or funerals much thought, and conventional burial and cremation had not inspired her interest or awe. In 2009, Sophie came to visit Amy in New York and they took a road trip. Idling on the busy city overpass, Amy looked down on the stark cemetery crammed with tombstones, mausoleums, roads, and a scattering of trees. How depressing! What a waste! The place seemed spiritually, emotionally, and ecologically void — little chance for life, regeneration, or a meaningful legacy. Amy turned to her sister: “Tell me more about this green burial?”
That conversation led to what would become a four-year filmmaking journey, a collaboration between co-directors Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale, and Brian Wilson. What drew the four of us to the topic was not a fascination with death, but a realization of the life-affirming power of this new/old idea that our bodies can remain within the cycle of life.
Inspired by the concept, Amy began researching the topic, and soon joined forces with Jeremy, whom she met at The New School. It seemed that everyone they talked to about green burial mentioned Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council. They arranged to meet him at a funeral convention in Texas, where they were immediately drawn to his charisma and passion for the cause. As the sole environmental regulator in the vast and entrenched multi-billion dollar funeral industry, Joe and his nonprofit organization were a compelling underdog story. Following Joe for several months opened up the very large scale of this issue and demonstrated that this infant environmental movement was growing into something that could change funeral and burial conventions, as well as attitudes about death.
Amy and Jeremy heard from Joe about a man in North Carolina who was planning his own funeral and inspiring his community to think about green burial — and that he would love to speak with them. Within minutes of meeting Clark, they were immersed in his daily life of doctor’s visits, radiation treatments, and discussing green burial with anyone who was interested. They quickly established a close connection with Clark and his partner Jane during that first week in Durham. After only a few days, Amy and Jeremy were moved and honored when Clark and Jane invited them to follow his entire journey, and if he didn’t beat the cancer, to film his funeral and burial. Clark wanted the world to witness the power, significance, and beauty he saw in green burial.
While Amy and Jeremy continued shooting, Tony and Brian began the editing process, and the four of us started to form the film’s story. We were beginning an intensive, collaborative, and moving two-plus years of editing, working with what would eventually be over 300 hours of footage. Deeply compelled to honor Clark’s wish and see his story told, we ultimately came to realize that certain story lines and statistics would have to move aside to make room for the intimacy that had been shared with us, and that it felt more appropriate and inspiring for the film to represent the idea of green burial through the scenes of Clark’s life.
For all of us, one of the core motivations in making A Will for the Woods was to shed light on this profound environmental and social movement. At first, we were primarily fascinated with green burial as a strategy for land conservation and the reduction of environmental impacts, but as we continued working on the film, and particularly through witnessing Clark’s journey, we saw what a powerful spiritual experience green burial can be. For many, including Clark, green burial offers the unexpected gift of a deeper understanding of our connection to the natural world — of what it means to die, but also live, sustainably and in harmony with nature. We hope that the film will provide this comfort for others.
awards and reviews
AUDIENCE AWARD – Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
ENVIRONMENTAL AWARD – Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
AUDIENCE AWARD – Rhode Island Film Festival
"FORK IN THE ROAD" AWARD – Greentopia Film Festival
AUDIENCE AWARD – New Orleans Film Festival
PROGRAMMER'S AWARD – The Virginia Film Festival
AUDIENCE AWARD – San Francisco IndieFest
JURY AWARD – San Francisco IndieFest
JURY AWARD – Kansas City FilmFest
"★★★★ A Beautiful Rumination on Life, Death and Burial Choice … Advocating without preachiness and emotional without exploitation, this film is a lovely piece of work." Dan Schindel, Nonfics
“[One of] nine documentaries that you need to see this year … which no documentary fan should miss.” “Has the potential to affect not just individual viewers but the American way of death … Must-see.” Marianna Torgovnick, TED
“Moving and inspiring … The film is about a life of purpose and a death with meaning.” Nell Minow, The Huffington Post
“An immersive, heartwarming tale.” Elias Savada, Film Threat
"A truly moving experience, and a testimony to the difference that a single life can make in the lives of others." - Jen Chaney, The Dissolve
"Big-hearted and thought-provoking." “A Will for the Woods is more contemplative than preachy … that generosity makes for a finer film.” Chris Barsanti, Film Journal International
"Far more impactful emotionally than just an issue documentary … what we have here is, thankfully, something far more emotionally engrossing and ultimately intellectually rewarding.”
“A gorgeous, haunting, and lushly crafted meditation on one man’s coming to terms with death … another great documentary in a year that has become as chock full of resonant pieces of non-fiction cinema as we’ve seen in ages." Joshua Brunsting, CriterionCast
“The film has hit a cultural nerve.” Glenn McDonald, Discovery News
“A powerful, personal testament to the ‘green burial’ movement … with humor, eloquence, anguish and reflection.” Sylvia Pfeiffenberger, Indy Week - Indy Pick
“A Will for the Woods uplifts and inspires” in covering a subject that is “relevant in a profound way to each and every one of us.” “One felt the joy of a new beginning as deeply as the sadness of an ending. There was ample space for laughter along with the tears.” Bill Chameides, dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, THEGREENGROK
"A unique and unflinching examination." John Esther, Jesther Entertainment
“This movie will open your eyes to a new way of thinking.” John Angelico, San Francisco Gate
“Will make you reconsider how you want to die.” Indiewire
“An information-packed documentary … But more than that, it's an intimate and unflinching look at the journey a couple takes in planning for imminent death.” Melissa Barber, Death with Dignity
“A documentary not to be missed … [a] gem of a movie.” “I don’t remember ever so highly recommending a documentary … a powerful testimonial for why you should seriously consider green burial.” Fran Sorin (author of Digging Deep), Gardening Gone Wild and FranSorin.com
"Explores the dimensions of life, terminal illness, loss of control, premature death, legacy, burial, and letting go in a moving and profound way … it’s an important discussion that we need to address." Melanie Votaw, Reel Life With Jane
"A profound statement … a touching film and a very important one." Nell Minow, BeliefNet
"Up-close-and-personal … a documentary that environmentally conscious men and women will want to see." Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Practice
Additional press coverage:
Nonfics – 20 Necessary Docs About Death & Dying
Indiewire – Project of the Day
Filmwax Radio/Rooftop Films
NY Daily News
Film School Radio
The Screen Feed/The Tribeca Trib
“An intriguing portrait of American life in the search for the authentic and alternative in the maelstrom of modern life.” “Rich and multifaceted … I will use this in my teaching." Dr. Liv Nilsson Stutz, Lecturer, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Anthropology, Emory University
"A must see: A Will for the Woods is a moving and consciousness-raising film about green burial. It promotes a way of bodily disposal that is spiritually enriching, environmentally friendly and helps to protect areas of natural beauty. The beginning of a funeral reform in the U.S.A. that gives new meaning to death." Dr. Eric Venbrux, Director of the Centre for Thanatology, Radboud University Nijmegen, Co-editor, Changing European Death Ways
"An impressive, captivating, and powerful film. It is both an intimate portrait of the burgeoning green burial movement and a philosophical reflection on human mortality in a time of environmental crisis." Gary Laderman, Chair of Department of Religion, Professor of American Religious History and Cultures, Emory University, Author,The Sacred Remains and Rest in Peace
"The potential for the end of life … to promote conservation and renewal is profound, in this ultimately life-affirming portrayal. Highly recommended." The Midwest Book Review
"A tender, honest, and compelling portrait of dying on one's own terms. The film affords a touching and inspirational experience to sojourn with someone who lives fully, throughout the dying trajectory. The film captures a beautiful aesthetic, the lessons of which are as instructive for living as they are for dying." Dr. Nate Hinerman, Lecturer of Theology and Religious Studies, University of San Francisco, Chair of the San Francisco Bay Area Network for End-of-Life Care
Clark Wang grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and came to Durham, North Carolina to attend Duke University, staying for medical school, then working his entire career in community psychiatry. His love of music led him to become an accomplished cellist, pianist, folk dancer, and accordionist. In 2004, Clark was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which initiated a transformation of his thinking on food and the environment, and ultimately, on the impact of burial and cremation. Clark became an advocate for green burial and expressed a passionate hope for a better and cleaner future for all.
Jane Ezzard met Clark while working with him at Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Hospital. A New Yorker who found her way to Durham, Jane was not your average psychiatric nurse. She went against strict hospital conventions and became friends with her patients, making them laugh and dressing up in costumes. She and Clark each saw in the other a caring person who was dedicated to making a positive change in the lives of everyone on the ward. It was not long before the two went on their first date, to Clark’s folk dancing group. After Clark’s diagnosis, Jane was there to take care of him through it all.
Dyanne Matzkevich is the manager at Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she opened the first green burial ground in the Triangle Area. When Clark approached Dyanne about initiating a green burial garden in their community, Dyanne had already been thinking about it and was enthusiastic to begin planning. It took a lot of hard work and persistence on her part, but now the green burial forest stands and a portion is deed restricted in perpetuity. (www.pineforestmemorial.com)
Joe Sehee is the founder of the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit that established the world's first standards for green burial. A Senior Fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program, Joe has been working in the green burial field since 2002 and has consulted for land trusts, park service agencies, and funeral organizations. He was the driving force behind a project in the Galisteo Basin Preserve, New Mexico to use burial as part of protecting 13,000 acres. Joe is working on spreading this concept of conservation burial throughout the US and internationally. (www.greenburialcouncil.org)
Billy and Kimberley Campbell opened the Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina in 1998. It was here that Billy developed most of the standards for what is now known as conservation burial. Since opening Ramsey Creek, the Campbells have participated in the development of multiple other functioning projects. Ramsey Creek is currently 72 acres, which they hope to expand to 300 acres as part of their larger goal of conserving one million acres through green burial and other conservation initiatives. (www.memorialecosystems.com)
Kelly Lennon Weaver, a mother of two and North Carolina native, met Clark and Jane at a cancer support group after having been diagnosed with breast cancer. She introduced Clark to holistic alternatives to conventional medicine, which she credited with enabling her to outlive her doctors’ prognosis despite avoiding conventional treatment, and Clark introduced her to the concept of green burial. The three of them remained close friends — and even purchased neighboring plots in the green burial woods at Pine Forest.