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.