Green Burial: The Final Leg of Our Ecological Journey

Last month, AFI Docs hosted a screening of the documentary A Will for the Woods, a moving portrayal of the process initiated by Clark Wang—musician, psychiatrist and folk dancer—fighting lymphoma and facing a potential need for a funeral plan. He decides that his “last act” will be to die sustainably, causing no harm  to the environment. He discovers the “green burial” movement and one of its leading proponents, Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council.

Green burial is an alternative to limit environmental impacts of burial: no vault, biodegradable casket, in woodland or other natural areas. The grave is marked in a more sustainable way, by a fieldstone or a tree. The body has to be prepared without toxic chemical preservatives such as embalming fluids. Actually, humanity did this for thousands of years but the funeral industry promoted way more elaborated and resource-intensive funerals. In the US, about 2 million caskets are made each year (75 percent out of metal). The 25 percent made out of wood caskets require 45 million board-feet of lumber to produce. A typical vault requires 1.6 tons of concrete and conventional cemeteries require a lot of water and pesticides. The green burial movement criticizes these consumerist methods and offers ways to make a person’s last decision meaningful and sustainable. As Clark notes, this is a “far more spiritual use of my bodily remains than being placed in a steel casket.”


Clark dances on his coffin.

Clark—accompanied by his partner Jane—realized this and started his path towards this act. During the movie, we understand that green burial is not only driven by an ecological footprint motivation, but also by a deeper and simpler will to reharmonize with nature. Clark has to face a potentially imminent death. Working on making his burial simple helps him to face this terrible fact. As he says: “I feel very alive talking about burial.” The documentary is finally more about a spiritual journey than a to-do list to make a burial greener. With Clark and Jane, we meet Joe, executive director of the Green Burial Council, Dyanne, manager at two cemeteries, Kelly and others humans helping them in their quest for a sustainable and meaningful end of life.


Clark and Jane.

Clark says many times he wants to start a movement in his community. It is not just about him and his personal feelings, but also about his legacy. With Joe’s guidance and moved by Clark’s will, Dyanne creates the first green burial ground in North Carolina. The number of green burial sites has grown rapidly in the past years, reaching around 40 in the US. The documentary ends with the death of Clark and his funeral in the woods. Because during the 4 years of filming, Clark and Jane had put their privacy and intimacy aside for this movie, the audience develops deep affection and empathy for Clark. Even if predictable, his death is a tough, emotional moment in the film. During the burial scene, we feel appeased, if not relieved, when we see all these people Clark pulled into his journey gather for his final moment before finally becoming part of the lifeforce of the woods he is buried in and made part of.

You can find more information about the green burial movement on the website of the Green Burial Council. You can find information about upcoming screenings and the documentary on the official website and a 30-day Kickstarter campaign has been launched to fund outreach and distribution. If you want to donate, the campaign ends August 10th (though I’m sure you can reach out to the producers and donate directly even if you read this after the campaign ends).


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