Dancing on His Coffin
A Will for the Woods is a powerful new documentary, and a must-see for anyone interested in alternatives to conventional, commercial funerals. The film focuses on Chinese-American psychiatrist Clark Wang, who has lymphoma. Even though Wang seems to be responding to radiation treatments, he starts to plan ahead, driven by a passion to return to “traditional and natural ways of handling our dead.” We see him create a new path . . . though the woods . . . for his community to follow.
We quickly warm to the tranquil young man, a gifted cellist and pianist, who, in pre-cancer days, also played the accordion in a polka band. His commitment to explore options for an eco-friendly end prompts a phone call to the manager of Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest, NC. That conversation sets in motion the creation of a natural burial ground is a section of forest slated to be leveled for conventional graves. This is Dr. Wang’s “will for the woods” – and his legacy.
When the lymphoma resurges, Wang’s oncologist advises him to complete unfinished business. He goes to Ann Arbor to see his parents and enjoys a “last meal” with leaders in the green burial movement he now counts as friends.
When he sees his handmade recycled-wood coffin, Wang, an avid folk dancer, does a little jig on the lid and then lies down in it to make sure it will fit. His partner takes comfort in knowing that she can sleep on the futon beside this coffin during his three-day home vigil he’s planned. Wang’s peaceful yet straightforward approach to death is grounded in his faith and in the knowledge that his body will nourish the earth.
One of the most extraordinary, intimate moment in the film is during the ritual washing of Wang’s body after his death. The filmmakers’ camera permits us to witness friends and family lovingly care for someone we have grown to know and admire. While a few of those in attendance wear latex gloves and face masks, implying that a dead body is contagious, most let nothing come between them and the deep reverence, grief, and love they feel for this unique man.
Into Clark Wang’s inspiring story is woven footage about the national green burial movement. We meet Billy and Kimberley Campbell, founders of Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, the first conservation burial ground in the United States (1998). We watch Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council, test biodegradable Spanish urns in this bathtub water. (Spain, we learn, unlike the US, has strict environmental guidelines on what can be buried in the earth.)
We‘re also treated to a gorgeous montage of ten conservation cemeteries, all part of the effort to conserve a million acres for natural burials into perpetuity. This is land to which people will come because, as Kimberley Campbell puts it, “It reminds them more of the presence of life than just the aspect of death.”
A Will for the Woods has thus far proved a theatrical triumph for the four directors, whose passionate commitment to this project spanned four years. It has garnered a number of awards during its run on the festival circuit, and the filmmakers anticipate its release on Netflix. A trailer can be viewed at www.awillforthewoods.com.
Nancy Manahan and Becky Bohan
Founding members of Minnesota Threshold Network
Authors of Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond
Originally published in Natural Transitions, Volume 3 Issue 2, 2014. Natural Transitions is the only magazine about "conscious, holistic approaches to end of life." Print and free e-subscriptions are available at http://www.naturaltransitions.org/nt-magazine