A Will for the Woods contains many lovely images of nature, but the film’s most striking scene is set indoors. The documentary pays a visit to a trade expo for funerary services. You may find it disturbing that the way we memorialize our recently deceased is as commodified as farming equipment or massage chairs, but that’s capitalism for you. It turns out that there are many, many things that can be done with a body beyond simple burial or cremation. Your remains can be turned into a diamond or flown into space. You can be cryonically preserved. Or you can be buried in the most ecologically friendly manner possible.
This film is nominally about “green burials” a growing trend as awareness increases about how badly traditional Western funeral customs harm the environment. Embalming fluids are awful toxins. Coffins too are an insidious contaminant. Cremation uses a great amount of fossil fuel and creates pollution. So a simple burial in the woods, using only biodegradable materials and no embalming, is the most environmentally-friendly way to be laid to rest. That’s what Clark Wang wants to happen to him after he dies, and the movie is really about him approaching that moment.
As co-directors Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale and Brian Wilson join Wang, he has been suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma for years, and he knows that the end is near. The diagnosis caused him to perform a major reassessment of his lifestyle, and he committed himself to living his final years in as healthy and ecologically conscious a manner as possible. After learning about green burial, he spurred his friend Dyanne to open the first site for the practice in the area. Part of the doc focuses on her efforts to ensure that the Pine Forest Memorial Gardens can become an official sanctuary of rest.
But while the film ends on a standard “if you’d like to know more, go to these websites” title card, its main concern isn’t really environmentalism or green burials. It’s not even about how Wang has chosen to be laid to rest after his death, but how he lives now.
If A Will for the Woods has a soul mate among docs released this year, it’s not any of the issue-centric ones, but Life Itself, which also in part is about how to embrace death with dignity and how doing so improves how a person lives. Like Roger Ebert in that film, Wang seems imbued with a supernatural sense of grace and peace. Like Ebert, he has a devoted partner helping him along the way — his wife Jane. And both docs look at how their main characters have impacted the lives of those around them, the only real difference being that Wang’s circle of friends is a lot less famous than Ebert’s.
Formally, the doc gets to be more adventurous than Life Itself. But then, Ebert lived in a world of movie theaters, while Wang’s is one of forests and folk music get-togethers. Like How to Die in Oregon, the film centers itself in stillness, lingering on images and moments. It’s edited at an unhurried pace to deepen that tone. And when the time finally comes for Wang’s death and what follows, Browne and her cameras remain at a respectful remove that still allows the viewer to steep in the emotions that Jane and the rest of his friends and family are experiencing.
The unknowables and intangibles around death are what make it so scary, and Clark’s journey demonstrates how fear can dissipate if one takes control of what’s going to happen to them. This mastery is, of course, illusory. In the grand scheme of things, it probably won’t make one whit of difference who was buried green and who wasn’t. All bodies are destined to become atoms scattered in entropy.
But no one will be around for that. Here, now, the illusion can bring us stability. Wang, a committed Christian, embodies hope and optimism, and his conviction that he has a difference to make even after he’s gone, in the effect his earthly remains have on the planet, bears out those values. And it speaks to the larger reason that anyone does anything with environmental preservation in mind. We can be mindful of our impact, and act with the future in mind, or we can focus on ourselves. A Will for the Woods makes a strong case for the former over the latter.