On eco-friendly funerals: interview with Amy Browne, co-director of A Will for the Woods

Amy Browne has a strange fascination: she’s interested in eco-friendly funerals. On a road trip from New York to Massachusetts in 2009, looking out over the vast and depressing Calvary Cemetery in Queens, she thought about what that space would be like as natural parkland.

Browne began investigating green burials and decided to make a short film about it. That film expanded into a feature-length project when she met a man in North Carolina named Clark Wang, who was battling lymphoma and in the process of planning his own eco-friendly funeral.

The resulting documentary, A Will for the Woods, was co-directed by Browne and three others (Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale and Brian Wilson). It was listed on the TED website as one of  “nine documentaries that you need to see this year” and described by The Huffington Post as “moving and inspiring…about a life of purpose and a death with meaning.”

A Will for the Woods is currently screening on limited release around New South Wales, including Sydney’s Chauvel Cinema on March 25. Browne discussed making the film — and the growing popularity of the green burials movement

Luke Buckmaster: Green funerals are becoming increasingly popular. You guys got in there early, when it’s still very much an emerging trend. What is it about environmentally friendly funerals and eco-cemeteries you think really strikes a cord with people?

Amy Browne:  Yes, when we started making the film in 2009 the movement was not mainstream at the time but was definitely burgeoning. There was an excitement amongst everyone involved, knowing that when people found out about this idea that it would have a profound affect. Not only because of the vast amount of land that could be conserved as well as the resources and emissions reduced if the majority of people chose this option, but also because it is a more meaningful and cathartic practice to a lot of people. It is comforting to know that in death you can be laid in the earth and give life to an ecosystem, quite literally returning to the cycle of life.

You are also changing the idea of legacy. Rather than just a marble headstone or “pointless tomb” as Clark, our main subject, says in the film, these natural burial grounds — which can be in forests, meadows, deserts — will be there into perpetuity, by virtue of being a cemetery that protects the land, hopefully forever. A living, protected habitat for plants, animals and humans is your memorial. I think people really love that idea and find it incredibly meaningful. I do.

Documentaries in part rely on finding good talent — interesting people to follow and study. How did you first meet and become involved with Clark Wang?

About six months into filming we met Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council, who then introduced us to Clark, who was battling lymphoma and preparing for his own green burial. Joe had been helping Clark to find a green burial site near his home in Durham, North Carolina, and actually connected him with Dyanne Matzkevich who is the cemetarian in the film. She was so inspired by Clark that she decided to protect the woods in her cemetery and deed them as a natural burial ground. Clark wanted to share his story to hopefully educate others in his position so that they did not have to go through the same angst as he did to find this option. He had become a passionate environmentalist through his battle with cancer, which he mainly blamed on toxins in his surroundings, so this was very important to him. When we were introduced, it worked well because we both wanted to share this same story.

Clark’s story is an emotional one: it’s sad, it’s touching and the film has many moments that feel achingly genuine. Did Clark have any qualms about having a documentary made about the end of his life? Or, were there things around the filmmaking process that he was initially uncomfortable about?

Not really. Clark and his partner Jane are such outgoing, honest and frank people that I don’t feel like they were ever uncomfortable around the camera. It helped that Clark so passionately wanted to get his story out there to help others, because he said that green burial was the one thing providing him with comfort and meaning at the end of his life. We talked many times on the phone before we came down to visit them in North Carolina, so once we got there we felt well acquainted. From day one, we were immersed in their daily lives of cancer treatment, going to home funeral study group and then later to visit his green burial grave for the first time as well as the casket that his friend Randy made from a recycled chicken coup.

Clark shows incredible bravery throughout the film and the camera doesn’t shy away from capturing him at various points in his emotional journey. Were there things that were left out, considered too confronting or not a right fit for the end product?

There wasn’t a lot that we considered too confronting because we really wanted to show an honest representation of Clark’s journey and he had asked us to follow him through to the end. Certainly, there were moments during the hospital and the funeral where we felt that it was more appropriate for us to turn the camera off and be there to support Jane and Clark’s friends instead.

A Will for the Woods seems to be intentionally about a person rather than a movement. The emotional crux of the experience is a very personal one. Was this almost going to be the case? Did the team ever consider making a film that was broader, or less emotive?

When we first started making this film, I thought that it was going to be this expository-style documentary on the modern funeral industry and how toxic, invasive, expensive, unsustainable, and sometimes exploitative it can be. I envisioned damning statistics and graphs showing the annual environmental impact of the resources used in burial as well as the fuel consumption and emissions of cremation, but the longer I spent immersed in this issue the more I realised that you can’t criticise or preach to people about this very emotional and personal choice. You’re also not going to make many friends in the funeral industry that way, and a lot of the funeral directors I met were the most lovely, caring people who are now our biggest advocates. Definitely not all of them though, I have to say.

We sort of did make that expository film though, along side following Clark, so the original cut was three hours and 45 minutes long. It felt like two films in one. At every test screening audiences kept saying we just want to get back to Clark. We kept as much information as we could, but we tried to weave it throughout in conversation and observational scenes.

Clark’s story will, I think, prompt audiences to think about their legacy in different ways. What sort of effect has it had on you in a personal sense. Has it changed your opinion about your own mortality? 

Yes, before I was involved in this film I only had negative connotations and a lot of fear and anxiety around dying and death. There were no positive or comforting representations in many films, books or other media I could think of, and certainly funeral practices offered no solace. Now I think of death as something I have come to terms with and accept. I feel freer to live life and go with the flow. What will be will be. I am also comforted to know that when it happens, my body will give back to the world, that has given so much to me, by nourishing the earth and maybe I might even become a tree!

While I have thankfully not experienced the loss of a very close loved one yet, I am very grateful that my first real experience with this process was with someone as courageous, open and prepared as Clark.


2 responses to “On eco-friendly funerals: interview with Amy Browne, co-director of A Will for the Woods

  1. Popular in Adelaide is Wirra Wonga, remnant bush in Enfield Cemetery that was miraculously left on edge of, so sharing authentic vegetation with, Folland Park. Giant sandstone shards at the entrance carry names while the grave quickly becomes simple bush. Glorious.

  2. Back home in Bermuda we bury our dead one right on top of the other in very deep graves. This saves space. And its ecological. When one fills up, you use another and wait for the other ‘byes to rot down a bit. My Dad was about eight feet down on top of his father I believe. Which is a kind of justice. My grandfather might be on top of his wife or on top of my mother’s mother. My grandfather claimed he was walking home one evening and saw a man working in the graveyard. Asked him what he was doing. He said he was digging his grave. Away from all the others? Yeah. See. Im digging right here by the east wall. Now. When Judgement Day come. The Lord will come and demand that all men rise and be judged. All you ‘byes would be say’n “Smith! Gimme my leg!” or “Brown, you got my arm.” Im gonna get my fixin and be over the wall and gone.

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