Interview: Jeremy Kaplan and Tony Hale (Co-Directors—‘A Will for the Woods’)

What if our last act could be a gift to the planet? Musician, psychiatrist, and folk dancer Clark Wang prepares for his own green burial in this immersive documentary.

While battling lymphoma, Clark has discovered a burgeoning movement that uses burial to conserve and restore natural areas, forgoing contemporary funeral practices that operate at the ecosystem’s expense. Boldly facing his mortality, Clark and his partner Jane Ezzard have become passionate about green burial, compelled by both the environmental benefits and the idea that one can remain within the cycle of life, rather than being cut off from it. The spirited pair have inspired a compassionate local cemeterian, and together they aim to use green burial to save a North Carolina woods from being clear-cut.

Making the most of the time that he has, Clark finds joy in his music and dance, connection with his friends and family, and great comfort in the knowledge that his death, whenever it happens, will be a force for regeneration. The film follows Clark’s dream of leaving a loving, permanent legacy, and environmentalism takes on a deeply human intimacy.

Documenting one community’s role in the genesis of a revolutionary movement, ‘A Will for the Woods‘ draws the viewer into a life-affirming portrait of people embracing their connection to each other and to timeless natural cycles.

David Teich spoke with two of the film’s co-directors, Jeremy Kaplan and Tony Hale, about green burial, Clark’s bravery, and much more.

Find Tickets and More Information for ‘A Will for the Woods’ – Here

How did you become involved in this project?
Jeremy Kaplan: Amy Browne and I met through a mutual friend at The New School University…She had learned about green burial from her sister, who had been researching the possibility of starting a green burial site in Australia. And so Amy started looking into what the options were like in the United States, and found out there was a lot more green burial going on in the U.S. than in Australia. Amy and I initially set out thinking that we could make a short film about this. But the project grew as we followed the movement. Mostly we were looking at Joe Sehee, the head of the Green Burial Council. From there we started finding more fascinating stories. We met Clark Wang through Joe, and the story grew at that point. We had been shooting for about a year and a half when Tony came in and started to work on editing.

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Why is the funeral industry such a big polluter, and why is the green burial movement important?
Tony Hale: Culturally, we’re a little bit afraid to talk about these things. And we’ve lost touch with a lot the customs and rituals that used to surround end of life practices. We just accept the way that things are done now, because we’ve [been doing it this way] for a couple generations…But if every person is taking out a plot of land, and taking a chunk of metal or hard precious wood and just putting it into the ground at the end of their life, that’s the opposite of the cycle of life, and it’s not sustainable.

Jeremy: A lot of other countries don’t use the same wasteful practices as the American conventional funeral industry, such as using heavy metal caskets, precious hard wood, concrete vaults, or embalming. There are many countries that actually hew very close to green burial. But the United States has been exporting its practices to other countries, and they’ve taken off in places like Australia, the U.K., and certain parts of Europe. You’re even seeing them a little bit in Central and South America. People start preferring these American-style funerals because they’re fancy and elaborate, and they feel like the more money they spend, the more dignified the funeral will be.

And as the film points out, even cremation is dirty.
Tony: Yeah, I think one reason some people turn to cremation is they want to opt out of the current system. But they don’t realize they’re still [polluting by] using a lot of fuel.

Jeremy: There are a lot of people who thought of cemeteries as a waste of land, and thought cremation as a great way to save land. But now people are coming around to the option of green burial—with green burial, you’re not wasting the land, but preserving it as habitat, and saving it.

What made you decide that Clark Wang was the right person through which to tell your story?                              awfw-clark_jane_ponder-the-woods
Jeremy: We knew Clark was a very special person within the first two or three days of filming with him. Originally we set out to cover the movement. But as we were filming Clark’s story and getting so intimately involved with him and his partner, Jane Ezzard, it became pretty apparent that they would be a big part of the film. It was during the editing process that we realized just how much they would end up guiding us through the whole green burial movement and its developments. We decided it was best to give an example of the whole journey of green burial, and have people emotionally attached to the topic.

Why did Clark want his story documented?
Tony: He found so much meaning in this, and he wanted to do everything he could to tell his story. He really opened up his life for us. I think it just meant the world to him to do whatever he could to get the word out [about green burial].

Did you feel a responsibility to do his story justice?
Tony: Yeah, absolutely. His story was such a guiding and unifying force for all of us– his presence, and knowing that we were doing this with him and for him.

Were you ever surprised by how the way he faced his mortal illness with such composure and practicality?
Jeremy: Yeah, it’s really incredible and unique how Clark responded to it… Clark was able to make people who had difficulties talking about death feel more comfortable, because he was so open about his predicament. A lot of times he used humor to do that.

If you were faced with the same situation as Clark, do you think you’d be able to handle as well as he did?
Tony: I’d like to think I’d handle the situation the same way Clark did. But the amount of bravery that Clark had through it all is something that isn’t easy to come by. Now that I’ve spent so much time with Clark’s story, I feel much more equipped to deal with these things. I think one of the biggest issues with end-of-life decisions is that we don’t have a language for them. Culturally, we don’t deal with these things very well. So knowing ahead of time how you want to deal with these things is just such a struggle.

awfw-dear-natureIn what ways did making this film make you think differently about your own mortality?
Tony: Dealing with green burial made me look at death in a totally new way—how it’s connected to life, and it’s this natural thing, which makes it much less scary to me. And this experience has brought more focus into my life—not thinking as though I’m going to live forever, but caring about how I’m spending my days, who I’m spending my time with, being present. I think that’s something that Clark was going through, and that’s definitely something that I learned from him.

Jeremy: Clark’s situation really shows what your priorities should be at the end of life, and how you can create meaning. That was why Clark was so drawn to green burial: having that sense not only of connection to the environment, but of a legacy that would go beyond just himself. He asked himself, “What am I doing every day to make an impact and create a of sense of purpose?”

He didn’t let himself become crippled with terror—he took this as an opportunity to accomplish something.
Jeremy: Yeah. Within the first couple weeks of meeting him, Clark was talking about the possibility of us filming his funeral. He was very frank about it, saying how important he thought it could be for educating people about green burial. And it was a tricky predicament to be in, because we grew to love Clark so much, so it was hard to be discussing the likely outcome.

Do you think it was therapeutic for him to intellectualize things and have these frank conversations?
Tony: I think he first understood things through an intellectual lens. And he definitely allowed that to open him up emotionally and spiritually. For Clark, intellectualizing things and understanding them made them less scary.

Jeremy: And the emotional side of things was actually a little bit more difficult for Clark. That’s where I think Jane, his partner, really helped him out. She was actually more emotionally in tune, and brought out a very emotionally-in-touch side of Clark. And I think you can see that in the film. There’s sort of an evolution: At the beginning of the film…he’s talking about green burial [from a less emotional standpoint]. And then it starts to be about his relationship with Jane, his relationship with his family, and his developing spirituality.

How do you think his friends and loved ones initially reacted to the idea of being filmed? Were they as receptive to it as he was?
Jeremy: I think some of them were a little baffled at first. They were just like, “That seems like such a Clark thing to do.” (Laughs.)…But they knew how important green burial was to him. So when we actually had a little bit of a trailer to show people, and they could see where the film was going, I think they understood what the film was about and why Clark was so passionate about it—that it was going to be an important vehicle to help get people to grasp the concept of green burial.

As filmmakers, how difficult was it for you to grow attached to a subject whom you know was not long for this world?snowy_procession
Jeremy: There’s almost no way we could have told this story without being emotionally involved. And to me that’s really important, because with such sensitive subject matter, people could feel like there’s a sense of voyeurism or exploitation. But I think it’s pretty apparent how genuine and loving we were towards Clark and his loved ones, and just how much of a part of their lives we were. Sometimes with documentary films people say, “Don’t get too close to your subjects or you’ll lose perspective.” But for this film, I think it was important to be close, and to be present as human beings, in order to get as raw and as honest as possible.

Tony: This is by far the most emotional project I’ve ever worked on.

When he died, did you feel that you were mourning him as friends?
Jeremy: Yeah. Amy and I were there in the hospital, and then at Clark’s funeral. We were heavily involved in a lot of the day-to-day arrangements—planning for Clark’s body to come back from North Carolina, helping to wash his body. And it felt like we were able to honor him, not only through filming, but also by being physically present and doing all these things that helped Clark have the home funeral that he wanted and the green burial that he desired. Just being there felt like honoring him. But the prospect of making this film and getting it out into the world is the biggest honor that we can give him.

Tony: And knowing that we were making this film at his request adds a whole other level of feeling. You think to yourself, “This is what I should be doing.” That really helps get you through it.

Do you believe that green burial can coexist with what we think of as traditional burial?
Jeremy: What’s ironic is that green burial really is traditional burial, and what Americans usually refer to as a traditional American funeral is very much a recent idea, starting after the Civil War. That’s when embalming became heavily used. And then funeral homes started cropping up in the 1910s and 20s. That’s when you started to see bigger caskets made of metal and precious wood, extravagant mausoleums, and things like that. Many other cultures actually practice green or natural burial traditions: burial in a plain pine box or in a shroud, using as few resources as possible. I think it’s up for debate whether green burial is compatible with the idea of a conventional American funeral. There are a lot of differing opinions within the green burial movement, and the Green Burial Council has spent a while trying to green up as much of the conventional funeral industry as possible: using less CO2 in cremation, making sure there are fewer toxins being put into the air. I think it’s an evolution. And there are some people who think the conventional funeral industry will push back at some point, and prevent green burial from becoming too large.

Tony: Technically you could choose either, so therefore there’s a place for both. But there are definitely profits to be made off of selling bigger caskets, and selling vaults that go into the ground. So there are influences that might lead people not to mention the green option. But if funeral directors and cemeterians are committed, like many are, to doing what their customers and families want, then there’s no reason that both options can’t exist side by side. Cemeteries could open green sections, et cetera. Time will tell, as green burial gets more popular, if we’ll see more of a pushback.

If you had your way, would green burial become more prevalent than so-called traditional burial?
Jeremy: Yeah.

Tony: I’m going to go on the record and say yes. We didn’t want to be evangelical about anything in the film. We just wanted to show how beautiful a green burial can be, and let people figure out from there if that’s something they want. But yeah, I think that saving lots of land, having people engaged with all aspects of their life, connecting our last act to life—all those powerful notions are exciting. And the great thing about this movement is that, unlike other ecological movements, there’s not much of a sacrifice. Other movements require that people cut out luxuries—taking a long train ride instead of flying, things like that. But here, there’s nothing in my mind that you’re sacrificing. You’re gaining so much just by choosing a different option. Hopefully that’s something that will make this movement move a lot quicker than many other green movements.

Have you ever encountered anyone who has been hostile to the film’s messages?
Jeremy: A couple funeral directors in the film are a little bit hostile. But interestingly enough, in the few years since, they’ve actually come around and become more enthusiastic about green burial. With green burial, you don’t really convince people with arguments. I think a lot of it is so experiential. A lot of the people who consider themselves very conventional—some third-generation funeral directors who have been embalming for many years—have stopped doing that after they’ve seen how meaningful green burial is for families, how enriching it is beyond just the environmental impact. It can get a little bit off-putting to put so much emphasis on the environment when you’re dealing with something that’s tied so sensitively to personal death and dying issues. But when people see this as a beautiful, honoring option—without having it forced down their throats—a lot more of them are willing to come to it than you would imagine. Like Tony said, we didn’t set out to evangelize. We set out to let people go through this immersive and experiential film, to see Clark’s journey, and to be able to make up their own minds about what they think of green burial.

— Interview Conducted, Transcribed, and Edited by David Teich

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