“Without this,” Clark Wang says, “dying from lymphoma feels so empty and meaningless and pointless.” Dr. Wang was diagnosed in 2003, and we meet him as he is running out of options for treatment. His doctor tells him it is a matter of months. His choice for making his death meaningful is to seek out a “green” burial. He persuades a local cemetery to preserve a tract of forest instead of cutting it down to extend the lawn area. He finds someone who can make a coffin coffin for him out of reclaimed wood. We see him try it on for size, joking that “I’m going to be here for a while.” He approves. “It’s the exact style that I want to go out in.” And, in a moment of both celebration and defiance, he dances on its cover.
“A Will for the Woods” is a documentary about the small but urgent movement for eco-burial. But its focus on Dr. Wang, a psychiatrist and musician, makes it a profound statement about death and therefore about life. While some people in the film speak in euphemisms and indirection, and even Wang himself uses terms like “burial is a very likely outcome,” the way that he and his partner Jane confront what is happening to maintain a sense of dignity, honesty, and control is both moving and inspiring. It is not surprising that this film has won audience awards at four film festivals so far.
“It’s comforting to know I’ll be in such a beautiful place,” Wang says. He speaks of learning to “befriend death,” to make sure that his last act is not an act of pollution. Jane tells him what she will do after he dies, how she will wash his body and spend time with it, caring for him in a way he can no longer care for himself.
This is a touching film and a very important one. It is about dying with dignity, but it is also about living with grace. Just as Dr. Wang approached his own death with purpose and honor, the filmmakers have done the same in telling his story and making it ours as well.