Going Home

Coincidentally, I was asked to dig a grave for a cat last week, within days of long-standing plans I had to get together with friends and watch a documentary about “green burials” for humans. (Some people watch soccer, but this is what we do.)

Most of my friends and neighbors rent apartments here in Brooklyn, and few of us have access to any patch of dirt large enough to bury a pet in, so once in a while we’re asked to inter someone’s beloved cat. It’s a favor, but one I’ve honestly begun to enjoy. I’ve learned to pick a good spot, away from any other skeletons that might be sleeping, and to record where the surrounding flowers are, the way the art department on a film does while location shooting.


I’ve learned to wet the ground a day ahead of time so that it’s soft but not mushy, and to use the square-edged shovel to dig turf up first, and to keep it separate, and then to have plenty of tarps and tubs on hand, since dirt takes up so much space when it’s lifted out of place. I’m cautious of roots, but you can’t kill privets, so those I just chop through. Incense does wonders for the smell of outdoor cats whose bodies took some time to find.

For indoor cats – someone’s dear friend – usually, the moment of death has already been chosen mercifully. Then, I find, smaller mercies such as herbs and flowers to cover the body with, go a long way toward helping us envision them meeting the great unknown with dignity.

The 2013 documentary was called A Will For the Woods, written and directed by a young Ivy League film-making team. It’s about a psychiatrist in North Carolina named Clark Wang who faces an increasingly long-shot struggle against lymphoma, and prepares for his own burial by asking all the hard questions. Why do I have to be embalmed? Can’t you just stick me in the ground?

Funerals, even more so than weddings, make us susceptible to the salesmanship of propriety, since the dignity we are preserving belongs to someone who can’t speak up. “I’d like to use whatever time I have left to help set a pattern in our community of going back to really traditional and natural ways of handling our dead,” Clark says, and the rest will melt your heart.

Clark makes a superb poster child for green burial since he’s so articulate and dispassionate. This, and because he and wis wife – a charmingly geeky doctor-nurse duo – are so endearing, and partly because it pays equal attention to the obvious love between them, this documentary about death and burial is moving without being maudlin.

Baby boomers are dying now, and they haven’t done anything else according to the old script, so green burials are going to be more and more of a thing, I’m sure. I can already attest to how lovely and more than appropriate many of them will be.


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