Advocate gets his own green burial in Wake Forest

Biodegradable casket is lowered into simple hole

April 4, 2011 

In life, Dr. Clark Wang was known as a Duke-trained psychiatrist, a gifted cellist, a folk dancer and a hearty carnivore.

In death, he may best be remembered as the Triangle's foremost advocate of green burials.

On Sunday, he was laid to rest according to his wishes in a casket made of untreated wood salvaged from an old chicken coop. More than 100 family and friends accompanied him on his last journey to a stand of pine trees where they lowered his casket into a grave decked in evergreens and then took turns shoveling the dirt on top.

Wang was 49. He died a few months after a stem cell transplant he hoped would cure his lymphoma.

His was the sixth funeral at the green burial site he helped found on several wooded acres behind the traditional Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest. At his urging, the cemetery secured a conservation easement that ensures it will leave the land in its natural state. That means unembalmed bodies can be buried there in biodegradable containers made of pine, wicker, bamboo or cardboard.

"Spiritually, I believe green burial restores us to reusable materials, returning our nutrient signature to the cycle of life, rather than being cut off from it," Wang wrote in a passionate, sermonlike essay read by his friend Randy Best at the noontime funeral.

Pine Forest is the Triangle's only green burial site certified by the Green Burial Council, and one of only two dozen nationwide.

Advocates such as Wang fervently hoped his example would inspire others to embrace this environmentally friendly alternative.

Unlike conventional cemeteries that bury people whose bodies have been pumped with embalming fluids and placed in hermetically sealed metal caskets and lowered into cement vaults, Wang wanted to use his death to leave the Earth a better place.

Paying respects

He not only embraced a green burial, but he also wanted a home funeral.

After he died in Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, his body was flown back to his Durham home, where a group of friends gathered Friday night to wash his body and anoint him with essential oils.

They placed his body atop a layer of dry ice in the casket and laid it out in the living room for a viewing.

On Saturday, friends came in to pay their respects, pausing by the casket where Wang lay underneath several sheets. On top of the sheets, friends laid hydrangeas, tulips and other flowers. Several yards away, a string quartet played Mozart.

"It's going back to the traditional way of caring for the dead," said Jenny Bingham of Hillsborough, a home funeral guide who taught Wang about the practice.

Until the Civil War, all Americans were buried in this way. The women of a family would wash and dress the body and lay it out in the parlor. Meanwhile, the men built the coffin and dug the grave. But over the past 150 years, the practice has been turned over to professionals and whisked outside the home.

Embalming, which arose as a way to prevent decomposition, isn't required. Embalming fluid, made of formaldehyde, is a known carcinogen. Many European countries, concerned it will leach into the water supply, have banned it. Jewish law forbids it.

Several people said Wang empowered them to take back control of their loved ones' death.

Betty Klauber heard Wang speak about green burial last year as her husband, Sam, was dying. Later, she called the funeral home and ordered an untreated pine casket.

She then pleaded with the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery not to bury her husband in a cement vault.

"I owe a lot to Clark for his proactive attitude," said Klauber, whose husband died in January. "He let me know you could have a say in the matter."

He made his case

Wang's energetic approach endeared him not only to people such as Klauber, but he also won over the manager of Pine Forest Memorial Gardens and the manager of Renaissance Funeral Home in Raleigh.

Both took a personal interest in his cause and attended his funeral Sunday.

One by one, as friends heaved shovelfuls of dirt atop Wang's casket Sunday, they said a few words.

"Thank you for bringing music into our home," said one.

"Dwell in perfect peace with God," said another.

Dyanne Matzkevich, manager of Pine Forest Gardens, wanted to convey another message.

"Clark," she said. "I thank you for being so determined to have a green burial."

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service