Jack Bradt had a will for the woods. He loved trees and nature and art, and it seems
likely he would have appreciated a film that is showing this weekend in Madison, a documentary about a green burial in North Carolina that had similarities to Bradt’s own, in Dane County, earlier this year.
“A Will for the Woods” — playing Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art — tells the story of North Carolina community psychiatrist Clark Wang.
After a cancer diagnosis in 2004, Wang resolved to eat more nutritious food, eventually leading to an environmental awakening that culminated in his desire for a green burial, one without embalming fluids, non-biodegradable caskets or tombstones.
Wang, who died in March 2011, helped establish the first green cemetery in his area of North Carolina.
“A Will for the Woods” is playing in Madison as part of Tales from Planet Earth, the annual film festival of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies on campus.
After the film, Kevin Corrado, coordinator of the Natural Path Sanctuary, a green cemetery in Springdale township, outside Verona, will moderate a panel discussion.
Which brings us back to Jack Bradt and his family, and their own will for the woods.
To begin, they have some interesting connections to Sunday’s film. Jack, like Clark Wang, was a psychiatrist. Jack was related to Gaylord Nelson, for whom the Nelson Institute is named. (Gaylord’s mom was Mary Bradt Nelson.) Jack and Gaylord met at some family reunions. Finally, Jack is buried at Natural Path Sanctuary, and if less planning went into it than Clark Wang’s burial in North Carolina, the experience was no less profound for those involved.
Jack and his wife, Carolyn Moynihan-Bradt, moved to Madison with their children in 1987 from Washington, D.C. Jack and Carolyn met at Georgetown University, but neither was wild about Washington. “I don’t want to be buried here,” Jack would say, making the point that he wouldn’t mind moving, and eventually they did, to Madison, buying property west of the city.
Jack was diagnosed with cancer in both kidneys in 2007. He was 80, and sought Eastern treatment, herbs and acupuncture. He lived nearly six more years. Last March, he suffered a seizure and was hospitalized at Meriter, near death. The family gathered. It was assumed that upon his death, Jack’s body would be donated to medical science — it had long been his wish — but one of his caregivers, to whom the family was close, said Jack had recently changed his mind about that. Others confirmed it. Yet he hadn’t specified another plan.
It was left to Carolyn, and her son and daughters, to decide what was best, what Jack would want. After a few days at Meriter, Jack was transferred to Agrace HospiceCare in Fitchburg. The nurse there was able to tell them death was imminent. Fewer than 12 hours later, in the pre-dawn hours of March 30, Jack died. Earlier, he’d been able to whisper his love to his family.
Carolyn and her grown children sat in the Agrace lobby, the sun still not up, uncertain of what to do.
Carolyn mentioned that she had a friend on the board of a place called the Natural Path Sanctuary near Verona. Carolyn’s daughter, Ann Bradt Vanderzee, called the website up on her phone and began reading its description aloud.
What Ann described was the green cemetery retired physician Gene Farley started at his Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability near Verona in June 2011 (the center itself was founded in 2009). It began with the death of Linda Farley, Gene’s wife, in 2009, and her desire to be buried naturally on the property.
On that early morning of March 30 at Agrace, the Bradt family decided the Natural Path Sanctuary sounded like just what Jack would want.
From there, by necessity, things happened quickly. The family phoned the sanctuary, and Kevin Corrado, its coordinator, came over to Agrace. Plans were made for a burial that afternoon. A grave was dug, with the dirt placed some distance away.
Family members, including grandchildren, using wheelbarrows and shovels, would return the dirt to the earth, once Jack’s body was in the shallow grave.
It was encased in a blanket shroud partially lined with pieces of the black velvet dress Jack gave Carolyn as a gift when they were first married.
There was a small caravan of cars from Agrace to the Natural Path Sanctuary. Friends and family, dressed in work clothes, participated. It reminded the Bradt kids of Saturdays in their youth when their dad asked their help in moving something or other in a wheelbarrow. Somebody strummed a guitar. Nobody present was unmoved. Afterward, Gene Farley invited the family into his nearby home. “It’s so warm and welcoming,” Ann said of the house. “There’s something magical about it.”
Later, at home, they planted a tree for Jack. It brought to mind what Gene Farley’s youngest grandson said after Linda’s green burial. “Grandma’s feeding a tree.”