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June 23, 2012

Ethical Wills – Your Legacy in Your Words

In the Western world, talking directly about the reality of death—our own or that of a loved one—is generally frowned upon. It is almost always uncomfortable, as evidenced by our avoidance of the word itself and its grammatical variations: dead; die; died; dying; death. Instead we substitute: passing away; passed; gone; and even ‘no longer with us.’ Softening the language helps us deal with feeling the loss of control that seems to come along with dying.

legacy for multiple generationsAt some point in our lives we begin to think about what we have done with the time already behind us and how we would like to be remembered. Our sense of being at the end of life may be that we aren’t even close…and anyway, we’ll be (forgive me) dead so who cares how we are remembered by family and friends? Well, my fellow citizen of the world, think about that again—you have a chance to leave a gift to those closest to you which they can weave into the fabric of their lives and all who they encounter going forth.

In case you are thinking, “Oh brother—some off-shoot of the ‘New Age’ just when I was feeling good about escaping Yoga, Meditation, and tofurkey,” stay calm. This idea has been around at least 3,500 years or so. Maybe you have heard of it, maybe not. It is called the Ethical Will.

An Ethical Will is not about dividing up tangible items after your death, but instead it is about leaving a clear description of the values you believe in as they support the ethical standards (including moral standards) you have and still do live by. It is about passing that clear description on for your survivors to build upon, and for the world to add to a kind of global ethical mindfulness resource bank we all contribute to in the ways we choose to live each day.

Here is an excellent site full of wonderful examples of Ethical Wills, sometimes called Legacy Letters, and showing us that how you choose to relate the content of your own can be as elaborate or as simple as you wish.


I have had the privilege of being a hospice volunteer for a large medical provider in the Pacific Northwest for the last 20+ years. As a member of the Ethical Wills training for hospice volunteers, I found myself assigned to write my own version before the training continued on the next weekend. I struggled right up until the Friday before Saturday’s resumption of training…that contemplative part of the creative process for me generally needs to be more open-ended than a week-long interim deadline provides. Finally, though, I “got it.”

My Ethical Will took the form of a well-remembered story when I was 6 or 7 years old about going with my grandmother to find a very poor family she had sheltered in some ramshackle former farm buildings on my grandfather’s farm in Illinois. The big picnic basket I thought was going to be ours for lunch turned out to contain a week’s worth of food for this desperate woman and her four children who had been abandoned by her husband.

My grandparents were also poor, but they had more than this young family, and the lesson of love and generosity toward our fellow human beings was simply demonstrated by my grandmother as she invited me, her eyes sparkling, to help her carry the big basket to the door where mother and children awaited. She knew that I was awash with the empathy that would inform my character for the rest of my life. I learned that day that sympathy alone does not join hearts like empathy does, knowing that this life is a balance—a give and take as needed—always based on love.

One of the best things about working on your version of an Ethical Will is recalling all the examples you can of the wisdom that was passed along to you in big and small ways. You may want to create an Oscar-worthy production, or you may want to tell just one story, but you will realize that you are creating something of yourself—just you—that will live on in support of the best we humans can be.

Share your experience of writing an ethical will or legacy letter (or helping someone to else do that) in the comment area below.

Other excellent resources: