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Moving closer to death can make people think about the truly important things in life. And for some, expressing their beliefs or personal values – in the form of a spiritual will, also known as an ethical will – is a valuable legacy.
Most of us can hope for the people we love to have kind words to say about us, in a funeral eulogy when we die. A spiritual will or legacy letter enables people to impart what, through kinship, love, mistakes and friendship, we have learned in our own journey through life.
“Simply put, an ethical will is one’s personal mission statement. It is an expression of the most important and unique part of each of us: what we stand for,” writes Jo Kline Cebuhar, an attorney and advocate for end-of-life care literacy, in her thought-provoking guide to writing a spiritual will, So Grows the Tree.
Writing a will is an important way of ensuring the people you love most are looked after in terms of material assets when you die. Writing an ethical will costs nothing at all and, say both secular and non-secular advocates, is a priceless legacy.
Writing an ethical will is a practice that dates back thousands of years in Jewish and later Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s a way of articulating and sharing values that may be handed down from one generation to the next.
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“No one wants to be forgotten,” says Dr Bill Hoy, a clinical care professor of end of life care and bereavement. “We not only fear death, but we but we also fear being forgotten. In my work with hospice patients that always seems to be one of the big concern.”
Sharing someone’s ethical will, or a legacy letter at their funeral, is a way of remembering and handing on that person’s ‘essence’ and personal beliefs or outlook.
“The subject of a spiritual will is not just the person in a photograph… but a glance into someone’s very soul,” writes Mary Petrosky in her book, The Journey Never Ends: How to Prepare a Spiritual Will.
“In a spiritual will, people reveal as much as they wish to reveal and share, as a gift to others.”
Mary is a psychiatric social worker and Franciscan nun whose book has been written to open out the idea of sharing spiritual legacy – for anyone thinking about how they would like to be remembered.
Writing a spiritual will is something that Mary Petrosky believes we should all write sooner than later. This, she says, can help us focus on what is truly important in life, so that we can continue to grow and feel fulfilled.
Writing a spiritual will can help us face our mortality and make the most of the moments we are living in.
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“I have learned that ethical wills have the power to make people confront the ultimate choices that they must make in their lives,” observes Rabbi Jack Riemer in his insightful book, Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them.
“They can make people who are usually too preoccupied with earning a living stop and consider what they are living for.”
It could be an opportunity to set out to achieve new things that we’d like to be remembered for.
“I hope that I have a long life ahead of me,” says Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who composed a touching and inspiring ethical will to her son Drew, just before his second birthday.
“As I articulate here what I hope to leave to him, it also becomes a kind of roadmap for how I hope to raise him.”
An ethical will could be the story of your life, that includes the legacy of other family members that shaped you. It could be part of a memory box, of photos and family recipes.
An ethical will could simply be a legacy letter that reassures the people you love about leaving them behind; of how much you loved them and how you wish for them to carry you in their hearts, when you are no longer there.
“During the time of my illness, I have loved more deeply. My heart feels as if it has exploded. I do not carry anger. I feel we are all doing the best we can,” wrote 28-year old Bettina to family and friends, in a legacy letter that was read out at her memorial.
This, and other examples of very different styles of spiritual will can be found at celebrationsoflife.net and may inspire your own.
“Legacies are the footprint we leave behind us when we die,” writes Rachael Freed in her insightful guide, Women's Lives, Women's Legacies: Creating Your Own Ethical Will.
“They prove that we were here: We lived, we mattered, we made a difference.”
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Writing a spiritual will
What are the most important lessons you have learned in life?
What are the family stories you inherited, that you want to pass down?
Why is it important for your family to share them?
Who are the people who mattered most to you? What do you love best about them?
What are your hopes for your future – and theirs?
Are there any mistakes you regret? And how did you reconcile yourself to them?
What element of your own self would you like to live on, in other people’s hearts and minds?
Witing an ethical will: Further reading
– So Grows the Tree by Jo Kline Cebuhar
– Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them. by Rabbi Jack Riemer
– The Journey Never Ends: How to Prepare a Spiritual Will by Mary Petrosky
– Women's Lives, Women's Legacies: Creating Your Own Ethical Will by Rachael Freed
– Writing Your Legacy by Richard Campbell & Cheryl Svensson