I always encourage people at the end of a funeral, to swap stories when they get to the reception. It brings disparate people together while chatting and drinking punch.
Everyone walks away with a broader picture, having learned something amusing, amazing or surprising about the deceased. Childhood, high school, or college friends, people they’ve worked with, and family members, put the pieces together to create a multi-faceted whole.
That being said, my best advice to all of you is to say that, if people are going to talk about you anyway once you’re dead, why not seize the opportunity to leave a little something behind, crafted in your own words, to form your own legacy?
In the musical “Alexander Hamilton,” the character of Hamilton asks and then answers the question—“What is a legacy? It is planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”
When you write down or videotape your stories, sage words of advice, words of love, apologies or even secrets you would like to unload, you leave behind a key that will unlock who you were for future generations.
You see, genealogy can give us the branches of a family tree, or, as they say in the bible, the “begets.” That tree, with the help of birth, marriage and death certificates may give us a hint of where we come from, but not what we come from. Without additional documentation, all you have is an unadorned, stark diagram of inter connecting lines and names on a sheet of paper.
But placing these names in historical context with diaries, oral histories, hand written letters, newspaper clippings, and old photos brings that family tree to life. Add poetry or quotes that mean a lot to you, axioms—words to live by, and perhaps your take on faith. You now have a cherished gift of inestimable value.
Where does one start? Last year, one of my dear aunts, realizing she was not in great health and approaching ninety, spoke with her rabbi who suggested she write an Ethical Will in the form of a two or three page letter to her family. My aunt, may she rest in peace, was very spirited, and never did anything halfway, (including traveling up the Amazon River in a dugout canoe).
Three weeks after speaking with the rabbi, my brother visited her, and she proudly produced her “ethical will.” The initial pages had blossomed into a four pound, three-ring binder with photos, newspaper articles, family pictures, pages from books and her own story. She had a section entitled “TEN THINGS I WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT LIFE,” which was sort of an outline. But the items were cross-indexed, so that you could refer to them in greater detail elsewhere in the binder!
You’ve probably lived enough to have something to share. No need to wait until you are 80 or 90.
If you decide to start your Ethical Will sooner than later, begin by writing down a sentence or two about your beliefs, things that you are proud of, things you did to back up your values. Include a few life lessons you learned from people along the way from teachers, friends, grandparents, parents, spouse and/or children and the family pet.
Write about life experiences that shaped who you are today. Articulate your personal and spiritual values, sketch out some memories, you can always flesh them out later. Inventory what you are grateful for and list your hopes, your vision and some hard earned wisdom.
Your ethical will, no matter how many words, is destined to be a treasure, holding its value longer than a material inheritance. And, while we should all probably get things squared away while we are still breathing, an Ethical Will can give you peace of mind, allowing you to address things you found too difficult to articulate in life, like love, apologies, asking for forgiveness, making amends, and sharing how you would like to be remembered.
Take a moment now. Sit and ponder.
If you ever uttered, “my Daddy used to say, ” or “Mama always said,” or “Mark my words,” or “You’ll thank me one day,” or the ever popular, “We didn’t do it that way when I was a kid!” then you are probably ready to start your ethical will.
You owe it to yourself and those you leave behind.