The Ethical Will, A Written Legacy:
A Gift for Generations to Come
Rev. Chaplain Harold W. Vadney M.Div.
“Several months ago I tackled the chore of going through a box of old papers and mementos — we all go through the routine sooner or later and for different reasons — and I came across a greeting card that my grandmother had written to me on high school graduation day, which just so happened to be my 18th birthday; it was an exciting and scary time and a real rite of passage for me. It was the sixties, a time of social and political turmoil; a time of upheaval in society, morals, church and politics and I was going to be right in the thick of it. But was I ready psychologically, spiritually, at all? Now, some 40 plus years later, as I sat cradling the card in my hands and regressing to that day, I read the sacred words inscribed in elegant, careful cursive, now 15 years after my grandmother’s passing, and I realized that she had written me a testament that transmitted her values, her wishes for me, and her tender love. It was in that handwriting and as I read the words I imagined hearing her voice speaking the words to me softly, gently. It was a powerful emotional moment, and I almost choked up recalling my grief at her death. I placed that card in a special place with my most valuable mementos of my life, ensuring that it will never be lost to those coming after me. But for now, it is a special resource, a legacy that I go back to read from time to time, and is something that I will leave to my loved ones as a part of our family’s ethical history. I find myself wondering if my grandmother knew that she was leaving me a gift of such immense value, but the reflections in this rediscovered card is a treasured gift that keeps on giving, especially now she is no longer here to share her wisdom with me.” [Anonymous]
The word legacy by definition is “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” It comes from the Latin word legare which means to gather, bring together, collect, and that’s pretty much what we do in a legacy or ethical will: we gather, bring together and collect our thoughts on what is most important to us in our lives. While we might tend to think of our legacy as the property that we’ll some day leave to our loved ones, a legacy goes far beyond the mere material. Like any gift, these legacies should be planned because what they contain and transmit is really timeless; you are transmitting values in this form of legacy, and that fact should not be forgotten. That’s actually the purpose of this legacy: to be remembered for our values. I advocate very vocally for the ongoing process of communicating— orally and in writing, better still through our actions — values and wishes throughout our lives, but once we are gone the written legacy, our ethical will becomes one of the most important heirlooms we can leave behind, a treasured endowment that we can bequeath to our loved ones and to generations to come. As in our story above, a written legacy is something, like the graduation card, that loved ones can return to again and again.imes of transition such as the birth of a child or grandchild, marriages, or the death of a loved one become reflective times and opportunities to review one’s views on the meaning and purpose of life, one’s values and what makes life sacred. These rites of passage are opportunities to enter into dialogue about your faith, beliefs and values and can become a unique legacy to generations to come.
Death is a threatening word. Most everyone reacts to a death with some measure of anxiety and sense of loss no matter what the circumstances, whether sudden and unanticipated, traumatic and violent, or peaceful after a long life lived well, what we call a “good death”. Sometimes the myriad emotions accosting us resolve more quickly and healing sets in, but more often the case that they hang on for some time and persist in some form as we, the bereaved, make the pilgrimage through the uncharted territory of grief, transformation, healing, and transcendence that inevitably sequels death.
Our anxiety is so uncomfortable because it is the sign of hyperawareness, we’ve been ripped from the comfort of our little nest of denial and avoidance. We are forced into awareness and must acknowledge a dread mystery, and inevitability we’d had previously contented ourselves with hiding under wraps; that camouflage of denial that cruelly allowed us to skip through life thinking that there is always time and many more opportunities ahead is finally lifted. When the veil is suddenly raised we become aware that life is fleeting, delicate, relatively brief or “too short”, and that awareness demands our fullest attention and reflection. At those difficult times we may well reflect on the meaning of that life, our own lives, and what remains and what will be remembered. As mortal beings, we have the ability to picture a world, in which we are no longer physically present, and we feel the pain of being sidelined, even forgotten. There’s a saying that goes like this: “We die three times: once when we take our last breath, a second time when our bodies are no longer, a third time when our name is no longer spoken.” It’s that final annihilation, the final erasure that comes when we or our legacy is forgotten. It’s this awesome thought that compels us to find opportunities leave something durable and valuable to those who survive us.
Now the big question is: Whether we will seize this existential opportunity to take advantage the time left to us and to create a thoughtful, valuable, meaningful endowment fashioned with our memories, values, hearts, or will we allow our roots, our lives, our values to become just dust in the winds of time?
To read, download or print the complete essay, click this link: The Ethical Will_a written legacy