Karen Russell's first husband, Michael Press, often left her notes -- in her shoes, inside a cereal box. She was likely to pick up the toilet seat and find a short, irreverent poem. A few months after Press died in 1982 at age 29, the victim of a drunk driver, Russell was cleaning her guest bathroom when she found a piece of paper covered with his tiny script at the bottom of a Kleenex box. It was not one of his gags, but a letter that began: "You, Karen, are a special jewel in the universe." Press had composed the note expecting to watch his wife live out her dreams, but what he planted under the tissues turned out to be his last testament to her. "Never doubt yourself, for you possess marvelous talents," he had written.
"It was an amazing connection to him, this one last communication," says Russell, who founded the nonprofit National Grief Support Services more than a decade ago to honor her late husband's memory. "In that moment, I realized how powerful it would be if I could bring that comfort to other people."
Without knowing it, Press had written an ethical will. An ancient practice with deep roots in the religions of the West, the writing of ethical wills is hardly recognized today; like Press, many who create them do so instinctively rather than formally.
In their simplest form, ethical wills are letters, usually addressed to grown children, recounting family history and expressing hope that the writer will be remembered for certain values. At their most urgent, they are the letters soldiers write that begin, "If I don't make it home, I want you to know . . ." As the name suggests, ethical wills are intended to be spiritual counterparts to the legal documents that dispose of our worldly effects after our deaths. The undeniable assumption inherent in ethical wills is that we are more than the sum of our material parts, and we should pass along the intangibles the way we do cash or stock.
For many years, those undergoing what is called a "mindful death" often have written formal ethical wills. Hospice workers have long used such letters as a therapeutic tool for patients and their survivors. Video and the Internet have made it possible for those stricken with cancer and other sometimes fatal illnesses to collect their thoughts in pictures, songs, and art. Russell is completing an area on the National Grief Support Services Web site where both the dying and their survivors can record multimedia messages.
Ironically, it is the way we live rather than how we die that has made ethical wills more popular recently. "We're spread out all over the world," Russell says. "Kids don't grow up near their grandparents anymore. Ethical wills are a way to have continuity when we don't live with each other." The phenomenon of sudden wealth also is driving some to consider what Michael J.A. Smith, a managing director of Bankers Trust Private Banking, a part of Deutsche Bank Group in New York, calls "social capital." In the wake of huge success, says Smith, his clients "feel the need to come to some agreement about who they are and how they want their descendants to interact with society. The patriarch or matriarch often wants to come up with a family mission statement," tantamount to an ethical will.
Family dislocation is thought to be at the heart of ethical wills' long history in the West. According to Nathaniel Stampfer, dean emeritus at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago and co-author with Rabbi Jack Riemer of the 1991 book So That Your Values Live On (Jewish Lights), the fifth-century rabbis who codified Jewish biblical teachings in the Talmud enjoined Jews to make ethical wills.
In the face of the Diaspora, says Stampfer, their intention probably was to make the continuation of Judaism the responsibility of every Jew. By the Middle Ages, ethical wills were a common practice among prominent Jews. Today, as then, the classic Jewish will is modeled after the dying patriarch Jacob's blessing on his sons, and ends, as Jacob's did, with one's wishes about burial.
Many cultures have some version of the ethical will -- some quite new, like the "ending notes" gaining popularity among the elderly in Japan, and some as ancient as the Talmud's. Khalid Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Education and Information Center in Newark, California, has letters from his grandfather and father, also Islamic scholars, who detail how their immediate descendants should read the Quran and follow its precepts.
"My grandfather's is a will of 40 or 50 pages," Siddiqi says. "Everyone in the family has a copy, and in big gatherings, we sometimes read it. Especially in religious families, writing a will like this is a very common duty." One reason for the prevalence of spiritual wills in Islam, he says, may be the Quran's strict prescriptions about how material goods should be distributed. (According to the Quran, a portion of a person's property is to be left to charity.) A spiritual will, then, is a person's best chance to signal preferences and discriminations.
Those restricted by a lack of material wherewithal also have been inclined to focus on their spiritual legacies. Barry Baines, a hospice director in Minneapolis and author of the 2001 book Ethical Wills (Perseus), cites the memoir of Gluckel of Hameln, written in the 1690s and born out of Gluckel's lack of power as a woman, as a prototype of the modern ethical will. "Women couldn't bequeath valuables, so they bequeathed values," says Baines.
Rachael Freed, a former English teacher and therapist in Minneapolis, argues that ethical wills are still a unique way to empower women. Since 1997, Freed has run a project called Women's Legacies, which has more than a dozen trained facilitators across the country teaching women how to compose their spiritual wills. After her first few workshops, Freed notes that she became "very concerned that the work was mostly attractive to women who were white, educated, and privileged." She approached an acquaintance who worked at a state women's prison in Shakopee, Minnesota, near Freed's home, and asked which prisoners would benefit most from her workshops. "The lifers," the prison official replied. "They are the ones who fear most not being remembered. Their families are doing their best to forget them."
Despite the prisoners' limited writing skills -- many of them were not native English speakers -- Freed calls her workshops in the prison "one of the most sacred legacies I've ever done." One woman serving a life sentence had never held her granddaughter, and never expected to. She decided to write the girl a sentence every day. "Some days, I can't think of anything I want to tell her, so I may look out the window and say, 'Oh, Sophia, I saw a beautiful oriole today,' just so she knows I think of her every day," the prisoner told Freed.
Ethical wills aren't backed by the force of law, though Baines cautions that the moral weight they carry can be more powerful than legally binding wishes, and should be used judiciously. "I warn people against trying to script the lives of others. It should be a love letter from the heart. If there is guilt assigned, or blaming, it can be devastating if there is no recourse," he says. Freed, meanwhile, works to transform wisdom into blessings. Under her tutelage, advice such as "Don't give yourself away; practice self-love" would become "May you see how much you are loved and honored and valued."
Even with these cautions, Martha Jacobs of the HealthCare Chaplaincy, a group that trains clergy in pastoral care for the dying, says writing an ethical will is risky. "Verbal ethical wills are better than writing," she says. "Without the vocal and facial expressions, writing is too much subject to interpretation."
Of course, the way to avoid this dilemma altogether is to speak your mind while you are alive and well, a solution Baines encourages. Shortly after writing his ethical will, he sat his two teenage daughters down and read it to them. "Once you air your beliefs and principles, you have to walk the talk," he says. "You live life a little more deliberately."
Thinking About Death
Joan Halifax Roshi is a pioneer in providing care for the dying, having offered help, guidance, and friendship for those near death since 1970. A medical anthropologist and abbot at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she describes herself as "simply a person in the community who brings a certain quality of presence to those who are suffering." When she's teaching classes about death, she often cites the following facts, then asks participants to consider three questions about their own future.
For more information on Joan Halifax Roshi's work with the Project on Being with Dying and the Upaya Zen Center, visit www.upaya.org.
Paul O'Donnell is a senior features editor at House & Garden magazine. Reprinted from Science & Spirit (July/Aug. 2005). Subscriptions: $26/yr. (6 issues) from Heldref Publications, 1319 18th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036; www.science-spirit.org.