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What is an ethical will?  What is a legacy letter?

If you had only one hour to live and the only way you could communicate with survivors was to leave them a letter, what would you write — and to whom would you write it?

Events like Katrina remind us of the fragility of life.The revival of an old Jewish tradition given new momentum by the events of September 11, the ethical will is not legally binding; it is a message from the heart. I don't like the phrase myself (it sounds both preachy and legalistic), and welcome such alternatives as "ending note," "legacy letter," "love will," "testament," "lifeletter," or "farewell with love and instructions." Such a letter can be both a vehicle for self-exploration and a gift to yourself and loved ones. You may share it while you are alive, or leave it to be read when you are gone. It can be as short as one page or as long as a full memoir or family history.

Such a letter can also mean worlds to survivors. A widower writing in Newsweek ("We Had the Love, But I Long for the Letters") says, "No matter how close my wife and I were, no matter how much we loved each other, and no matter how many heartwarming memories I have of our togetherness, I don't have any tangible record of her heart speaking to mine. And how I wish I did....When Marion was alive, I never gave it a thought. Now I wish I had her words to read and reread....I have pictures — even a couple of collections of slides on videocassette. What I don't have, in black or blue on white, are her thoughts."

Such legacy letters are often written at transition points such as marriage, childbirth, a major illness, or simply arriving at that point when you see more life behind you than in front of you. Candidly assessing your life experiences and values, trying to make sense of the world or your life, reminding your loved ones and friends how you lived your life, and figuring out where your values came from and which values and life lessons you want to pass on to the next generation can energize you and change the way you see your life.

Your last will and testament disposes of all your earthly goods — who gets which valuables, what you want your survivors to have. Your living will spells out the kind of medical care you want when you can no longer care for yourself (should they shut off the ventilator when all hope seems lost, or should they do everything possible to save you?). Your letter of intent (see Kristie Miller's, on my other website) spells out the things that would make you happy should you experience a disabling health event, so that you can't care for yourself and might not be able to express yourself.

Your life letter or ethical will — let's come up with a better term for this heartfelt message to your survivors — tells your survivors what you want them to know. It conveys expressions of love, blessings,personal and family stories you treasure; it articulates what you value and want to be remembered for, what you hope your survivors learn from you or want your children and grandchildren never to forget. This message can be expressed in a one-page letter, a collection of messages, as a videotape of you expressing yourself — even as a newspaper article. It could involve writing memoirs or an autobiography (see link below to an Atlanta Journal story). The Financial Planning Association reports from survey results that these "non-financial leave-behinds" are ten times more important to most people than their parents' financial legacy.

Here's an example: Write a letter telling your son, daughter, partner, or sibling all the things you love about them, and what you especially remember of your life together. If you're planning to join your life with another's, or planning to have a child together, you might commit to paper the things that matter to you — your ideals, hopes, fears, and expectations. If you've just had a child, you might want to voice your feelings about the occasion and your hopes for the child (see Michael Kilian's "message of hope for a newborn," posted on this website, published when his son was born). You might take a series of photos from the family album (do it before they're carried off by a hurricane — get a CD made of the best and send copies to the family) and tell stories about what was happening at the time. If your professional work has been especially meaningful, and you have shelves or drawers of documents worth preserving, you might want to spell out to your heirs what you want them to do to preserve your professional legacy. If you want your heirs to support certain causes, here is a chance to explain which ones, and why — and why you led your life the way you did. There are many approaches to writing (speaking, taping) this kind of legacy.

-- Pat McNees

Posted below are links to useful examples of ethical wills and interesting articles about them, as well as a sample letter of intent and similarly useful materials.

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Examples of ethical wills

a/k/a legacy letters, life letters, heart wills, ending notes, love wills, testaments


Against Discouragement by Howard Zinn ((May 2005 commencement address at Spelman College, where he had been chair of the history department, from which he was fired in 1963 for his civil rights activities)
Aha Moments (Mutual of Omaha's brilliant campaign). Here, for example, is Estelle Parsons' Aha! Moment
Before I Die: The personal life deeply lived. Installation artist Candy Chang turned the side of an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood into a giant chalkboard where passersby could write up their personal aspirations. Her work is full of messages (scroll down).
Cal Ripken's Induction Speech (printed in the Washington Post 7-30-07, when he was inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame)
Chanda Kochhar's letter to her daughter will inspire every working mother, an excerpt from Legacy; Letters from eminent parents to their daughters, ed. Sudha Menon (personal letters from India's most prominent personalities)
Contemporary and historic examples of ethical wills (Susan Turnbull, Personal Legacy Advisors)
Don't Eat Fortune's Cookies, Michael Lewis's commencement address at Princeton (like many commencement addresses) is effectively like an ethical will, in stating a broad principle for life: There is an immense amount of luck (including being born into the right family) in success. And there is much miscrediting. Take care of those less fortunate. By the author of Liar's Dice and Moneyball.
Ethical will of a grandfather (courtesy of Mike Moldeven)
Ethical wills make for lasting gifts of life lessons and they're growing in popularity.In the sidebar are some good questions to ask. The article links to snippets from ethical wills videotaped by Hospice of the Western Reserve (YouTube).
Excellent examples of ethical wills (many of them, on Barry Baines's website)
Examples of Jewish ethical wills (a tad preachy) from PBS story, quoting from Riemer and Stampfer book, So That Your Values Live On.
Fountain Hughes, 101. Listen as he recalls his boyhood as a slave, the Civil War, and life in the United States as an African American from the 1860s to the 1940s, offering advice along the way (World Digital Library)
The fringe benefits of failure (June 2008) J.K. Rowling's delightful and inspiring Harvard commencement speech on "The Fringe Benefits of Failure."
The Good Enough Parent Is the Best Parent (Peter Gray, Psychology Today, 12-22-15) This is not an ethical will, but it is a message to parents who worry they aren't doing a good enough job.
How writing a ‘legacy letter’ or ‘ethical will’ transforms the living (Ryan Warner, Colorado Public Radio, 1-3-23) A traditional will spells out who gets your stuff. An ethical will, or legacy letter, is a distillation of your history and values. Dr. William Silvers had just written one when he suffered a paralyzing sports injury. Click on the little image of four arrows, bottom right, to bring up his ethical will.
'I Wish You Bad Luck.' Read Supreme Court Justice John Roberts' Unconventional Speech to His Son's Graduating Class Justice Roberts, in his commencement address at the Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire in June 2017, 'declined to wish the boys luck. Instead he said that, from time to time, “I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.”

     He went on, “I hope you’ll be ignored, so you know the importance of listening to others.” He urged the boys to “understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely deserved, either.”

     And in the speech’s most topical passage, he reminded them that, while they were good boys, “you are also privileged young men. And if you weren’t privileged when you came here, you’re privileged now because you have been here. My advice is: Don’t act like it.” '
It’s the hard days that determine who you are (commencement speech given by Sheryl Sandberg, edited for Boston Globe, 5-16-16). "It is the greatest irony of my life that losing my husband helped me find deeper gratitude — gratitude for the kindness of my friends, the love of my family, the laughter of my children. My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude — not just on the good days, but on the hard ones, when you will really need it. ... And when the challenges come, I hope you remember that anchored deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are — and you just might become the very best version of yourself."
Jewish Ethical Wills from 12th to 14th centuries (Fordham University)
Ken Burns' Commencement Address at Stanford University (YouTube video, 6-12-16). Here's the complete text of the filmmaker's wonderful speech.
Kristie Miller's Letter of Intent
Leaving a (written) Legacy (Karen Flaten, Sr. Perspective, 12-28-22) After a long career in fundraising, Bill Marsella has found a way to bring the thoughts and ideas that have inspired him to retirees and others, to transform their worlds as he has done his own.
The Legacy Project (Cornell, Lessons for Living from the Wisest Americans)
Legacy Letter Project. A professor invited the world to write letters of wisdom to his college students, and this delightful site is the result--with letters from all over. Audiovisual overview here and you can read sample letters.
The Life Report,. First of many, many responses to David Brooks's request on the NY Times Op Ed page (10-27-11): If you are over 70... I’d like you to write a brief report on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not so well and what you learned along the way." Followed by Life Reports II.

Lost Generation. Short AARP video on YouTube. Watch it ALL the way through!
Mere Human Behavior (Roger Cohen, Opinion, NY Times, 11-13-14) How, people ask, could the Holocaust happen? How could a civilized nation in the middle of Europe get away with industrialized mass murder? Because the Schmids and Ridenhours of this world are rare; it is easier to avert one’s gaze. (An op ed piece that serves the function of an ethical will.)
Michael Killian's message of hope for a newborn At a memorial service at the National Press Club for journalist Michael Kilian, his adult son Colin read an article that his father had written for the Chicago Tribune, when Colin was born.
Love letters from the grave -- not just for soldiers or the deceased, messages from soldiers in action to their families (Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune, 3-30-07)
More Than Money to Give – The Value of Introducing Your Clients to Ethical Wills (Susan Turnbull, Journal of Estate & Tax Planning, National Association of Estate Planners & Councils, Jan. 2023) Attorneys and financial advisors are in the perfect position to inspire and educate their clients about the value of an ethical will as a meaningful component of their legacy. One couple wrote: "The most important thing is not how you got your money or how you are going to spend it. It is about how you are going to spend your lives and what kind of people you are going to be."

     One client wrote "Everything has its ebbs and flows, and sometimes when things aren’t as I’d like them to be, it is reassuring to remember this idea and not to jump in and try to force things to change." It is also and especially often an enduring message of love and gratitude.
A one-paragraph ethical will (Susan Turnbull's example of how much you can say in just one paragraph (PDF)
An Open Letter to Barack Obama Alice Walker on expectations, responsibilities and a new reality that is almost more than the heart can bear (The Root 11-5-08)
Payton Papers: An Ethical Will About Philanthropy "Your philanthropic autobiography: where did your values come from? Your ethical will: what values do you most want to pass on?"
Proverbs, international (brief sayings reflecting a culture and passed along over time--on Wikiquote)
Randy Pausch's Last Lecture The dying 47-year-old professor's exuberant last lecture, Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams (1 hour, 44 minutes), is worth watching. Or you can read The Last Lecture• Sample Legacy Letters(Life Legacies, site of Rachael Freed, founder of Women's Legacies)
The Service of Love (Alli Joseph's 'This I Believe" essay about recording personal history, 10-22-09)
Steve Jobs' commencement address at Stanford (June 2, 2005). "Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."
Telling Their Stories Read, watch, or listen to survivors of Holocaust, WWII concentration camps, and Japanese-American internment camps (Oral History Archives Project, San Francisco)
This I Believe (NPR) Americans from all walks of life share the personal philosophies and core values that guide their daily lives (based on a 1950s radio program). Listen, read, or both--to NPR's extensive archive of 500-word essays.
This I Believe (Canada) (CBC's extensive archive of 500-word essays)
Tom Attwater's letter to his daughter (Kindness blog, 2-12-14) Tom Attwater is dying of a brain tumor, but he isn’t worried about his cancer. Instead, he is trying to save his 5 year-old daughter from her own. Kelli was treated for childhood cancer neuroblastoma at three months and again when she relapsed aged two.
Video tributes, examples of. Do one for your family!

You'll find several ethical wills (and one "life letter"), along with various kinds of personal history, in My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History , ed. Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees, with a foreword by Rick Bragg (Personal History Press, $19.95). Read excerpts here. Read a review here.

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Why people are creating ethical wills

The Beneficial Effects of Life Story and Legacy Activities by Pat McNees (Geriatric Care Management Journal, Spring 2009)
Bequeathing Smart Strategies: How to write an ethical will (Lauren Foster interviews Susan Trumbull, for Barron's 9-18-10). You leave your family more than an estate. An ethical will, an extralegal, nonbinding document, is meant to communicate values and family feelings. At the end is a fine example of a brief and loving legacy letter from a mother to her children.
Before Passing Along Valuables, Passing Along Values (Robert Powell, WSJ, 12-9-12) Why legacies and life lessons are an increasingly important part of estate planning. Check the box, Words of Wisdom: 10 questions to ask the important people in your life.
Be sure not to die without having written A LOVE LETTER TO YOUR HEIRS (Robert Powell's interview with Susan Turnbull, USA Today, 3-1-17). Go here for a nicely formatted PDF version, easy to print and share. Here's Susan T on what to include in an ethical will: " There is no such thing as a standard ethical will. What they have in common is that each author has considered what they want their audience to know without question, and committed to putting it down in an enduring fashion. It might be an expression of love and gratitude, or reflections on life experiences that reflect core values and lessons learned. It can be a place to preserve information or family stories that would otherwise be lost to history. Ethical wills are an excellent place to provide explanations of decisions behind an estate plan or charitable bequest, or as a place to document the story behind the money. Some ethical wills take the form of lists of snippets of wisdom, or in one case a list of favorite movies. Watch these, said its author, and you will understand me."
Daddy's Letter: Legacies of love and learning (a moving Seattle Times story by Erik Lacitis about young father who presciently left an "if you are reading this" video message for children, then died of stroke at age 33)
Dignity Therapy. For the Dying, A Chance to Rewrite Life (Alix Spiegel, Morning Edition, NPR 9-12-11). Listen or read transcript.
Ethical Wills 101 Dan Curtis's seven-part blog series
Engage with Grace: The One Slide Project. . To help ensure that all of us--and the people we care for--can end our lives in the same purposeful way we lived them. Watch the Engage with Grace Story (Video, Za's Story). Download the One Slide (PDF).
The Ethical Will, an Ancient Concept, Is Revamped for the Tech Age (Constance Gustke, Your Money, NY Times, 10-31-14) “Trust documents are bare bones,” explained Susan Turnbull, founder of Personal Legacy Advisors,.. Ms. Turnbull embraced ethical wills as a way to counter the cold legalese of wills and trusts. “But an ethical will says who I am. It’s what you want your loved ones to know and understand.”
Farrah Fawcett's Long Goodbye. (Jim Rutenberg, NY Times, 5-27-11). Dying of cancer, she authorized a documentary of her final days. "Ms. Fawcett had intended the film to address shortcomings she saw in American cancer treatment and to present it in art-house style....After [Ryan] O’Neal and NBC gained full control of the documentary, the film took on the feel of network celebrity fodder — at once more glossy and more morbid....Many scenes addressing the American medical system were scrapped or truncated." Her final story became the object of a lengthy battle. A lesson in how not to do something--but I'm not sure what the lesson is.
Food as legacy: What the Last Meal Taught Him (Kim Severson, NY Times, on Thomas Keller's last meal for his father, 10-27-09)
How to Pass Along Values and Life Lessons to Heirs (Robert Powell, Wall Street Journal, 12-7-12)
For Dying People, A Chance To Shape Their Legacy. (Julie Bierach, Weekend Edition, NPR, 4-9-11). Imagine that you've just been told you have only a short time to live. What would you want your family and community to remember most about you? In St. Louis, a hospice program called Lumina helps patients leave statements that go beyond a simple goodbye. At the website of BJC Palliative Home Care and Hospice you can download helpful materials, including Courtney Strain's What you can do when a friend (like me) faces the end of life.
Giving More Than Money: Ethical Wills Gain Favor by Michael Paulson (Common Dreams.org, reprint from Boston Globe article published 7-5-01)
Ethical wills make for lasting gifts of life lessons and they're growing in popularity. In the sidebar are some good questions to ask. The article links to Snippets from ethical wills videotaped by Hospice of the Western Reserve (YouTube).
Farewell, With Love and Instructions. Lizette Alvarez writes about a "heart will" (NY Times 10-6-05)
For Dying People, A Chance To Shape Their Legacy (Julie Bierach, Weekend Edition, NPR, 4-9-11). Imagine that you've just been told you have only a short time to live. What would you want your family and community to remember most about you? In St. Louis, a hospice program called Lumina helps patients leave statements that go beyond a simple goodbye.
The seven tasks of life review: The 'who matters most' letter (Stanford Medicine Letter Project) The goal of this Who Matters Most Letter template is to help all Americans complete the seven vital tasks of life review while they still can.
Task 1: Acknowledge the important people in your life.
Remember treasured moments from your life.
Task 3: Apologize to those you love if you hurt them.
Task 4: Forgive those who love you if they have hurt you.
Task 5: Express your gratitude for all the love and care you have received.
Task 6: Tell your friends and family how much you love them.
Task 7: Take a moment to say "goodbye."
Saying Goodbye (on Pat McNees's comfortdying.com site)
43 things people want to do with their lives (the world's largest goal-setting community)
How to live to be 100+ (Dan Buettner TED talk)
I Wanted My Kids to Know Me (Hank Mattimore, Corpus.org)
Japanese elders are penning "ending notes" (Anthony Faiola, Washington Post Foreign Service, 4-11-05)
Leave a Legacy, Live Forever. You don't have to be rich these days to be a force for good, even after you're gone. (Jean Chatzky, CNN Money 2-23-06)
Letters of Wishes to Trustees (examples from workshops and clients of Susan Turnbull, Personal Legacy Advisors, LLC)
Leaving a legacy (Betsy Scott, Ohio News-Herald 4-19-06). "Live your life with the least amount of regrets," wrote a 90-year-old daughter of Slovakian immigrants.

The Legacy Project (Cornell, Lessons for Living from the Wisest Americans). The Legacy Project has systematically collected practical advice from over 1500 older Americans who have lived through extraordinary experiences and historical events. They offer tips on surviving and thriving despite the challenges we all encounter. Browse by category links on left (love and marriage, raising children, work and career, money, etc.)
Lights, Camera...Last Words(Kristen McNamara, WSJ, 12-3-09, on video offering chance for last words, and heading off legal disputes)
"Living a meaningful life is as simple as storytelling" (Emily Esfahani Smith, PBS News Hour, 3-10-17) "And when people say their lives are meaningful, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: They believe their lives matter, they have a sense of purpose that drives them forward, and they think their lives are coherent and make sense. It sounds like a lot, but that last point is something you can do right now. People tell me the simple act of storytelling gives meaning, or can at least clear the path to it....Making a narrative out of the events in your life provides clarity. It offers a framework that goes beyond the day-to-day. It’s the act itself, and not necessarily sharing their story with others, that helps people make sense of themselves and their lives. And we all have the power to tell or to re-tell our life story in more positive ways." (But sharing those stories in a small group with others who are also writing their stories can be a powerful experience.)
Men Learn To Leave Legacies In Writing. Church-Based Classes Focus on Crafting Letters (Nancy Haught, Religion News Service, Washington Post 3-4-06)
The Mothers' Living Stories Project, from which developed Linda Blachman's book, Another Morning: Voices of Truth and Hope from Mothers with Cancer.
A Mother's Farewell Joanne Fowler, People Magazine 12-4-06). At 50 and facing terminal cancer, Pam Fairmont made a video for her 10-year-old son Connor. Her message: 'I'll always be with you.'
Research Finds Huge 'Legacy Gaps' in Baby Boomers' and Elders' Views of Inheritance (Journal of Financial Planning, based on the Allianz American Legacies Study)
Something to Remember Me By by Paul O'Donnell
Ten-year-old with Flint roots wins military child of the year award. The father of Willie Banks III died when Willie was five, but wrote his son six letters to guide him. "Willie III receives one letter every five years. They include life instructions, lessons and encouragement." (Beata Mostafavi,Flint Journal, 3-19-10)
U.S. Living Will Registry
We Had the Love, But I Long for the Letters (William Shaw, Newsweek 4-17-06)
What legacy are you creating? (Steve Piscitelli--scroll down ad watch the video of Mariano Rivera ("Mo") the night he retired from the Yankees. Grab a hankie first. Mo's legacy was "disciplined work, ethical behavior, and mentoring of young players" and being "unparalleled closer for the New York Yankee pitching staff" and the crowd clearly loved him for it.
Where There's a Will. 'When I read my will, there was no 'me' there! Here's what I really want my loved ones to remember.' (Bob Perks, Beliefnet)

An ethical will is NOT the same thing as a living will, a letter of instructions, an advance directive, or a last will and testament. It is not a legally binding document. But is is something every estate lawyer, legal adviser, life coach, and financial planner should know about and suggest that their clients create. It is an important part of end-of-life planning. Here is a checklist of documents you need to protect your own and your survivors' rights.

Sometimes such letters can have unintended consequences. For example:
Letter Day Saint, a segment on This American Life radio program (401:Parent Trap, 2-19-10, stories about parents setting accidental traps for their children, and sometimes for themselves. Rebecca was 16 years old when her mother Elizabeth died of cancer. But before she died, she wrote letters to Rebecca, to be given to her on her birthday each year for thirteen years. At first the letters were comforting, but as time went on, they had much more complicated effects. David Segal tells the story.
The notes my dying mother wrote to me a decade ago are haunting my life milestones. (Emily Yoffe, Red-Letter Day, Dear Prudence, Slate, 11-26-14)

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Books to help you write a legacy letter or ethical will


• Baines, Barry. Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper. Straightforward how-to. On Barry's website you’ll find excellent examples of ethical wills, a directory of people who've taken his training (including estate planners, motivational coaches, hospice and palliative care workers, clergy, and memoir writing teachers).

• Cebuhar, Jo Kline. So Grows the Tree: Creating an Ethical Will

• Freed, Rachael. Women's Lives, Women's Legacies: Passing Your Beliefs & Blessings to Future Generations. Excellent for exploring aspects of being a woman. Also available: The Women's Legacies Workbook for the Busy Woman (or purchase and download it online. See also Rachel Freed: The Heartmates Journal: A Companion for Partners of People with Serious Illness

• Gelb, Alan. Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story. As one Amazon review puts it, "aims to help you craft your final narrative, a short (up to 1500 words, typically) memoir that defines you and leaves something memorable for your loved ones. In the process, the writer might also, by performing this life review, achieve that sense of integrity and accomplishment that psychologist Erik Erikson says is essential for healthy elderhood."

• Leder, Steve. For You When I Am Gone: Twelve Essential Questions to Tell a Life Story guides readers to share their most important values with their family. The questions are more about how you feel than about what you did (for example, What was your most painful regret and how can your loved ones avoid repeating it? When was a time you led with your heart instead of your head? What did you learn from your biggest failure?).

• Levine, Stephen. A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last. H/T Ellie Kahn: "We participants were all in good health, but we were instructed to imagine that we had received a terminal diagnosis. How did we want to spend that final year? Who did we want to spend time with? What would we regret not doing?"

• Riemer, Rabbi Jack and Nathaniel Stampfer. So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them. Many examples, with an emphasis on Jewish ethical wills. Among examples available online, one of the best is that of American humorist Sam Levenson, "Ethical Will and Testament to His Grandchildren and to Children Everywhere" (the last of five examples from the book).

• Turnbull, Susan. The Wealth of Your Life; A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will (or order direct from Personal Legacy Advisors) and Across Generations: A 5-Step Guide for Creating an Expression of Donor Intent . "What you have learned is as valuable as what you have earned."® A beautifully designed book (a good gift) with writing prompts that really help you think about what your life was all about and what you value.


• Albom, Mitch. Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson

• Ashe, Arthur and Arnold Rampersad. Days of Grace: A Memoir (the last chapter, Dear Camera, is a moving legacy letter to his daughter)

• Downs, Hugh. Letter to a Great Grandson: A Message of Love, Advice, and Hopes for the Future

• Edelman, Marian Wright. The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours (on family legacy, the legacy of service, and 25 lessons of life)

• Frankl, Viktor E. Man's search for meaning (Originally titled From Death Camp to Existentialism, a psychiatrist's experience in the death camps of Auschwitz helps him humanize psychiatry. May help you think through what's important in your life.

• Gluckel. The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln (diary of a 44-year-old German Jewish widow, mother of fourteen, begun in 1690). An early ethical will by a woman.

• Gottlieb, Daniel. Letters to Sam: A Grandfather's Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life (a special-needs grandfather provides insights for his special-needs grandson)

• Lawson, Doris McCullough. Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children

• Nerburn, Kent. Letters to My Son: A Father's Wisdom on Manhood, Life, and Love. "We are born male. We must learn to be men," he writes on the dedication page of this wise book, which friends have raved about and re-read; see also Simple Truths: Clear and Gentle Guidance on the Big Issues in Life

• Newhouse, Margaret L. Legacies of the Heart: Living a Life That Matters. One of the more thoughtful books on the subject. Worth taking a look at this one.

• Padgett, Ann. What now? An essay based on Padgett's commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, What Now? tells readers about "the swift passage of time, the weird twists and turns that lead us down unanticipated paths, and the ingenuousness of youth."

• Pillemere, Karl, ed. 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, advice and hard-won wisdom selected by Pillemere (seen on this video) and the Legacy Project at Cornell.

• Poitier, Sidney. Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter. (See also Poitier's The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography)

• Quinlan, Mary Lou. The God Box: Sharing My Mother's Gift of Faith, Love and Letting Go

• Remen, Rachel Naomi, MD Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal. Wisdom and compassion from a doctor and healer about "human responses to sickness and wellness." Give a copy of this popular book to your doctor!

• Strassfield, Sharon. Everything I Know: Basic Life Rules From A Jewish Mother (a model of a letter to a daughter as she leaves for college)


• Adams, Gemini. Your Legacy of Love. "Realize the Gift in Goodbye." If you leave only a letter, leave something. Don't put off facing the reality of death.) Aim is inspirational: to face mortality head on.

• Blachman, Linda. Another Morning: Voices of Truth and Hope from Mothers with Cancer. A book for parents challenged by serious illness, to help and inspire them to leave stories and messages for the children who will survive them.

• Byock, Ira. The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living. Byock, a leader in palliative care, advises readers to practice four life-affirming phrases ("Please forgive me," "I forgive you," "Thank you," and "I love you," to avoid the "awful silences and uncomfortable issues that distance us from the people we love."

• Callanan, Maggie and Patricia Kelley. Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying (two hospice nurses provide "a gentle way to think about the unthinkable" and "how to recognize, understand, and respond to a dying person’s messages")

• Kass, Amy A., ed. The Perfect Gift: The Philanthropic Imagination in Poetry and Prose and Giving Well, Doing Good: Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists (readings that raise questions about when, why, how, to whom, and what we should give, in charity).

• Keen, Sam and Anne Valley-Fox. Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling.

• Marshall, John M. III. The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living

• McCord, Bill. The Gift of You: How to Tell Your Loved Ones Who You Really Are.

• Phifer, Nan. Memoirs of the Soul: Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography

• Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman. From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older

For a list of books to help you write your life or family story, check out Books to help you get started writing your own (or someone else's) life story under Writing your memoirs or telling your family story

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You'll find several ethical wills (and one "life letter"), along with various kinds of personal history, in My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History , ed. Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees, with a foreword by Rick Bragg (Personal History Press, $19.95). Read excerpts here. Read a review here.

"At last, a collection that shows the "why, what, and how" behind memoir as legacy. Spanning more than a century, these intriguing reflections of personal as well as global social and political history are told in the unique voice and viewpoint of each storyteller."
~ Susan Wittig Albert, author, Writing from Life, founder, Story Circle Network

“This anthology sings with Walt Whitman’s spirit of democracy, a celebration of our diversity. Each selection is a song of self; some have perfect pitch, some the waver of authenticity. All demonstrate the power of the word to salvage from the onrush of life, nuggets worth saving.”
~ Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story and Writing the New Autobiography

Michael Kilian's
message of hope for a newborn

Read aloud at a memorial service decades later

At a memorial service at the National Press Club for journalist Michael Kilian, his adult son Colin read aloud the following article, which Michael had written for the Chicago Tribune when Colin was born. Reprinted here by permission, it’s as good an “ethical will” or “legacy letter” as any I’ve seen.
--Pat McNees

Michael Kilian —
Kilians give a new son a pleasant Irish name

Mr. Colin Kilian,
Age five days,
George Washington University Hospital, Washington, D.C.

Welcome to the world. You have in a few short days made it for us an infinitely more wonderful place.

A few explanations are in order, and I suppose I should start with what one of the doctors in the delivery room called your “good Irish name.”

It does derive from St. Kilian, a much esteemed Irish missionary beheaded by an insufficiently converted German duke in Wurzburg in 689. But for centuries it has been a German name. Your ancestors who bore it—Prussian army types, mostly—had first names like Frederick, Siegfried, and August.

But my father, another Frederick, in a moment of curious whimsy gave me the name Michael, rendering me for the rest of my life fraudulently but inescapably Irish.

I have richly enjoyed the experience. Though we have bowed to my ancestors in naming your brother Eric, it was my hope that you wouldn’t mind a little of the Irish yourself. They are a fey and poetic people. Their only failing is an ineptitude for making war, which, absent the British, would be a most forgivable flaw.

Some have wondered why anyone would want to have a new child at my age. My only explanation is that one should want to have a child at any age. As occurred to me the instant you were brought around for us to see, you are the very antithesis of the “unwanted child.” A glimpse of your small face renders the term incomprehensible.

I’ve met some people reluctant to bring a child into this world at any age, for they think it’s in a terrible state. I think you will find ample reason to look with hope upon the world you’ve entered. I think of the world I was born into, the world of 1939.

This world was still in the grip of a terrible depression. Unemployment was 17.2 percent. There was no welfare as we know it today, only soup kitchens and public labor.

The bulk of the population lived in rented apartments or rural poverty. Suburbs were largely for the affluent. Few working men could hope to own a car or send their children to college.

Nearly all of Europe then was ruled by cruel dictatorships or aristocracies—and most of the rest of the world was ruled quite cruelly by Europe. I recall so much of my first globe being colored green for French and red for British.

Two months after I was born, World War II began. That war took the lives of millions of people in six years of horror that concluded with the only use of nuclear weapons against human beings in history.

Diseases like tuberculosis, polio, and smallpox were not only extant but epidemic then. The medical advances of the last 10 years were all but inconceivable in 1939.

As you will shortly come to see, all that and a thousand things more have changed for the immeasurable better. And will continue to do so. A few weeks ago we were taking pictures of the planet Saturn. You may be visiting that planet some day.

There is one area, however, where we are failing you. In our rush to progress we are trampling over our surroundings, destroying the living and beautiful things of this planet with insane abandon. By the time you are grown, it is expected that the entire Amazon jungle will be gone, harvested for lumber and plowed for farming. To a child of 1939 this is beyond comprehension and I knew not how to explain it to you.

Perhaps there is still time to do something about that. I hope so. You have made the world a very wonderful place for us. We want it to be just as wonderful for you.

Reprinted by permission of Pamela Reeves Kilian.Posted at www.patmcnees.com

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The detour into misery that makes your story more compelling (or why not to be just a Goody Two-Shoes)
"It takes a rare kind of courage to live like a character in a story, and not many real-life human beings have the nerve to try it—perhaps because the elements that make a narrative compelling also make life miserable," writes Adam M. Bright in a story for Good Magazine about Lea Thau and the Moth, a live story telling organization based in New York City.

"Most people are too attached to the things that make them happy (honor, love, and friendship) to appreciate the subtle appeal of those things that might make them into more interesting protagonists (disgrace, heartbreak, and loneliness)," writes Bright in the story Burned by Desire (3-22-08). "Luckily, though, even prudent people will occasionally commit spectacular acts of mischief in pursuit of happiness. And when they do, the Moth is waiting—with an audience and a microphone. Since 1997, the storytelling organization has helped more than 4,000 people tell their tales of crimes, misdemeanors, and epic lapses in judgment. Few of the stories are downers—most, in fact, have uplifting messages—but it’s hard to pull off a heartwarming finish without making at least a brief detour into misery."

"The best stories are born from the moments when we got our wings burned or clipped a little," said Lea Thau, executive director of the nonprofit organization. Go to the Moth's website to learn about their highly affordable upcoming performances.

Mother's Day Proclamation
by Julia Ward Howe (1870)

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

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Ethical wills workshops. You're in good health — why be so morbid? Participants in Pat's workshop on the ethical will (or "personal legacy letter") at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD, were energized by the experience of facing their possible demise (their "sell-by date"), and in the final (surprisingly upbeat) session found it a great relief to write what they wanted on their tombstone and to frankly discuss their wishes for their funeral (or cremation, or body donated to science!). Such nontraditional writing workshops provide a safe, neutral place to explore important elements of one's life and to write messages that are often by turns tender, amusing, intensely personal, and sure to be valued by those who receive them. Such workshops provide a sequence of exercises to help you capture the memories, hopes, wishes, apologies, explanations, and other thoughts important for you to convey to your survivors. You might choose to tell stories or to write about what you feel is important in life. You might put into perspective a dramatic emotional episode in your life with your child (partner, friend). You might explain why you are leaving money to save the coral reefs (or whatever). You might choose to write about important life choices, experiences, achievements, mistakes, family traditions, important influences, beliefs, convictions, hopes, or life lessons (often wrapped in life stories). You might decide to tell the stories behind favorite possessions you will pass along to others; or to explain why you are providing for legacies to charitable or other organizations; or to explain why you believe what you believe; or to articulate your preferences for decisions about your final care, death, dying, and remembrance. And you might decide that you want to leave your ethical will both as a print and video or audio document, so your survivors can hear what you have to say in your own voice.

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