What Is an Ethical Will?

And what do ethical wills have to do with downsizing the home?

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a lake cabin in Minnesota, talking with some members of my family about one of the most important lessons my coauthor and I learned while writing our book, Moving On. Namely, that very often it becomes much easier for people to part with objects if they can find a way to save the memories connected with them.

“But isn’t it having the objects around that evokes the memories?” my cousin asked.

It is, of course. But what we found is that once the memories are evoked, they can be captured and preserved in other ways. By telling stories, by writing them down, or recording them in some other way.

Of course, most of us want to have at least a few old objects around in our homes, things that will continue to evoke those memories in an eloquent, subtle, and continuing way. But we certainly don’t have to keep everything that has been passed down to us, and for some people this realization can be very liberating.

Somehow, this conversation got me to thinking about ethical wills, and how the process of downsizing the family home might be an excellent time to begin writing one.

Think about it: you are surrounded by objects passed down in the family, many of which do provoke a rich variety of memories and provide easy and natural prompts for family stories. Often you are spending time with members of your family as well, talking and sharing memories, steeped in an environment that lives and breathes the values and habits of your family.

What more natural time could there be to at least begin to think about recording the thoughts and feelings about life that you would like to share with your children and grandchildren? To tell them the important things you were taught by your parents, the things you have tried to teach them, and that you hope they will pass down to their children in turn?

An ethical will is any written document that conveys these thoughts and feelings, these values and priorities, from one generation to the next.

The concept of an ethical will is at least as old as the Bible. In recent times, it gained popularity in the 1970s, and not surprisingly there was another spike in the writing of ethical wills in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Some people have published works that are essentially ethical wills: Marian Wright Edelman’s book, The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours; Sharon Strassfeld’s  Everything I Know: Basic Life Rules from a Jewish Mother; Walk In My Shoes by Andrew Young and Kabir Sehgal, and President Barack Obama’s legacy letter to his daughters, written in January 2009, are a few such examples.

Some people hire writers to help them write their ethical wills, but there is no need to do so. An ethical will is really just a one-sided conversation between a parent and child (or grandparents and their children and grandchildren), in which the older generation tells  the younger generation the most important beliefs they want to share with their children, about life and the way it should be lived. It has been described by some as a “love letter” to one’s family, and there doesn’t need to be anything fancy or complicated about it.

I’m planning to begin work on my ethical will very soon–but, since I personally would rather write than sort through things ANY DAY, I’m going to make myself go through one box of old stuff and deal with its contents before I allow myself to begin this task.


2 Responses

  1. A recent basement purging brought forth many memories from things as simple as a cider bottle, or our millennium splurge bottle of Dom Perignon. Empty, they serve no purpose, but oh the memories! I know I should photograph them and write the memory down, and your blog gives me new inspiration to do so.

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