What is an Ethical Will and how do you prepare one? Watch this recent 20-minute talk I presented at The Montecito, a retirement community in Santa Fe, NM.
Turn, Turn, Turn
To everything, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.
You may recognize this line as the refrain in the song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” As sung by the American folk-rock group The Byrds, it became an international hit in 1965. Pete Seeger first wrote the song in the 1950s. He reportedly never liked The Byrds version.
But the lyrics are actually thousands of years old. They come from Chapter Three in the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, almost verbatim in the King James version. Ecclesiastes provides a launching point for us to ponder life and death and prepare our Ethical Wills.
What is an Ethical Will? In days of yore, people prepared a Last Will and Testament. The Will addressed the distribution of property and assets of the deceased. The Ethical Will was the Testament portion of this important end-of-life planning document. An Ethical Will enables us to speak words of truth before the end of our days on earth. We can share what life lessons we’ve learned in this lifetime. We can pass along our values and wisdom to our loved ones and the world.
The writing of Ethical Wills is fostered in Judaism. When adults reach the age of 50, they are considered elders of the congregation with enough life experience to dispense words of wisdom. Some synagogues have a program that invites 50+ individuals to study Ecclesiastes, write their own Ethical Will, and read it aloud to the congregation at a special Sabbath service during the fall harvest festival, Sukkot.
Reading the twelve chapters of Ecclesiastes, you sense the writer’s world-weariness. The author was King Solomon in his later years. He wrote of work and pleasure, youth and age, riches and poverty, wisdom and foolishness, the vanity of our lives, and death. He felt that wisdom is the only thing that endures beyond our lives.
Sometimes, the most powerful ethical wills and life lessons come in the simplest forms in the most unexpected places.
12 Things to Remember
My father gave me a typed, framed “12 THINGS TO REMEMBER” that has been on my desk or in my office since the 1970s. He gave one to me and one to each of my three brothers.
Dad saw this list in a “Mom and Pop” restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C., across the street from the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street. The list was originally written by businessman Marshall Field, founder of the Marshall Field and Company department stores.
My dad wrote down these words and took them to heart. The version I have is typed them out in all caps, just as you see here.
12 THINGS TO REMEMBER
- THE VIRTUE OF PATIENCE
- THE SUCCESS OF PERSEVERANCE
- THE OBLIGATION OF DUTY
- THE JOY OF ORIGINATING
- THE IMPROVEMENT OF TALENT
- THE WORTH OF CHARACTER
- THE WISDOM OF ECONOMY
- THE VALUE OF TIME
- THE PLEASURE OF RESULTS
- THE POWER OF KINDNESS
- THE DIGNITY OF SIMPLICITY
- THE INFLUENCE OF EXAMPLE
This is an Ethical Will in its simplest form. You could expand on each idea with stories and paragraphs of ponderings. But I think this short list speaks volumes.
I’m blessed that my Dad thought so much of these ideas, and thought so much of his children, that he shared these words of wisdom with us when we were young.
So how do you start your Ethical Will? If you’d like to download a PDF with this List of 12 Things to Remember and a list of topics and questions to ponder, fill in your contact information through this form.
And here’s a YouTube video of the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Might make a good song to play at a funeral…