Ethical Wills and Legacy Letters: A Guide for Life-Cycle Celebrants
by Elaine Voci, Ph.D., Life-Cycle Celebrant
Life-Cycle Celebrants do more than officiate at weddings and funerals; they create meaningful and unique, often original, ceremonies, rites, and rituals to mark life’s milestones. Lately, they have also begun helping people write “ethical wills” (also referred to as “legacy letters”), special documents that allow individuals to “bequeath their values” and share them with family, friends and the larger communities in which they live.
Most of us are familiar with writing a “last will and testament” to legally divide and bequeath our material valuables to loved ones and to our favorite charities after our death. Ethical wills allow people to bequeath their personal and spiritual values and share them while they are still alive with members of their family and friends. These are not legal documents and can take the form of a letter written to one’s children and grandchildren, from the author’s heart to theirs.
While the concept may be new to you, the practice of writing ethical wills has existed for centuries. Since ancient times, people have shared stories, wisdom and blessings with future generations in the hopes of leaving a personal legacy.
What goes into an ethical will/legacy letter? Since most people want to be remembered positively, these writings contain positive, yet truthful, memories that focus on spiritual life lessons and values that have guided actions taken in life. They may add to a family history and life experiences that are already a part of the family lore with the goal of preserving stories for future generations.
Who is likely to want to write an ethical will or a legacy letter? People who are prompted by…
· Facing a significant life transition (ex, one’s 70th birthday or the birth of a grandchild) and other events that are viewed as turning points in life
· Experiences that are challenging and test one’s mettle, such as moving from a neighborhood where one has spent most of adulthood and into an assisted living system
· A diagnosis of a life-limiting health condition in which a person prepares to die, and wants to create a self-eulogy to be read at their memorial service
What qualifications do Celebrants bring to clients interested in writing such documents?
1. Life-Cycle Celebrants are trained story tellers; they write beautiful, meaningful and personalized ceremonies for weddings and funerals. They are aware of the narrative arc of a story and have a highly developed skill for knowing where to start a story, what events to include, and how to build the ending of a story so that deeper meanings are clear.
2. Because they are accustomed to the use of symbolism, metaphors and rituals that frame a story’s beginning, middle and end, Life-Cycle Celebrants can help enhance the client’s chosen stories and help shape them into a cohesive whole.
3. Enthusiastic cheerleaders, Life-Cycle Celebrants add energy to the writing process and encourage clients who might wonder if their lives are too “ordinary” to be interesting to others. Life-Cycle Celebrants believe in the power of sharing stories and know from personal and professional experience that each life is unique and purposeful. They appreciate what really matters and feel honored and privileged to assist, officiate at, and facilitate the telling of family stories that inspire, teach and encourage others to live life fully.
To learn more about ethical wills and legacy letters there are many resources available on the web. Here are a few books that may offer added insights:
Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them: A Guide to Sharing Your Values from Generation to Generation, 2nd edition, Rabbi Jack Remer (editor), Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer (Editor) and Rabbit Harold Kushner (Foreward)
Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, Barry Baines, M.D.
Legacy: A Step by Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence
The Measure of our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours, by Marian Wright Edelman
*Photo courtesy of Celebrant: Kenda Sweet
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