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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Have you written an ethical will?

Many people strive to make their last will and testament "ethical" by distributing material goods to family, friends, the church and other good causes. But the document described by www.ethicalwill.com bequeaths a "wealth" of a different kind — a legacy of words.

An ethical will is a written narrative that preserves a personal message for loved ones and future generations. The Web site says this "love letter to your family" offers the chance to tell stories, witness to faith, and impart wisdom, experience and advice.

The site offers tips, resources and samples. It also traces the origin of ethical wills to the oral transmission of stories, blessings and family heritage in the Old Testament. In a modern context, they can be written for various life events: marriage, pregnancy, children leaving home, retirement, birthdays or anniversaries.

Kathleen Billman, associate professor of pastoral theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, praises ethical wills as "a wonderful idea." In her pastoral care study, Billman has observed the value of narrative that "helps people to engage in meaning-making with one another."

Billman tells of a woman who attached notes to objects in her home before she died, leaving her family the memories she connected to the material things.

Quoting from Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals by Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley (John Wiley & Sons, 2001), Billman affirms, "our life story, even when we see it as an incomplete whole, is a gift ... it belongs to the stories of God."


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