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A moral legacy of hopes and truths

23 October 2015

Why not draw up an ‘ethical will’ of what matters most to us, asks Julia Neuberger


UNLIKE the process of dying, our attitudes to bereavement have changed somewhat for the better in recent years — even if so many of us find it difficult to know what to say. Nevertheless, I believe that we need to describe the mourning process more, support it more, and perhaps even institutionalise it more than we do at present.

So, what should we do? I had a friend, who was about to hit 100, and was busy writing her will. She had already written one that divided up her possessions among her family and friends. She had even written a letter of intent for her children to follow, which listed small bequests — a favourite piece of jewellery here, or a treasured book there — for various friends and carers. But then she wrote what she called her “moral last will and testament”.

She wanted her children to know how, over the years, she had changed her mind on issues such as homosexuality and gay marriage, the cap on immigration, women working and looking after their children, and music. She wanted them to know that she did not believe it was a sign of weakness to change one’s mind. She also wanted them to use every moment of their lives to good purpose — to “live every day as if it were their last” (Muhammad Ali).

This is something like a genre of literature that absolutely fascinated me when I was training to be a rabbi — so-called ethical wills.


I CAME across a series of documents written by rabbis, in the medieval period and later, to their children and descendants. There were similar documents among the Muslim and Christian communities at that time. And yet they have largely disappeared, which is why my centenarian friend’s last moral will and testament was so interesting.

These were not wills as we now know them — about money, possessions, property, and dividing things up. These ethical wills make for fine, if sometimes eccentric, reading. They instruct their children on when to read particular religious books, and when to think about getting married.

They tell them to look after their mothers and their sisters. They warn them to beware dishonest traders, and always to give the benefit of the doubt to people who come begging. And they try to sketch out what a good life might be.

They represent a lovely custom, as parents try to sum up in them all that they have learned in life, and express what they most want for, and from, their children. The letters are a precious legacy, because the parents believed that the wisdom that they had acquired was just as much a part of what they wanted to leave their children as any material possessions that they could pass on.


STUDYING the ethical wills, I puzzled from time to time about whether we could turn that kind of thinking into something more modern and applicable to people facing death today.

I was talking to a friend who is a hospice nurse, when I mentioned in passing that I had been reading a particular ethical will by a 17th century rabbi; she said that the idea reminded her of something that terminally ill young women, usually dying of breast cancer, sometimes put together for their children. They create boxes filled with objects of purely sentimental value which they want to pass on to their children, whom they will never see grow up.

Alongside the objects, they place letters, in which they describe the things that have meant so much to them — beauty, art, helping others, books — and, of course, how much their children mean to them. . . In the letters, they also often suggest how their children might want to live, given that they — their mothers — would not be there to guide them through life.


IN MY experience, once it is suggested, people usually love the challenge of writing an ethical will that includes their practical, moral, and political hopes for the future. It is a good way to sort out what matters to us personally as we write it — which, in turn, helps us to face our own mortality peacefully.

I think we all should consider what our own ethical will might look like. It is by no means easy to write. If we are to do it seriously, we have to look inside ourselves to see what essential truths we have learned in a lifetime. We have to face up to our failures, and decide what really counts. That is an education in itself.

As we contemplate facing our deaths, the majority of us do not want to be forgotten. We want a form of immortality in this life. The majority of us want to leave something behind, to mark our lives when we go.

It may be that the desire to leave a legacy stems from the fact that we cannot, in our bones, bear the idea of simply being no more, of being gone. If we are cremated, there might not even be a place that can be visited by those who wish to see where we lie.


WE NEED education about how we die, and the practical things that follow: wills, funerals, leaving a body to medical science, the use of our organs for transplantation. But we will do that only if we break the great silence about death. We all need to know and see and comprehend how we die. There is no knowledge or thought about dying — yet we would never allow that about sex, or even childbirth.

So I am asking everyone to put on their personal agendas the need for death education — in our medical and nursing schools, of course, but also, for the rest of us, in schools, colleges, and universities, formal and informal education, and discussion.

Until that happens, I fear our deaths will all too often be unsatisfactory, painful, hole-in-corner, and not the ready coming to terms with the natural end of our lives which they should be. And that is a form of tragedy. But it is an avoidable one.


Baroness Neuberger is the Senior Rabbi at the West London Synagogue.

This is an edited extract from an Ebor lecture given in York Minster earlier this year. The full text is at www.yorksj.ac.uk/eborlectures.

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