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Study: The Power of Ethical Wills


Ethical wills have a time-honoured tradition in ancient Jewish culture. They have been used to pass on life lessons and values to future generations. Today, people of all ages and walks of life use ethical wills. They are often appended to material wills.


Now researchers from the University of Alabama in Birmingham, Alabama, have discovered that ethical wills can be a source of meaning and dignity at the end of life for terminally-ill persons with few economic means.

The study, led by Dr. Beverley Williams, was based on interviews with 33 terminally-ill persons, who attended an outpatient cancer clinic at a public hospital in the southern United States. The majority of participants were between 40 and 60 years of age. Seventy per cent were African American, 30 per cent white, 70 per cent female and 30 per cent male. Most were either divorced or separated.

The study was published in the Sociology of Health & Illness (Vol. 32, No. 6, 2010).

Being remembered

First, participants were asked how they wanted to be remembered after their death.

More than 30 per cent of respondents said they wanted to be remembered as a good person.

One 63-year-old black woman stated:

They will remember me, all of them. They’ve all lived with me, and still call me, even though they don’t know how sick I am, they call, they call often. I took care of them after my father died. They call me mama. My sister has six kids, and I was there when she had all of them. Nobody would have to ask any of my family how will I be remembered. I’m their favourite everything.

Almost 20 per cent of participants stressed the importance of being remembered in a truthful manner:

As one 51-year-old black woman put it:

Well, I told them like this. When you have my funeral, don’t get up and lie about me. A lot of people die, and they say she was as good as she can, and that was the hellish one there ever was. I say, if you thought that I was mean, say it. Just don’t lie about me, just tell the truth.

About 16 per cent wanted to be recalled for their carefree natures and sense of humour. And an equal number for commitment to family and friends.

A further eight per cent of respondents wanted to be remembered for commitment to their religious faith.

Being memorialized

Second, researchers asked participants, “If you could write your own memorial, what would you say about yourself?"

Thirty-six per cent of respondents said that their lives were worthy of emulation because they did the best they could with what they had. Another 31 per cent wanted to be recalled for generosity in sharing their time with others.

A further eight per cent wanted to be remembered for having full rich lives. "I’ve done all a poor woman can do, and I’ve had a wonderful life," one 72-year-old white woman said.

The researchers reported that 25 per cent of participants wanted more time to think about the question or preferred others to write the memorial for them.

Bequeathing possessions

Lastly, participants were asked to respond to the question: "Do you have any possessions you want to leave to family and friends?"

Just over 28 per cent of respondents reported they had few possessions to leave to survivors.

One 54-year-old black woman explained:

I don’t know what to leave. I don’t have nothing left I could leave them. . . . Material things are not about nothing anyway. They don’t mean nothing. The best thing I owned was good health, and life and living. If I could but that in a bottle, now that would be something to leave.

Eighteen per cent wanted their survivors to make the decisions about their belongings.

Almost eight per cent of respondents wanted their work tools to go to family members. "I have some really nice tools, and I’d like my son to have them," one white 48-year-old man said. An equal number said they wanted to leave a spiritual legacy for their loved ones.

Finally, the study found that 13 per cent of respondents had wills that designated beneficiaries for monies resulting from life insurance policies, retirement plans or real estate.

Ethical capital

As in ancient times, people today, see ethical capital as a personal resource that can be used to leave behind a legacy for survivors.

The researchers suggest health workers and clergy can assist terminally-ill persons with few economic means to find dignity at the end of life by advancing the idea of ethical wills.