That ring on your finger — who will wear it after you die?

When your great-great-grandchild (or -nephew, or -niece, or -friend) receives your cherished ring (or necklace, or candlestick), that child will surely ask: “Who was [your name]?”

It might be hard to find an answer that is more descriptive than, “Uh, that’s her candlestick.”

That’s why I’ve written an ethical will. I encourage you to do the same.

While your last will and testament instructs others on the distribution of your material stuff… and your durable power of attorney for health care instructs others on when to pull the plug… your ethical will will let your survivors know who you were, what your life was like, what was important to you. Your ethical will might very well be the dearest part of your legacy.

How to write an ethical will

There are fine books on the subject, but here’s a very simple approach. (I’ve done this with several years of seventh-graders at Temple Israel.)

1. Imagine an ancestor, one you never met. Perhaps this is a great-great-great-grandmother. Perhaps the relative is so distant, you don’t even know her name. So be it.

2. Imagine that you get an opportunity to meet her for a cup of tea. What are the questions you would like to ask her? Write down those questions in a simple, blank spiral-bound notebook, with one question on the top of each page. Leave the rest of each page blank.

3. Return to the first page. Consider the first question. But don’t imagine that you are asking this question of your ancestor. Rather, imagine that your descendant is asking you this question. This might be the person who will receive your ring, your necklace, your candlestick — a person whose name you surely don’t know (though the child might be named for you).

4. Write your answers below the questions. Try not to preach from the grave. Just write simply, straightforwardly, with your heart.

All of this is best done in pencil, I’m told, for archival purposes. It’s best done in your handwriting, I believe, because your scrawl says more about you than your choice of computer typefont.

You can file the notebook with your legal will, returning to it from time to time to add new thoughts and feelings as you grow and gain wisdom.