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Ethical wills give new life to loved ones’ thoughts

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Harriet Schirmer is giving an old practice new life. She’s teaching people about ethical wills, which leave ideas rather than objects to loved ones when a person passes away.

“Maybe the things you have to teach your family are more important than the things you leave for them,” said Schirmer.

Harriet Schirmer believes in passing on ideas to future generations.

That’s why she’s fascinated by ethical wills. Traditional wills bequeath a person’s possessions to loved ones when they pass away. But ethical wills are meant to carry on a person’s thoughts.

Schirmer said that while this may be a new idea for some people, it has deep historical roots.

“It’s an old, old tradition. They go back to the book of Genesis. They say that when Jacob called his family together before he was going to die, basically that’s what he was doing,” said Schirmer.

Schirmer said an ethical will can contain any information a person wants.

It isn’t just for ideas and beliefs. It can also be a way of telling someone things that have never been said before.

“But, you know, it can tell the next generations things that you’ve valued. It may not affect the way they live, but at least they know a little more about maybe your valuing them, in ways that they didn’t know. A lot of people are not very talkative about the things that are important to them. Most of us aren’t,” said Schirmer.

She said a person may even choose to write about memories that are not so happy.

“One of the things that people sometimes put in there are the things that they wish to forgive people for or they wish they were forgiven for. But, it should not be something that binds the people that are left,” said Schirmer.

Schirmer said it can be helpful to use starting points when writing one. These can be anything from ‘things I care about’ to ‘my favorite memories’ to ‘things I would change if I could.”

It can be tough to start writing and she said using these guides can help give a will some structure.

“It’s given me something I can work with. I’ve already tried starting one for myself—I haven’t finished it. And that’s one thing about ethical wills, like other wills, you can always change them as long as you’re of reasonable mind,” said Schirmer.

The most important thing is that it brings some peace to the writer and the reader.

And, Schirmer said, it can be a wonderful way to get to know someone better even after they are gone.

“I wish I had one from my father’s father. I think my father passed on his things very well. But, I haven’t anything from my father’s father. But I have lots of stories about him. And I think it would be wonderful to have an ethical will from him,” said Schirmer.

Because, she said, people can continue to live on through their words.

Harriet Schirmer will be running a workshop on ethical wills Sunday, March 17th from 2-5pm at the Presbyterian Church in Wrangell.

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