Grief, Loss, Death & Dying

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Ethical WillsReview - Ethical Wills
Putting Your Values on Paper
by Barry K. Baines
Perseus Publishing, 2001
Review by Lara Winner, M.A.
Jul 9th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 28)

Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper is, as the name suggests, a self-help guide for those wishing to write an ethical will.  While there are brief chapters introducing the nature and history of the ethical will concept, the bulk of the book consists of tips, outlines and writing exercises designed to facilitate the will creation and storage process for all types and skill levels of writers.  (The book is an updated and expanded version of Baines’s 1998 Ethical Will Resource Kit; a workbook is also available.)  Because of the frequent sprinkling of graphic boxes and extended quotations, the book may seem to read more quickly than its 160 pages; a healthy one-third of the text is taken up by an appendix containing actual ethical wills by authors ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s.  Overall, though, the book should be useful for average lay readers interested in learning more about ethical wills and as a resource for those professionals—lawyers, medical and hospice personnel, religious, and others—who work with them.  If nothing else, it is one of very few of its kind.

So what is an ethical will?  Unlike a “last will and testament” disposing of one’s estate or an advanced directive for health care decisions, an ethical will is not legally binding.  Rather, a good ethical will transmits values, life lessons, family history, and other experiences to those left behind when the author dies.  One pictures a written version of those few choice words of wisdom spoken by a family elder on his/her deathbed.  While the legal will deals with material goods, the ethical will is meant to pass on the non-material goods and family traditions of equal or greater importance.

Thus the term “ethical will” may be a bit misleading; one’s first instinct is to think along the lines of a living will or other advanced directive for health care.  (One of the example wills in the appendix is actually attached to the patient’s durable power of attorney; it is meant to help guide her children in situations she could not foresee.)  Baines chooses quite consciously to use it, however; ethical wills have been around since Biblical times, and peaked during the Middle Ages in Jewish communities.  Baines says he wants to tap into and preserve that tradition.  Many wills are also largely normative in nature, passing on the author’s collected wisdom on how one should live.  Nevertheless, it would be nice if a less confusing name could be found.

Such terminological quibbles aside, Ethical Wills distills the best of Barry Baines’s experience as a hospice physician and ethical will workshop leader and facilitator.  He is not so much the author of this book as its compiler; the voices of friends and other contributors speak here as much as his own.  But that is in large part the point; no one method for writing an ethical will is going to work for everyone, so as many approaches are included as possible.  Baines’s main goal is to promote the writing and use of the ethical will itself, to try to ensure that the most important words between family and friends do not remain unsaid.  Who can argue with that?



© 2002 Lara Winner

Lara Winner, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in philosophy with a concentration in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is interested in mental health/mental health ethics both because it is a traditionally underserved area of medical ethics and because it can provide valuable insights into the interrelationship of mind, body, and spirit.


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