On Faith appears the first Sunday of each month.
Monroe Singer's "New Year Greetings to My Family" has graced the Reston home of Sally Singer Horwatt for years. A scant eight paragraphs, it was written in the chill of a 1945 Chicago winter as war ravaged the world.
To his second daughter, 4-year-old Sally, Singer wrote: "Happiness should come easy for you because you give so much joy to all of us. My wish for you in this New Year is my wish for all your life -- Happiness, Health and a gracious spirit that you may continue to give to all those around you the joy you have given to me."
Horwatt's father, a high school dropout at 15, was a salesman who died in 1966 at the age of 64. Today, she treasures what he wrote to his wife and three children more than anything else he left behind because "it's contact with my father, with his humanity. It expresses his values."
What Horwatt, 63, has always called "Dad's letter" is an example of what is now commonly called an ethical will, a document that bequeaths to loved ones a spiritual, rather than material, legacy.
Increasingly popular in recent years, ethical wills usually describe the moral or religious values people have strived to live by, the important life lessons they have learned and the kind of life they wish for their children. These wills also can include stories about events and people that shaped the author's life, as well as regrets and acts for which the writer seeks forgiveness.
Ethical wills carry no legal status. Their value is more in the wisdom they pass to the living. And for their authors, they are a tangible way of being remembered.
"It's really an attempt to share and to some extent shape what your legacy will be by putting on paper or into words . . . how you see yourself . . . functioning in the world and what you hold dear and why you hold it dear," said the Rev. Robert Washington, chaplain at Montgomery Hospice in Rockville.
Barry K. Baines, author of "Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper" and associate medical director of Hospice of the Twin Cities in Minneapolis, said the concept "speaks to something just below the surface: transcendence."
"We all want to be remembered, to leave something behind," he said. "An ethical will becomes a very important way to at least leave a spiritual legacy on into the future."
The practice has become more widespread in recent years with the help of books and Web sites promoting it. But experts also cite an increased awareness of life's fragility after Sept. 11, 2001, and, before that, the AIDS epidemic.
Washington, who has ministered to dying people since 1984, recalled how mothers dying of AIDS were particularly eager to write something for their children. "Every mother believes she is the best person to instill values in her children," he said. "So these mothers would be especially heartbroken and would write letters."
But ethical wills are not just for the dying.
Have integrity. Your yes should mean yes, your no should mean no. Be the person you say you are. When you peel a banana have you ever gotten anything other than a banana? That is what integrity is, being on the inside who you say you are on the outside. It is not always easy but it is always valuable.
That advice comes from the ethical will of Stephen M. Berry, a customer service manager who lives near Annapolis. He wrote it for his wife and three children two years ago when he was 43.
"I did it for my own benefit at first. Then I thought of my kids," Berry said. "It's an exercise in looking at your life, what your priorities are, what's important to you."
Dear Mom. . . . What's unique in writing this to you is that many of the messages I've learned from you are the ones I want to leave for you. So this is part reflection and part ethical will -- what's kept me going and what will keep you going, I hope, if I'm no longer around.
This is how Springfield resident Catherine Wetherby opened her ethical will written to her 89-year-old mother. Wetherby tells those who attend her workshops in writing ethical wills that they should see it as a spiritual journey that is helpful at any stage of life.
"It really touches on the spiritual aspect of life, leaving something behind besides the family silver," she said. "You really have to go into your soul to find out what is important enough to me that I want to bequeath."
Maureen Evans, 46, of Cheverly also gives ethical will workshops. Hers are based on the book "Women's Lives, Women's Legacies" by Rachel Freed. Because women often "discount how valuable their experiences have been," said Evans, they need extra encouragement. "That's where I see the value of the ethical will. It allows women to pass on the wisdom they've learned to others."
Ethical wills are also drawing increased attention from wealthy individuals who want their heirs to appreciate the values that inspired their philanthropic giving, said Virginia M. Esposito, president of the Washington-based National Center for Family Philanthropy, a resource center for charitable donors.
"It is a way to communicate more meaning around the giving and the family's involvement in that giving," Esposito said. "More than telling your family to fund the arts . . . it's a way of telling your family why these things have been important to you."
As individual as the people who write them, ethical wills can range from one page to bound volumes. And as more people turn to videotape to record them, experts caution that transcripts should be made in case the tape becomes unviewable.
Remember the past, but do not live in it. Your friends and relatives who have gone before you (perhaps including me when you read this!) can wait for your arrival and would be disappointed to see you arrive unimproved from when they knew you. . . .
Remember to . . . talk to God, and do not be afraid of getting angry with Him -- He can take it! But also listen to God in the silence of your heart when you are just being and not doing. He loves you more than your mom and I ever could -- if only you knew.
James C. Haight, a Bethesda estate planning lawyer who offers this advice in his own ethical will, urges clients to write one because the document can help an heir who must make an end-of-life medical decision. Other experts say ethical wills can also prevent strife among heirs by offering insight about the terms of a person's material will.
"I want to get people to sit down and talk about" their values with family members, Haight said, and "the ethical will is: 'Here's my values.' "
Most experts suggest that people share their ethical wills with family members before they die because they "are beautiful communication tools," said Susan Turnbull, who has a small Massachusetts business helping people write ethical wills. "They open doors between generations."
Baines warns against using ethical wills to manipulate, control or heap revenge on relatives, noting that he has seen some "that have a lot of blaming and scolding."
Another pitfall is self-deception, according to David Trickett, founder of the Jefferson Circle, a Fairfax outfit that counsels families and organizations in resolving deep conflicts. "As with most eulogy-like phenomena . . . these can be tools of spin" and "used to paint a more attractive picture [of the author] than is warranted," Trickett said. He suggests that authors consult with a trusted person "who can hold a mirror up as the story is being evoked and ask questions."
The ethical will is rooted in Jewish tradition, especially the biblical story of a dying Jacob gathering his children around him for his last blessings and commands. Rabbi Jack Riemer of Boca Raton, Fla., became one of the first contemporary Jewish leaders to revive the practice when he began speaking of it in the 1980s. He also co-authored a collection of Jewish ethical wills called "So That Your Values Live On -- Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them."
Once over the first hump of facing one's own mortality, the next step can be just as daunting. "There's nothing harder than facing a blank page," Riemer noted.
But sincerity can conquer that. "Words that come from the heart enter the heart," he said, adding that some of the most moving ethical wills he has read were written by "plain ordinary people, very simple people."
Riemer, 75, has written an ethical will for his two children and two grandchildren. It is "a couple of pages" long and gets "updated as my life changes and as my kids change."
"I don't want to dictate my values to my kids. I don't want a veto," the rabbi added. "But I want a vote, and if they're willing to take my property, they should be at least willing to consider my values."