Women's Lives, Women's Legacies

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From Chapter 10 of
Women's Lives, Women's Legacies

The following is excerpted from Chapter 10: On Death and Dying.

Several years ago I presented my 5-year-old granddaughter, Sophie, with a blank book, a granddaughter-grandmother journal. This journal, I explained, was just for us. She wouldn't have to share it with any of the other grandchildren. Each time we were together we would write or draw in our special journal, then we'd put it away in a secret place in my writing room. Because Sophie wasn't writing yet, I would be the scribe and she could decide what we would write about. When she was a little older, we would share responsibility for the writing.

Sophie's eyes sparkled as we looked excitedly at all the blank pages. She picked out a pink marker, printed her name on the first page, and beautified it with a heart or two. Witnessing the birth of a natural journal writer, I imagined the wonderful events, thoughts and feelings that would fill this record of our relationship. As Sophie looked up at me with her innocent, dark eyes, she happily exclaimed, "Oh, I get it, Granny! Then when you're dead I'll know everything that we did together."

She got it! My eyes filled with tears, my heart with the bittersweet reality of love and death - the truth she so easily understood and accepted. One day she would have our special journal, and I wouldn't be here to enjoy her anymore.

Documenting a legacy addresses a deep need to be remembered, a need we all share. It implies an awareness of mortality, an acknowledgment that one day we will no longer be alive. This is a difficult certainty to confront. Yet throughout history, women have cared for the dying, comforted mourners and laid out the dead. Our intimacy with birth and death makes us part of a worldwide community of women who greet these wonders with love and awe. Above all, it teaches us that death, like life, is precious and sacred. Legacy writing is an opportunity to honor our death as well as our life, clearly communicating how we want to be remembered. We can express idiosyncratic wishes related to our death, funeral and burial, and we can ask our families to honor these wishes. In Genesis, where the ethical will originated, Jacob first blessed his sons and then instructed them to return his body to his ancestors' burial place:

"I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave which is in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan, the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for a burial site - there Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah - the field and the cave in it, bought from the Hittites." When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people. (Gen.49:29-33)

Because none of us knows when and under what circumstances our end will come, it's imperative that we document our preferences and instructions while we are of sound mind. In the following pages we will examine how we want to be remembered, then we'll organize our instructions for our survivors. For those who are overwhelmed at the thought of putting their affairs in order, completing this chapter will bring a welcome sense of relief. Naturally, the decisions you make today may change over time. As you update these sections of your spiritual-ethical will, you might keep a record of your writings to document your personal growth.

Here are three suggestions from the chapter to stimulate your reflection and writing:

  • A dramatic way to clarify how we want to be remembered by others is to consider what we've valued most about life on Earth. This perspective awakens our gratitude to the abundant blessings in our lives, making the most mundane details seem sacred. Consider what you have taken for granted. Make a list of what you will miss.

  • Imagine that you could take a snapshot of your life at this very moment. What would you see? How would others remember you? More importantly, how would you hope to be remembered?

  • Many women embrace traditional family or ethnic rituals, imbuing them with personal meaning. Others create their own death rituals, hoping to distance themselves from traditions that no longer provide solace or support. Describe the rituals that are meaningful to you, and express your reason for wanting to be remembered in these ways. Write about rituals that you definitely want or don't want your loved ones to use when celebrating your life or memorializing your death. You may want to write over time to make these decisions.
What others have said about the book

Rachael Freed asks whether our beliefs, values, and family traditions will live on in the hearts of our loved ones, friends, and communities after our death. She invites us to create a spiritual-ethical will to do just that. Her book can help us, in a creative way, to do it today instead of waiting until it’s too late.
Fr. Dean V. Marek, Director, Chaplain Services, Mayo Clinic

Provides women with all the tools they need to harvest the bounty of their lives and to pass on its fruits to future generations. An invaluable resource for all women, no matter where in their life’s journey they find themselves.
Ellen Frankel, Ph.D., editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publiction Society, author, The Five Books of Miriam

Using a deft combination of biblical theory, feminist analysis, moving quotation, and personal experience, Rachael Freed has produced a work that is both inspiritng and practical….This is a thoroughly successful mapping for anyone remotely interested in shaping the values of a lifetime into ‘gifts’ for the future.
Toni A. H. McNaron, Distinguished Teaching Professor Emerita, University of Minnesota, author, I Dwell in Possibility: A Memoir

Women’s Lives, Women’s Legacies is a significant and meaningful contribution to the literature on spiritual legacies. It underscores the importance of preserving and passing on our legacies to the generations yet to come. This book will instill confidence in anyone wishing to undertake the journey of creating their spiritual-ethical will. I felt surrounded by a sense of sacredness as I came to appreciate how my spiritual-ethical will contributes to making this world a better place.
Barry K. Baines, MD, author, Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper

This is a beautiful book with a soul. Rachael Freed has taken the concept of ethical wills and enhanced it, enlarged it, and made it accessible to women of all faiths. Her book is a tremendous legacy to others and provides a rich and most useful set of practical instructions for anyone who wants to pass on their values to future generations.
Larry Raphael, Senior Rabbi, Sherith Israel, San Francisco; Former Director of the Department of Adult Jewish Growth at the Union for Reform Judaism

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