The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents 

“`You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'”[1]

Legacy is a powerful word. We use it to describe what survives us and represents who we were. Establishing a legacy assumes that a life with an observable shape and purpose is being lived, and, having lived such a life, its residue will represent that shape and purpose. Legacy speaks about you, giving evidence of who you were, and that you were here.

Before there can be a legacy there has to be a life. Answering “What is the shape and purpose of my life?” is difficult.  It is difficult for most to answer the question early in life, and we learn its answer more and more over time as we go along. Sadly, such things elude some people for their entire lifetime. That is a tragedy measurable on the Richter scale; as enormous as that tragedy is, we all know persons who’ve never figured out who they are or why they’re here. The inescapable corollary is that, not knowing, they have no genuine legacy. I cannot calculate for whom such ignorance is more painful- the one who is utterly un-self-aware throughout life, or those powerless to be of much use as they see a train wreck of cluelessness unfold and perpetuate itself. “ is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.”[2] No kidding. 

Granting the assumption that you have and continue to discover some sense of the shape and purpose of your life, there is necessarily a legacy being created. What is that remainder that will describe you when you’re dead? What’s in your Will? 

Many people hear the question “What’s in the Will?” and immediately go to goods and chattels....”and to my son Aloysius I leave my father’s diamond cufflinks and studs.” Such things are powerful. It’s our stuff and it’s valuable perhaps first and foremost because it’s ours. If it came to us through the family, the value is more than intrinsic- it carries invaluable history to be stewarded as surely as we steward its assessed value. At our best, we have what say we can about such things, and do so as an expressed hope of remembrance rather than as an exertion of power. If both testator and heir have an authentic connection to one another, such a bequest is breathtaking in its import and stunning in its value. 

Another tack regarding goods and chattels has people making one final point in their Wills. “….and to my son Aloysius I leave the garden rake in the garage (the one with the broken handle), and my Johnson 50hp outboard motor (also in the garage) that hasn’t been run in 32 years.” Ouch. This is the Will of a mean spirit, attaching contempt rather than affection to the bequest; being disinherited would hurt less than this does…“I don’t think much of you. Rather than leave you out, I include you in the Will to be sure that at its reading I have one more chance, with an impunity to speak reserved for the dead, to say how little I care for you.” Talk about twisted, brutal and perhaps even evil…and dear friends and gentle people, it happens all the time. 

And then of course there are the fights. “Money changes things,” is an aphorism because it’s true. More often than you may imagine, decades of deceptively bright cordiality evaporate at the moment of death, revealing rapacious greed and snarling contempt among kin and near-kin – the true depth and character of relationships revealed in a viciousness that permanently divides families. Having served as executor for a number of estates, I can testify that crass avarice emerges at the bedside, in some cases just after respiration and pulse have stopped, while the hearing faculties of the decedent are still fading. Despite prior experience, such brutish avarice never ceases to amaze and sicken me. 

 Others pass by the stuff, going instead to the accumulated wisdom of life as their legacy- passing along what life has taught for the improvement of the lives that follow.  By what spiritual alchemy does one transform the lead of one’s life into the gold of the future? Perhaps by giving one’s heirs some signposts and marks by which to navigate…things to embrace and things to avoid...wisdom conveyed as: 

“Never jointly own real estate with anyone other than your spouse.” 

“Smoking at the gas pump is a bad idea.”[3]
“ Use enough gun.”[4]
“Repeating the same behavior expecting a different result is crazy.”
“Never shoot the snake while it’s in the boat.”[5]
“Alcohol in gasoline is clever; alcohol before gasoline isn’t.”
“If you run with a lame dog, you’re bound to limp.”[6] 

You get the idea...wisdom as one’s testament to those who follow...jewels mined from life as surely as the diamonds in those cufflinks were mined from the Earth. “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.”[7] Happy are they who are content to leave joyfully what they cannot take with them- wisdom and cufflinks- and happy are they who are loved by such people. This is the richest testament of all. 

“What’s in the Will?” An oft-used spiritual exercise for exploring life’s meanings, and inevitably therefore one’s legacy, is the simple exercise of writing one’s own obituary. Your obituary is a testament reflecting on what’s remembered, life’s narrative and memory becoming another form of legacy. Rehearsing one’s life honestly, with candor and humility, can be harder than it might first seem.[8] But in such an exercise, one can get closer to getting a handle on the Will. Writing your obituary is personally instructive, and it becomes a tangible first part of what you leave behind. 

Do not delay. Do not misperceive the urgency. Do not miscalculate, assuming that, not knowing when they will be needed, your testamentary papers can be put off. Luke’s Gospel brings it up in high relief indeed: 

“`You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'”[9] 

More than mere rhetoric or a legal question, your Will is a spiritual question. Making the Will is not simply a disposition of goods or a dissemination of wisdom, or anything else. It is more than an orderly legal conveyance, or a ragged attempt to control from the grave those things one can’t take there. Confronting one’s mortality when dealing with the Will, one has the opportunity to sort things- literally in some cases to sort things- and in the sorting discover what/who is important…what is of value…what matters enough to care about right up to the moment of one’s death.[10] 

Pray about, write and revise your Will, and talk about it with one’s confidantes. In so doing, a spiritual examination is inevitable. How does that document express your faith as well as your bank balance, your beliefs as well as your assets, your love as well as your legal necessities? What is the substance of your estate, temporal and spiritual? 

What’s in the Will? Love you. See you in Church. 

FBC3+, 31 July 2016, being The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
[1] Luke 12:20  NRSV
[2] Ecclesiastes 1:13  NRSV
[3] Frank B. Crumbaugh, Jr., Memphis, Tennessee, c.1968
[4] Robert C. Ruark, Jr., Nairobi, British East Africa, c.1951
[5] Frank B. Crumbaugh, Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, 1966
[6] Monnie D. Mayes, Memphis, Tennessee, 1956
[7] I Timothy 6:7  KJV
[8] …give it a try…it is a piece of writing that we’ll all need one day, and perhaps even a feeble attempt at a draft obituary can form a part of your legacy- an artifact written in your own hand, useful to your heirs in their moment of grief, speaking what you hope might be remembered of your life…
[9] Luke 12:20  NRSV
[10] The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.  –BCP, pg 445

​Pentecost XI: What's in the WIll?

© 2013, 2016  Frank B Crumbaugh III