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Leaving a (written) Legacy

Communicating values, beliefs, blessings, and more to future generations.

By Karen Flaten

It was a warm day in late September when several people assembled at Elk River’s Continuing Education building for Bill Marsella’s class, Writing Your Ethical Will. The attendees were from diverse backgrounds, and had a variety of reasons for taking the class. One participant was there to urge her partner to “write some things down...” One expected to learn something that would be helpful as he worked to put a family trust together. All were eager to learn about the concept of ethical wills or legacy letters.

Bill Marsella teaches a class on writing an ethical will, also known as “legacy letters,” through Elk River Community Education. Photo by Karen Flaten

Bill introduced himself, and then turned to the whiteboard on the wall, writing a few important concepts for the participants to jot down. Although the terms sound similar, an ethical will is nothing like either a last will and testament, or a living will. A last will and testament is a legal document that communicates a person’s final wishes pertaining to their assets. Living wills and other advance directives are defined by the Mayo Clinic as written, legal instructions regarding a person’s preferences for medical care if they are unable to make decisions for themselves. But an ethical will is simply a written document that communicates personal values, beliefs, blessings, and advice to relatives and to future generations. Bill explained that ethical wills are also called legacy letters. The tradition of passing on blessings when nearing life’s end goes back to the Bible; to the Old Testament story of Jacob calling his children to his deathbed in order to pass on his blessings.

In the biblical version, the blessings of Jacob were also prophecies, telling how his sons would become leaders of the 12 Tribes of Israel. In the 21st century version, the legacy letter often shares how the writer would like to be remembered, as well as his words of wisdom and blessings for his loved ones. Bill’s emphasis is on passing on love, using words that show caring, and are thoughtful and forgiving.

Bill originally learned about legacy letters and ethical wills when he read Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, by Barry K. Baines. Later, at a conference at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Bill attended a lecture by Rachael Freed, author of Your Legacy Matters. Rachael spoke convincingly about leaving your faith and blessings to future generations. Inspired by what he had read and heard, Bill continued to research ethical wills and legacy letters, searching for ways to express personal values. He communicated with Rachael Freed, and now considers her a friend. Perhaps the culmination of his research was attending a webinar on legacy letter writing, where Bill became certified to teach others how to write legacy letters.

As Bill talked about legacy letters, he shared some personal stories, as well as some favorite books that have also informed his life. A Little Faith, by Mitch Albom (the author of Tuesdays with Morrie), and When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, by Harold Kushner, were two on his reading list.

Legacy letters can be used to say things that one may not feel comfortable saying out loud. And they can be used to put things in writing, so they will not be forgotten. “There’s an old Hebrew proverb,” said Bill. “Words fly away. But what’s written remains.”

Legacy letters, explained Bill, do not have to be end-of-life documents; they can also be used at other times to communicate important information to loved ones. As an example, Bill discussed how he and his siblings had each written a legacy letter to their father on his 80th birthday in order to share their feelings with him. “He didn’t need anything - and wouldn’t have accepted anything as a gift either. But - these letters he did not refuse,” said Bill with a small smile.

Seniors work on their legacy letters at a Community Education class taught by Bill Marsella earlier this year. Photo by Karen Flaten

Recently, Bill wrote his newest grandson a legacy letter, asking his son to give it to the boy in a few years, on his golden birthday. The letter contained information about his namesake, as well as other important family history. “In a legacy letter,” said Bill, “you can write stories about a generation they will never meet.”

Although many things can be communicated in a legacy letter, the blessing is the most important part. Bill suggested some verbiage that could be used in the blessing portion of the legacy letter: “my blessing for you,” “my wish for you,” and “my desire for you...”

As the class came to an end, Bill discussed another type of writing that he has become interested in, and which he also teaches through Community Education, as well as other venues. Guided Autobiography is a technique to help people share their personal stories and autobiographies with others. So many people, explained Bill, want to write their memoirs or autobiographies, perhaps to give to family and friends. But, after writing many pages, sometimes people stop, feeling overwhelmed by the process. With the guided autobiography technique, students write several short 2-page sections regarding a certain topic or portion of their lives, prompted by questions or ideas. Since the stories are short, people do not become bogged down by long stories that they may not know how to end. And, at the end of the course, each participant has several completed two-page stories. They can consider their autobiographies finished, or can continue to flesh out their stories.

Inspired by this idea, Bill attended a workshop through the Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies in California - and became one of only 575 people certified to teach this technique.

One group of Bill’s Guided Autobiography students from a November 2021 class decided to continue working on their autobiographies together. They meet monthly to review their completed work, making progress toward their individual autobiographies. Jane Hartman, one of the members of the Guided Autobiography group, said she had started writing her memoir a couple years ago, but had stalled out. “I didn’t know how to go forward,” she said. The memoir was gathering dust until she took Bill’s class on Guided Autobiography. She found a way to move forward through taking the class with Bill, and found a group of like-minded people as well. Now she and her former classmates meet monthly as a writing group, and are each moving ahead with their individual autobiographies.

“It’s motivating,” said Jill, one of the members of the writing group, about Bill’s class. By meeting with a group, she explained, “it forces you to do it.” The format of the guided autobiography class is eight weeks of class, for which each participant is asked to write two pages on a certain topic for each meeting. In class, participants are asked to read what they wrote out loud. The rest of the class is then asked to provide feedback. “At first it felt a little uncomfortable,” said Jackie, another member of the group, “to read personal stories out loud.” The others agreed with her. But after a while, they all agreed, it got easier. And the positive feedback from other participants was helpful.

Bill Marsalla and a couple others from his Community Education class read through some of their legacy letters in the summer of 2022. Photo by Karen Flaten

The group is still sharing their stories out loud, more than a year after taking the class. They also still use the book Bill recommended in class, but they are flexible. “Sometimes we pick a topic to write on, and sometimes we leave it open,” said Jane. During a recent meeting, one person wrote about holiday traditions – the suggested topic - but two others diverged from the original theme and wrote on other subjects that were important to them. All were writing from their hearts, telling personal stories that they could share with their loved ones; all had gained confidence in their writing skills and were continuing with this important work. The stories were beautiful, impressive, and heartfelt.

Bill Marsella’s work in retirement has been to bring to others the inspiration he has found with legacy letters and guided autobiographies. His work, many years of which were spent in fundraising - first for the United Way, then for faith-based organizations - has been informed by his reading on spiritual matters. That reading has helped him choose his work in retirement and the techniques he wants to share with others. Bill offers classes in guided autobiography and legacy letters/ethical wills through various Community Education programs in Central Minnesota, as well as through Senior Centers and other venues.

After a long career in fundraising, Bill has found a way to bring the thoughts and ideas that have inspired him to retirees and others, to transform their worlds as he has done his own. “Words that Last,” the name he has taken for his retirement venture, says it well. These letters and stories are for the next generation. Last they will.

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