New Harmony: Leaving children more than material goods

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 21 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

Everyone has heard of a last will and testament.

But a young, northern Utah mother seems to feel we stress the "will" part too much and don't do nearly enough with the "testament."

So Katie Shepherd visits groups around the area and shares her notion of an "ethical will," a document that allows people to leave behind the moral and ethical lessons they've learned to heirs, not just their material goods.

Instead of net worth, she throws the focus on spiritual worth.

"Ancient traditions, especially the Jewish tradition, had a history of fathers passing on wisdom when they are about to die," she says.

She quotes the Book of Mormon, Jacob 4:3

"Now in this thing we do rejoice; and we labor diligently to engraven these words upon plates, hoping that our beloved brethren and our children will receive them with thankful hearts, and look upon them that they may learn with joy and not with sorrow … "

"People write the stories from their lives, but they don't always draw a lesson from them," she says. "That's the key."

What's more, she says many of us wait too long before we get going.

"We're told we need to write our life history," she says, "but we wait until we can't remember the early years. And when is the time we want to influence our children? When they are younger and making big choices. If we wait until we're 90 to write down all we've learned, it's too late."

To help people get off on the right foot, Shepherd has produced a small, spiral-bound workbook with sections about "Writing to Loved Ones," "Passing on Wisdom," "Continuing Traditions" and gives other places to start. She says she is passionate about preserving memories. A former teacher, Barry Bains, helped her see the need for that.

Shepherd and her husband have both produced ethical wills for their children. And they have had them bound in a simple format that gives the slim volumes the look and feel of easy-to-read children's books — complete with a few photos.

The key is to keep what you do simple, short and sincere.

Shepherd adds three other words to those. You must focus on "trust, honesty and fairness."

What she loves most is sharing this with others. "That's the rewarding part," she says.

Those interested may want to dial up the website she's started, www.memoriesworthreading.com.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in Mormon Times. Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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