Living Will

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 21, 2024

No, it’s not an oxymoron – though it almost sounds like it. We tend to associate the making of a will with thoughts about what is to happen after we are no longer around – i.e. when we are not living. But the “living will” is apparently a new concept in jurisprudence and in medicine. It seems to have developed from the fact that, due to modern medical advances, a time can come when a person may be hopelessly ill with no chance of recovery, and useless to themselves or to anyone else, but still capable of being kept indefinitely alive.

Of course, the idea of will-making is not a new one. One famous instance concerned Alexander the Great, who, before his very early death in 323 B.C., had conquered most of the known inhabited world. When asked, as he lay dying, to whom he wished to leave his empire, he is said to have replied “To the strongest.” This did civilization a great disservice, ushering in a generation of bloodshed between several men who had been his leading officers.

But another notable will (and one eminently bizarre) is one with which I have a sort of personal connection, because it involved the College I attended in England.

That College, officially called University College London (UCL), was the first part of what became the University of London. It was founded, in 1826, by a philanthropic group who were concerned that, outside of Oxford and Cambridge, Britain had no institutions of higher learning, and none that members of the lower social classes could easily attend. One member of that founding group was Jeremy Bentham, a renowned social reformer, widely known for his doctrine of Utilitarianism, and its slogan, “The greatest good for the greatest number.” When he died, in 1832, he left instructions for his remains to be preserved, made presentable, and displayed in the main building of the College.

And, sure enough, if you go there today, you can still visit Jeremy Bentham, sitting in a large handsome cabinet. His skeleton is not visible, but is dressed very respectably with hat and gloves, and his face a very life-like wax image. He is thus enabled, as he wished, to attend the most important meetings of the College Board – and is said to be recorded in the Minutes on those occasions, as being “Present, but not voting.”

Wills have also often been of major consequence historically. Julius Caesar’s will (at least according to Shakespeare’s play), left most of his wealth for the public benefit, and reading it publicly at his funerary rites in the Forum, enabled his friend Marc Antony to inflame the Roman rabble against Brutus and the other conspirators who had murdered Caesar.

But Shakespeare himself also left a will which has been of interest to literary historians, mainly because of one clause, in which it specified that he left to his wife “my second best bed.” Various explanations have been offered for this apparent deprecation of his marriage, which, however lasted from their wedding, when William was 18, until his death in 1616 at the age of 52 – and produced three children.

In more recent times, the wills which have attracted most public attention have been those of very wealthy people who chose to devote their questionably accumulated fortunes to philanthropic purposes. Prominent among these have been legacies derived from the manufacture and sale of explosives (Alfred Nobel), cigarettes (Wills Family) movies and gambling (Howard Hughes), oil (Rockefeller Family), and artillery (Krupp Family).

In the days when slavery was legal in all the Southern States, slaves were property, and could be left in their owner’s will, according to his instructions. Thomas Jefferson (who maintained in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal”) himself owned more than 600. In his will, he freed just five.

As to my own will, all I have to leave that’s of any value is my creative work. I have no family – so I’m leaving it all to a Trust similar to one set up by my wife while she was living. I’m one of those people who really don’t believe in anything, so I feel very little concern about what happens after I’m dead.

Which reminds me of the story of a mobster’s funeral. The minister had just said, “Our friend Bugsy is not really dead – he is only sleeping,” when there came a voice from someone at the back, – “I got fifty bucks says he’s dead.”  


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