I’m going to begin this post by talking a little about ancient Hellenistic philosophy, and end it with one of the most famous magicians of the 20th century and his quest to reveal the afterlife. On the way you’ll meet the last requests of rockers, writers and a host of other eccentric characters, not to mention learn something about the importance of writing a will.
Death and the Greeks
In the pantheon of western philosophy there are few figures as cheerful as Epicurus who adopted an admirably no-nonsense approach to death that aimed at taking the sting out of a scary subject. “Death is nothing to us,” he wrote. “Since when we are, death has not come, and when death has not come, we are not.”
His point was simple. The condition of death is absent when we are alive so we shouldn’t fear it. And when the condition of death does arrive we are absent so again, there’s nothing to fear! It’s the ultimate no-worries approach to death and even though it’s never really caught on you can’t fault the man for trying.
One thing that Epicurus couldn’t deny though is that when you pass away the material legacy of your life must be managed. This is where making a will is so important.
Why you should have a will
A will fulfils three major functions. It will:
- Name your executors: These are the people who you trust to take care of the financial process after you’ve passed away. They’ll sort out your finances, ensure that debts are paid and mortgages are taken care of so make sure you trust them to have a steady hand. Alternatively you may appoint a solicitor or bank to do the job but they will charge a big fee for the work.
- Distribute your estate: This is often the most important part of the will-writing process deciding where you want your estate to go after you die. This means everything you leave behind, from the money in your bank to property to your pets. However, bear in mind the person you leave your stuff to isn’t obliged to accept it.
- Allay inheritance tax: If you don’t leave a will then there are strict rules governing the disposal of your estate and this can mean the taxman taking a bigger bite out of whatever you leave behind.
Although these are the main functional reasons there are for making a will, they are not the most compelling reasons. There are two that you should really consider in the run up to making a will.
Firstly, creating a will can provide some guidance for those loved ones and interested parties that you leave behind. Death can cause a messy emotional situation and the last thing that anyone wants is a similarly tangled situation in terms of inheritance. Making sure that you have a solid, up-to-date will can put pay to any associated problems, allowing those close to you to concentrate on grieving.
Secondly, a will is your way to decide how your material legacy is distributed and allows you to make sure you go out as you’d like. If there is a cause that’s close to your heart you can bequeath money to it or if there is someone you feel would benefit from some money that’s outside your family then you can make provisions for them which leads nicely to the story of American billionaire, and famous one-time “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley.
Helmsley was a ruthless real estate investor and hotelier in the 80s but in the latter years of her life she turned things round, donating around $35 million to charities that meant something to her. Upon her death another cause close to her heart was revealed her beloved dog, Trouble.
This pampered pooch was left a $12 million trust fund when Helmsley passed away compared to the $5 million each left to her grandchildren! Unfortunately for the mutt, a New York Judge had other ideas about the legacy, slashing the amount paid out to $2 million. I know it hardly seems worth getting out of the kennel for!
Some more strange tales from beyond the grave
Trouble’s inclusion in his owner’s will is far from the only unusual will and testament. Here are a few other somewhat unusual last will and testaments:
- Californian prune rancher Thomas Shewbridge was also determined to make sure his dogs were well catered for when he died. He turned over the shareholder rights to his two canine companions, granting them 29,000 shares in the local electricity company. The high-flying fidos regularly attended stockholder and board of director meetings.
- A month before Shakespeare died he called on his attorney to write his final will and testament. In that document he called on his wife Anne Hathaway to receive nothing less than his “second-best bed”. It’s hardly the type of romantic sentiment you’d associate with the man who gave the world Romeo and Juliet
- Tom Goodson was keen to ensure that his death was not an occasion for sadness, leaving strict instructions in his will that everyone attending his funeral in 1983 should receive an envelope containing a one pound note with the words: “Have a smoke, crack a joke. Thanks for coming.”
Finally, arguably the most famous magician and escape artist of all time Harry Houdini became fascinated with the spiritualism and the afterlife after his mother’s death affected him deeply. He tried for years to get in touch with her through the mediums of his day but eventually gave up.
However his interest didn’t fade and he came to see his death as an opportunity to bring back some proof of life after death. In his will Houdini left his wife a secret note with randomly selected words he would try to communicate with her after he’d died. He also requested that a seance be held every year on the anniversary of his death at which he’d make contact if he could.
The last of these was held in 1936. Like the ones before it, no contact was made and it became clear that Houdini, the greatest escape artist the world had ever seen, couldn’t slip through death’s clammy pale shackles to get a message to his beloved wife.
Either that or he couldn’t be bothered. We’ll all find out which is true one day.