"Sorry, my family, I can not promise to be with you forever. . . . Children, Mama has recorded video and audio tapes, so that you can see Mama and hear her voice. You've got to remember every day to brush your teeth, wash your hands, be good and do what you're told, eat your food, and obey your grandma and father. . . ." This is a quote from the will of a woman with leukemia found in the book The Last Promise.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger described the most enlightened mode of life as "being-toward-death." Yet death, life's single absolute truth, is a taboo subject for Chinese. Anyone so uncouth as even to utter the non-euphemistic term for death in Chinese is apt to be greeted by a chant of "fie, fie, fie" from his listeners, who hope thus to avert tragedy.
The final lie
Even when a member of the family is ill, and the shadow of death looms close, it is still a topic rarely broached. Chao Ko-shih, an associate professor of nursing at National Cheng Kung Medical College in Tainan, who is known as "the mother of hospice care" for terminal cancer patients in Taiwan, points out that in the three months since a hospice for cancer patients was established at National Cheng Kung University Medical College Hospital, more than 100 patients were treated there, but "even on their death beds less than one-tenth knew they had cancer!"
"Many of the ill leave this world in a muddle," says Chao. Other patients privately ask doctors, "Exactly what do I have? How come the more I'm treated, the worse I get?" When they get the answer, some are quite philosophical about it themselves, but tell their doctors, "My wife is very fragile and can't handle blows of this sort. Whatever you do, please don't tell her about my condition!"
In this way, doctor, patient and family keep lying to each other, all pretending that death is a long way off, unwilling or unable to unmask the final lie. When death finally comes, few leave behind instructions to their spouse or children, or even have an opportunity to say farewell. It is as if they have gone and left not a trace behind.
This being the case for patients with extended illnesses, it is all the more so for those who perish in airplane crashes or automobile accidents. In light of this regrettable state of affairs, some religious and elderly groups have started speaking out in the hope of smashing these taboos about death, advocating that people prepare a will.
Chen Rong-chi, director of the Lotus Hospice Care Foundation and president of the En Chu Kong Hospital in Sanhsia, came to people's attention last year when he sponsored the "Final Promise Will-Writing Competition." He explains that Chinese have no tradition of writing wills. Perhaps traditional society was too simple, or the distinctions in family hierarchies all too clear. The father or eldest son would decide everything, or in the case of disputes, the clan leader would come to mediate. But times have changed. With the emergence of different value systems and the rise of individualism, the writing of a will to prevent arguments and regrets among both the living and the dead has became necessary.
DIY after-death arrangements
What should a will discuss? If nothing else, says Chen Rong-chi, "The one question it should clearly answer is how you want to dispose of your body."
A nurse named Tsai who has worked at Taiwan Adventist Hospital for many years remembers one old lady whose diabetic condition had severely weakened several of her internal organs. Even when she was seriously ill, she would never utter a word about her condition, and her family wouldn't bring it up either. She was nearly at the point of death when her half-dozen children started arguing about "whether they should give her a bath and change her clothes, so she would be ready to leave this world." They became very angry with each other. Some firmly believed that they "couldn't let Mama start out on her journey with nothing to wear," whereas others held that "under no circumstances should one move the body right before or after death, lest it cause a disturbance on her trip to the Buddhist Pure Land." Each was certain that he or she knew what was best for their mother. The argument got louder and louder, until finally the nurse couldn't stand it any more and told them to leave.
Chao Ko-shih has seen an even more ridiculous example. One powerful and wealthy old man died from cancer, but because his children had different religious beliefs and each wanted to put on impressive and stately funerals, he ended up with five different ceremonies. The Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists and Taoists each had at least one go at it. When a ceremony ended, they would give him a shot of embalming fluid, put him back in the freezer and wait for the next time!
"This is simply turning parents' funerals into games for their children," says Chao. If people's wishes are all along clearly spelled out in black and white in a will, then perhaps one's death won't have to cause one's corpse quite so much torture.
In fact, more than a few people take a DIY approach to managing their funerary matters. An old general named Yen living in Hsinchu prepared a will a decade ago, and at the beginning of each year would take it out and look it over. When he died recently, his children opened up the sealed will. They discovered that not only did their father make detailed descriptions about the funeral and what to do with his body, but he had also prepared a list of his close friends and their addresses, and had even written his obituary notice and a description of his accomplishments in life. His children were extremely grateful for their father's open-mindedness and willingness to shoulder this responsibility himself.
Of course, "The road to the Land of the Dead is traveled by old and young alike," so the elderly and seriously ill aren't the only ones who need to make a will. People in their primes, living hectic, busy lives and under great pressure at work, should also be prepared for death at any moment. The major motivation that these people have for making a will, however, is quite different. For them, its chief purpose is to answer the question of who should take custody of their children.
Who gets the little darlings?
Another forceful promoter of preparing a will, Changte Seniors Foundation Director Kuo Chun-hsiang, cites this example: The year before last, there was a plane crash in Cambodia in which several Taiwanese businessmen who were members of the Lion's Club died. One was a single father, whose wife had died several years before from cancer and who was raising two young children on his own. It was an unexpected, nasty trick for fate to play, one that made his children parentless.
Because this businessman had not prepared a will before he died, the father's and mother's families went to court over the custody rights and the substantial wealth that went along with them. The father's financially unsuccessful and unrespectable brothers fought harder, and the mother's sisters, who had been close to the children throughout their lives, ended up losing. During the dispute, it is said that the father appeared in the dream of a friend. In tears and obviously not at peace, he expressed the wish that he not be buried before the custody mess was sorted out.
Because cases of this kind are not infrequent, Kuo Chun-hsiang urges businessmen who do a lot of traveling (especially to places like mainland China, Southeast Asia and Latin America, where crime is rampant) to be aware of this danger and ensure that their children wouldn't be placed with the wrong people. He advises them to prepare a will as soon as possible.
And then there is the matter of money. While one's wealth may not directly involve one's body, it is the focus of most wills. It is also often the family's biggest concern and the point on which the dying are least willing to relent.
The last barrier-money
Chou Chang-chi, a Catholic nun who has worked for four years as a counselor in the hospice at the Cardinal Tien Medical Center in Hsintien, has seen many dying patients whose families were upset or even held bitter grudges because of concerns about putting the patient's financial affairs in order. She recalls one entrepreneur in his fifties who discovered that he had lung cancer. After a few months, his condition worsened, and he ended up in the hospice. His grown daughters had rarely talked to him about his business even when he was healthy. But seeing that he was near death, they and their mother were anxious about it, but lacked the guts or heart to broach the subject. They came to Chou for help.
"'Sir,' I said, 'You are still clear about things. Have you given any thought to who should take over your business? Where are your company's important papers? Who owes you money? And to whom do you owe money? How should your family help you handle these matters? Your family is quite worried. Would you like to give them some instructions?'"
Chou recalls that when she said this, the patient's face was expressionless, as if he wasn't hearing anything, but a few days later, his wife came to thank her. It turned out that the patient had been taking it all in after all, and silently set himself to put things right.
"The closer someone is to a patient, the less able they are to bring up such issues," says Chou. "A disinterested third party like me can play the important role of liaison."
Having worked for a long time at a hospice and seen many patients move from life to death, Chou has a deep understanding of the nature of money-that more than being simple purchasing power, it is fraught with symbolic meaning. Holding onto money is connected to maintaining a sense of security, self-respect and self-control. Choices made in consigning control of money over to others show who you trust, who you love and who you hate, as well as who you want to reward and who you want to punish.
Many people forever deny that death is near, holding out hope until the very end that "a cure might be discovered tomorrow," says Chou. "Too sick to leave their beds, they still refuse to clarify financial matters for their families." Some people use money as a lever of control over their children, resolving to "wait until the last moment" and see which children treat them best before deciding how to divide their estate.
"For those close to death, money is the last form of psychological protection," Chou explains. In mustering the courage to ask about financial matters, patients' families should never forget that they have to use twice the patience and love in dealing with someone close to death. Whatever you do, don't let those who are near death leave this world with bitterness in their hearts.
Protecting the old from the young
In Money Motive, the American doctor T. Wiseman explains that the practice of leaving wills dates back to ancient times, when primitive people strove to keep younger generations down and prevent greedy and overambitious sons from casting out elderly fathers. Over the course of history, the most tragic of all stories have been those describing children fighting over fathers' estate and titles.
Kuo Chun-hsiang recalls that one company CEO was put in intensive care when his condition became critical. One of his sons, who had massive gambling debts, stole his father's chop, opened his safe-deposit box, and then removed and sold his father's stocks. The son thought he had pulled the ploy off, when suddenly his father's condition improved. Desperate, the son entered the father's intensive-care room and turned off his oxygen supply for three minutes! After the father died, the mother grew more and more suspicious, until she finally called her three sons together and confronted them with her doubts. When she was told what she had feared most, she fainted.
"If this entrepreneur had used his signature instead of his chop for his safe-deposit box and important documents; if he had prepared a will, so that there were clear instructions about what to do with his property; and if he had a witness to his will; could his son have embezzled his money and the situation spiraled so completely out of control?" asks Kuo. "In olden times people spoke of 'yang er fang lao' [raising children to provide security in old age]. Modern people, on the other hand, need to prepare a will to 'yang lao fang er' [pass one's old age protected from one's children]." This may sound a bit harsh, but it's the voice of experience.
Taking another tack, lawyer Lin Mei-ching argues that in modern industrial society, human relationships and money are tied up in a complex web and that preparing a will is the responsible way to "keep one's children from inheriting disputes."
For instance, to avoid tax many people register cars, stocks and savings in the names of their friends. Imposing on the friends, the tax evaders are then disinclined to ask them to sign a statement that they are only borrowing those items. Even if family members have heard about these arrangements, once the person has died and there is nothing in black and white to serve as proof, the other party can always just deny it, and the family will be without legal recourse.
Beyond the law
What's more, in the articles of the civil code that deal with inheritance, there is only a very simple description of how a person's estate should be divided. Impersonal and inflexible, this law can't begin to cover the particulars of human situations involved in a death or division of an estate. "Unless you trust all of your relatives to have a firm grasp of what's right and wrong and not be greedy, then it would be best to write a will, so that your estate is divided exactly according to your wishes," argues Lin.
Lin explains that inheritance law states that a spouse must get a portion of an estate. As for the other beneficiaries, the law gives first priority to the deceased's children, second to their parents, and third to their siblings. When the deceased has children the estate should be divided equally among the children and the spouse. If there are no children, but a parent or parents of the deceased are still living, then the spouse gets half and the parents get half.
"Yet the law is only superficially fair. Time and again it doesn't meet real needs," says Kuo Chun-hsiang. Say, for instance, an old man dies with an estate of NT$1 million. If it is to be divided equally among his wife and three children, then each share would be one-quarter of the estate, or NT$250,000. Yet the children are young and able, whereas the wife is old and without income. Should the estate really be divided in quarters? How is the mother to pass her old age in peace and security? There have even been cases of mothers being left homeless when children have demanded that homes be sold so estates can be divided.
In order to prevent wives or husbands from suddenly losing everything they have relied upon, Lin makes several suggestions about how to write a will. For instance, according to inheritance law, one-half of any estate can be disposed of according to one's own wishes. Hence, a man can assign half of his property in a will to his wife, and leave the other half to be divided equally among his wife and three children. In which case, his wife would receive 62.5% of the inheritance, greatly reducing the economic pressures of old age. If you don't want your children to sell the house, you can also tack on a provision that the inheritance can not be divided for 10 years, as a means of maintaining the status quo.
Needing all signatures
In particular, Lin points out that often when you leave instructions such as, "You brothers and sisters should divide everything equally and don't quarrel," you only end up causing more trouble and confusion.
For instance, upon one man's death, his house became the property of his three children, meaning that its sale would require the permission of all three. The oldest was very anxious to sell, whereas the second child thought the market was too soft and wouldn't give his consent. As a result, for a decade or two, the house was left in a state of limbo. All the hard work the father had put in to pay for the house came to naught, and his wish that it benefit his children and grandchildren was never realized.
Recently, two publicized inheritance disputes have caused people great dismay. In the first case a row house in the West Gate neighborhood of Taipei was abandoned and left in a state of limbo because brothers could not come to an agreement about its sale. Eventually it became a crash pad for vagrants. When one of them died there, it attracted media attention. The second case involves the estate of photographer Lang Ching-shan, regarded as a "national treasure" by many. It's been years since his death, and his works are still stored away in boxes, because his 11 children haven't been able to reach an agreement about his estate. When all 11 finally put their names on the dotted lines and the boxes are opened, will it be discovered that the photographs have been badly damaged by mildew? The old master's students and the cultural community can only look on with dismay and frustration.
Kuo Chun-hsiang describes another kind of situation. For instance, some entrepreneurs start their businesses with a large chunk of their parents' savings. In repayment, they support their parents. The problem is, if such an entrepreneur is unlucky and dies in middle age, unless his children are willing to forsake their inheritance, then the parents, who are second in priority to the children, are left with nothing. The wife and parents end up fighting over the estate and become enemies, and the parents, without any of their son's money, might go to court, charging their daughter-in-law with embezzlement. Feeling abandoned, they go ahead with the suit even though they know they will lose, just for the opportunity to publicly denounce their daughter-in-law as "lacking in virtue and filial piety."
Gifts and confiscations
Kuo Chun-hsiang points out that if these businessmen would just stop to consider the possible consequences of their deaths on their parents, then perhaps they would prepare a will, ensuring that their parents receive a certain proportion of their estate and keeping their relatives from becoming sworn enemies.
Among Lin Mei-ching's cases was an old woman who had been abandoned by her philandering husband yet was unwilling to get a divorce and relinquish her status as wife. Struggling to support herself and her children for year after year, the woman had suffered all manner of hardships and deprivations. Then, when she developed cancer, she would seethe with anger when she thought about her cheating husband getting a share of her inheritance, which would end up being given to the children he had with his mistress.
The old woman should have established a will, detailing how she had been mistreated and requesting that the court take away the husband's right to a share of her estate. If authorized by a court, it would take legal precedence.
Lin points out that the law is not something divorced from human sentiments. Life's twists of fate can be taken into account in a legal will, so that estates are handled appropriately. It's just that most people don't want to take the time to understand wills or how to use them. They think, "I can wait until I'm old or sick before worrying about that." But life is unpredictable. If death comes suddenly, their relatives in mourning might be no more tormented than they themselves, turning in their graves over not leaving a clear will.
And so Lin calls on everyone to have the same attitude about wills as they have about regular physical checkups. When you're healthy, you should take the opportunity to write a will and revise it at regular times. Whatever you do, don't wait until you're facing death and then urgently try to write lengthy instructions. The result will be that "you don't know where to start," and die helplessly, silently and in low spirits.
What's the point?
Yet just as many people avoid taking physical check-ups because they don't dare face the possibility that they actually have an illness, many never make a will because they have no way of formally facing the frustrations and complications of their own life.
During the last two years, there have been frequent crashes of planes whose passengers have included Taiwanese. One small businessman, a Mr. Yu, doesn't deny that this is a concern. "If it happened to me," he says, "there would be nothing that could be done for my company. It would simply collapse." In which case, why doesn't he leave instructions in a will?
"What advantage is there to establishing a will?" declares Yu, whose financial situation is shaky and whose two small factories might not survive the economic hard times in Southeast Asia. What's more, his marriage is close to disintegrating because he spends little time with his wife. If they do get a divorce, it is far from certain that he will get custody of his children.
"My life doesn't amount to much right now," says Yu, with a tragic tone. "What would be the point of writing a will now? I'd rather wait for the coffin to be closed before making a judgment on my life."
A Mr. Wang, who has for years been carrying on a secret extramarital affair that he doesn't want exposed, says his own will "can't be written." In his view, writing it would be tantamount to a public admission of his sin, and that would be too great a risk.
"If I prepared a will, I would definitely include my out-of-wedlock daughter, who is not legally my daughter and would have no legal claim for a share of my inheritance without a will," he says. "But if my will had no witness, then my wife could claim it was a forgery when she found it in my safe-deposit box. If I got a witness or kept a copy of it at my mistress's house, then it could be used against me, and I wouldn't want that either. It's not worth the bother. If I die, and the women want to fight over it, let them!" Mr. Wang, who stresses the importance of responsibility and sincerity in front of his employees, knows that this is where he has come up shortest in life, but he has adopted an evasive strategy of "what I can't see, won't hurt me."
Miss Chang, who once thought of "reminding" her mother to leave a will when she was seriously ill, has other problems.
"The members of my family are very distant, cold and nervous. No one ever wants to listen to anyone else speak, and no one ever reveals their feelings." When her brother discovered that she was thinking of asking her mother to leave a will, he angrily replied: "If she dies, she dies. Why should she leave behind some useless instructions? Are we incapable of dividing her estate ourselves?"
No regrets for living or dead
Behind every will, there's a story of a life and its struggles. The more complicated your relationships to others, the more you will worry about name and status, and the harder it will be to calmly look back over your life and tie things together. It's very difficult to do this in just the few pages that make up a will. Chao Ko-shih believes that thinking about the meaning of one's death when preparing a will is in fact thinking about the meaning of one's life. Only by looking at death will one have the wisdom and power to shoulder one's responsibilities in life. Chao points out that a person's conception of death is tied up with their conception of life. People who have a more active and positive attitude about death always have a more active attitude about life.
Huang Tsung, an assistant publisher of Fortune Daily who is in his thirties, is one such example. Although he and his wife have decided to enjoy life as "dinks" (double-income, no kids) and do not have children themselves, they both love kids and treat their nieces and nephews like sons and daughters. In their current will, their entire estate goes to their brothers and sisters' children.
"Although I have recognized society's ideas about what would be fair for each of them to receive, I don't think it's all about money," Huang declares. Inheritance money should be regarded as a gift and keepsake, not a sum that one should obsessively compare with other beneficiaries. He hopes that as his wealth grows he will be able to contribute to charities and public interest groups, thus giving his own hard work more meaning by letting even more people share in its benefits.
"If I got to the end of my life, and I had nothing to show for it, I would feel very hurt and inadequate." With this sort of attitude, he is that much more compelled to work hard.
The ending to a life
Chiang Yi-wen, head of the Bureau of Social Affairs for Kaohsiung City, notes that people with little property often think that they have no need to make a will. "In fact, wills can also express values that you want to pass along, exhortations to future generations, or even passages meant to resolve resentments," Chiang says. Sun Yat-sen's will, which is read by all Taiwan students in school, is a memorable document because it reveals the revolutionary spirit of his generation. "A mother's detailed instructions to her children as she nears death are also moving," she says. "It is terrifying for the living to recall the dead and then discover that they haven't left a word behind-neither instruction nor farewell. It leaves an empty feeling that may cause those who have been left behind to lose the courage to go on."
Sun Hsiao-chih, a professor of philosophy at National Taiwan University, on the other hand, believes that by their very nature wills can't be expected to please every relative. And a will that meets with everyone's submission cannot be completed in just the time that it takes to sit down and write it. Families should get into the habit of talking about everything as a part of their normal lives, so that they become accustomed to this sort of open communication. "Talking often and deeply causes people to feel close to each other."
"Without a deep conception of human values and an ability to manage one's life well, then it will be impossible to prepare well for death." Confucius once said, "If you don't know about life, how can you know about death?" And so the main point of preparing a will isn't in how those black words appear on the white page, but rather in the total human process that is reflected behind it. It's one of life's lessons.
Indeed, each will reveals the attitudes of the person who made it. It's the conclusion of a life history and also an encapsulation of family relationships. "If you don't know about death, how can you know about life?" What kind of conclusion do you want your own story to have? Wouldn't it be better to start thinking about it?
A will and testament and a few photographs. . . herein lies the story of a family. (photo by Vincent Chang)
Why not prepare for your own funeral? It would give your life an ending of your own design.
There was little need for wills in traditional society, because families and clans had their own rules. People had little space to express personal wishes. (photo by Diago Chiu)
"Death's road is open to old and young alike." With auto accidents, fires and car crashes all too common, not taking the precaution of establishing a will might end up being deeply regretted. The photo shows the China Air crash at Tayuan. (courtesy of Chen Cheng-chang)
In life's twilight years, a will, by recording one's concerns and exhortations for the younger generation, can help put one's mind at ease.
A feeling of completeness as one nears death is a result of slow and steady efforts taken during life. In addition to preparing one for death, such steps give life new meaning.