Neal Wood shows how making a will can provide a declaration of faith for future generations

We all know how important it is to make a will, don’t we? Not only is it sensible but we have a duty, as Christians, to make a will – mainly, but by no means entirely, to avoid leaving problems for others. We ought also, of course, to include clear instructions for the arrangement of our funeral and burial. There are a few individuals attending my parish church that have property and other ‘precious’ possessions who, despite my badgering over several years, have yet to make their last will and testament. How widespread is this attitude, I wonder? Nowadays, these important instruments are neither specifically intended for, nor exclusively beneficial to, the seriously wealthy.

Confronting mortality

Drawing up a simple will takes very little time and gives one peace of mind at a relatively low cost. Goodness, I am sounding like a solicitor! Seriously, the main reason for this reluctance is, I suspect, that when drawing up a will one is thereby forced to ponder upon the inevitable: one’s own mortality. Most regrettably, though maybe not surprisingly, being Christian does not make this any easier for some people.

Although wills made today have the same primary function as they did hundreds of years ago, they were not always concerned exclusively with material possessions. Even as late as 1861, my great-great grandfather’s will declared: ‘I die in the faith of the Holy Catholic Church and in the Communion of that particular branch thereof established as the United Church of England and Ireland.’ Another ancestor who, making his will in 1504, bequeathed his soul ‘to almighty God, to Our Lady saint Mary and all the holy company of hevyn’, gave vestments ‘of black or crimson velvet to be embroidered with my arms’ to several parish churches and instructed that £26 8s 4d be paid to a priest to ‘synge for my soule and my frendys before Our Ladye of Walsingham during the terme of four yeares.’ These are, however, the briefest of preambles when compared to many others of the same period.

An eloquent example

Yet I have found none more eloquent than that of Sir Hamon L’Estrange of Hunstanton, Norfolk who, ‘In the name and Feare of God,’ made his will in July 1652 at the age of 69, and rendered ‘unto the heavenly Father all possible praise for thine election of mee, before the begininge of the world, in thine onely sonne unto eternall salvacon. To vouchsafe mee thine appointed meanes to be borne a man, begotten and bred of believing and religious parents, To be watered with the dewe of thy Grace and sealed with Baptisme into the name of thine only sonne, and myne alone Saviour. To have bene nursed with the pure milke of the doctrine of his incarnation, passion, resurrection and ascention, and instructed in the precious knowledge and participacon of that heavenly foode of our soules, the manna of the Sacrament of his supper. All which fully, firmly and stedfastly doe believe and live thereafter is life everlasting. So I believe, Lord, helpe myne unbelief: I thancke thee for the great measure of daies where with thou hast filled my Glasse of time, and abundantly for that comfortable union and blessed harmony, which I have for many yeeres enjoyed with that life of my life my deare wife, whose jointure is already provided for. And further moved by the long experiences of her ever deare esteme of my life and person, and her pious and painefull care in the educacon of my Children, those olive branches wherewith God hath pleased to blesse our table, and to propagate my name and family…’

Having listed numerous bequests, including money to the poor, Sir Hamon concluded with some advice: ‘I leave this legacie of Councell…to be affable, meeke, courteous, peaceable, easy to be intreated, in all honest and lawful things: and practise the blessed rule and lesson taught us by our Saviour, Learne of mee for I am humble and meeke.’ Finally, to his mortal remains: ‘My body (that tabernacle of clay wherein my Soule hath a long time sojourned vpon earth) I render to earthe againe, by the care and discretion of myne executor… there to sleepe vntil it be awaked by the blast of the last trumpet, when all humane flesh shall rise, and this my soule and spirit shall be revested with its owne body, and with these (and none other) eyes I shall behold my blessed redeemer in whose presence is the fullness ofjoys.’

Once proved, a will becomes a public record and available for anyone to read … and ponder. So will a later generation look back at us and reflect that we were not particularly concerned about our belief? We don’t have to leave that impression. So can we, please, be bold and wax more lyrical about our faith in our last testament? ND