Sunday, October 31, 2010

How binding is a deathbed promise?

Several years ago, the head of a large not-for-profit organization told me that when his mother was dying, she asked him and his brother to agree not to have a wake for her, but instead to honor her wishes to be cremated. He agreed, but after she died, several other relatives made it clear it would be unacceptable if she were cremated and there were no wake.

I fully expected he would tell me how painful it was to honor his mother's wishes knowing he would face the wrath of his relatives. Instead, he told me he and his brother followed the wishes of the relatives who wanted his mother to be waked, thus breaking their promise to their dying mother.

I was reminded of his story when I received an e-mail from a reader, asking: "What's your ethical take on deathbed promises - promises made to someone who is dying - once the person has died?"

Before his father died two years ago, my reader and his siblings made promises about the care of their disabled mother who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. "We have kept those promises as best we could for as long as we could," my reader writes, "but a day is coming when we will no longer be able to do so.

"On the one hand," he continues, "a deathbed promise seems like the most binding promise that someone can make to someone at an extreme moment when they are absolutely dependent on those around them. On the other hand, a deathwatch is not the ideal time to rationally consider commitments before making them, and sometimes people promise things that, under different circumstances, they would never undertake. The dead never know (setting aside theological speculation) whether or not the promise was kept."

My reader wants to know if a promise to someone who will not be around to see it kept "is more binding than one to someone who will be, less binding, or pretty much the same?"

A promise is a promise.

If you make one, the right thing is to make every effort to honor it, whether the person is on a deathbed or still living. There are, however, times when circumstances prevent you from honoring a deathbed promise as you wish you could or, obviously, discussing the issue with the deceased.

In the case of the head of the not-for-profit, he could have honored his promise to his dying mother if he had been willing to take criticism from his living relatives. If he knew he couldn't, he would have been wise to reconsider the promise he made.

In the case of my reader, if he promised his father that he and his siblings would care for their mother in her own home and not place her in a residence with round-the-clock medical care, the challenge of that promise is greater. In honoring the letter of the promise, does my reader at some point risk causing greater harm to his mother, something that clearly goes against the spirit of his promise to his father? Or is there a better way to honor the spirit of that promise?

We should keep our promises to those living or dead. But when the health and life of someone who is at the center of that promise is at stake, the right thing is to do whatever is within your power to care for that someone. In my reader's case, that could be the best possible way to honor the spirit of his father's request.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Anonymous said...

i made death bed promises to Dad about money and I kept all. And I feel good about it.

Unknown said...

my stepmother made a promise to my father (he had a month to live)a couple of days before he died they had a notary due both there wills I was there she in front of the notary and myself repeated that promise that there would be an equal split between her 5 children and my sister and I uppon her death but that will was never registerd and she made a new will giving my sister and I 5% of the estate we have no way of proving anything I call these people intitled parisites ..

Anonymous said...

My husband and I were married less than 3 yrs when his Mother finally died at 87. On her deathbed, she made my husband promise to take in her youngest son ( 58 yr old high functioning autistic) as he could not live, independently. Our marriage counselor said not to do it but this brother had nowhere to go. We took him for 2 yrs and he destroyed our marriage. I am filing for divorce because of this impossible brother. Nobody else in the family will lift a finger to help. I worked day/night to try to get this man benefits - Medicaid - a JOB - and even got him a volunteer position at an animal shelter. I was sacrificing everything for this man and my husband refused to find him a room not far from home where we could be sure he was safe. My husband said NO. I finally said I couldn't live like that and he said to me.. " A promise is a promise. Sorry but my brother stays." I was shocked he'd choose his brother over his wife but that's exactly what he did. He stabbed me in the back to honor a "deathbed promise".. I am ANGRY that his MOther did NOTHING to prepare her son for the outside World - never got him diagnosed ( we did that when he was 58) saved NO money to help with expenses.. and expected my husband to shove me aside to make room for this guy. I can't tell you how resentful I am. I am angry that there is no loyalty to me - and no appreciation for anything I've done. The stress was unbelievable - we had NO privacy and now I have to start over alone. That "deathbed promise" was nothing more than a cheap shot at manipulation and guilt that destroyed our marriage. Thanks, MOM.

Unknown said...

In 1893 my g-grandmother, Louisa, promised her husband (my g-grandfather) on his deathbed that she would move herself and their 10 children to another state 500 miles away, a move he had wanted to make for a variety of reasons, one being that he thought they would be more successful there. Against all of her own family's arguments, Louisa kept that promise, moving by train, with her children, ages 20-1. (along with her brother-in-law, his pregnant wife, and their 5 or 6 children).

Nearly 125 years later, I wonder if that promise was really necessary. None of the ten children became wealthy, they struggled in their lives, jobs, marriages in their new location.

But not one of them returned to their birth home. There are many descendants across the country in various stages of progress. Most are profitable, capable, independent. Louisa never remarried, lived well into her 80's, self sufficient in her own home.

My daughter (Louisa's gg-grand daughter) concludes that she comes from a line of strong women. After 125 years my gg-grandmother still sets a high example!! Because she kept her promise, she kept her word. In our family, she is a legend. As you say, a promise is a promise.

Anonymous said...

It is hard to keep a death bed promise if there are others involved.
I made one to my Mother to take care of my Elder Brother. Because it was a personal promise from myself to my mom. I has been mostly easy to keep.
Except for the fact that he inherited all the lands and other items of my parents.
Now trying to make other people happy is the problem. I often feel I am in the children's story " The Little Red Hen " They all want to eat the bread, but no one wanted to make the bread.
But I feel good. I have kept my promise. That to me is what matters.