Published in the Maryland Daily Record in 2006
I take a detour this month from talk of war and lies, to offer some thoughts about another aspect of humanity’s Big Picture: death and its inevitable corollary, survival. When one of us dies, others are left to carry on. Having recently experienced the passing of two elderly relations, I have lived through a refresher on the subject. I want to talk about one piece of it: dealing with what we lawyers call the tangible personal property. It can be very personal indeed.
The death notices always list “survivors”: spouses, children, grandchildren. This being a society of plenty, however, the “survivors” usually include a bunch of stuff as well. By saying “stuff” I am speaking literally: furniture, books, paintings, family photos, old correspondence, bed linens, clothes, and every kind of bric-a-brac. To the untrained eye, the stuff might seem inanimate and hence by definition not capable of being a survivor. The untrained eye would be wrong. And for the other kind of survivor, the kind who has to sort through the stuff, the sorting can be the most heartbreaking part of a loved one’s passing. If you have been through this, you know what I mean.
The root of the heartbreak, I think, is that, whatever our faiths may say, there is not really a clear division between us humans and our stuff. Some religions teach that our essence or soul is incorporeal, and that only the inessential parts of us possess or want physical things. That’s hard to believe. Ask any collector – of first editions, Hummel figurines, stamps, iPod tunes, Elvis Presley memorabilia, antique silver, recipes, Lionel trains, baseball cards – and if he is being honest, he’ll admit that in some peculiar way his very personality is tied up in the objects he amassed in his lifetime. Maybe in the life to come the Almighty finds the dear departed whole enough despite their having been stripped of all that, but in this world we feel incomplete without our stuff. That’s one of the many reasons floods, earthquakes, and warfare can so traumatizing for survivors: they can effortlessly nullify a lifetime of laborious and joyful extension of our personalities into the objects around us.
Think about the pyramids, always stocked with all the deceased pharaoh’s stuff. The ancients knew full well that sans our stuff we are not completely us. And pharaohs were important enough to save from such deprivation. There is something of that tendency in modern Presidential libraries, or the preservation of the original homes of a few notables with all their stuff intact: Monticello, Graceland, Green Gables. There is a difference, though, in that the idea of a pyramid was that Pharaoh got to keep all his toys to himself, while the preservation of historic homes is usually for sharing the great man or woman’s toys with the world. There couldn’t be any other point, once you accept that Elvis has indeed left the building. 

But that brings us back to what makes dealing with the deceased’s things so painful. Most of us aren’t important enough to rate a Monticello or Presidential library. Some dispersal is required. Nature abhors a big pile. And when that pile gets (at worst) trashed and (at best) distributed, we lose a little more of that union of the deceased and her stuff which in some mysterious way kept her a little more present to us during her lifetime. 

There is no alternative. When the picnickers leave the table of life, the ants must and will come. Ants are swift, ants are thorough, ants leave little behind. They are God’s recyclers. 

But this metaphor has a major flaw. Every ant is a picnicker as well. Each of us who carries off bits of Granny’s stuff already her own trove of stuff. We simply can’t preserve more than a fraction of the tangible personalty of our dearly departed without drowning in it. And that is where it really gets cruel. Triage is vital. Do we keep Granny’s unsorted photos in a box? If so, do we plan to label them so that Junior will have the faintest idea who’s who when he leads the next detail of ants in twenty or thirty years? When are we going to find the time for that? If not, why bother? Do we keep that wedding ring? Where? Do we label it? How about Grampa’s amateur paintings? All of them? Just the best? And then who’s going to throw the balance of them in the dumpster? Doesn’t that feel a bit like putting Grampa himself in the dumpster? And on and on and on. 

We want heirlooms, we want reminders, we want from time to time to walk the path our forbears trod, by reading their books, sitting in their chairs, listening to their records. But we also want to downsize so we can move into that retirement condo. It is very hard to reconcile these impulses. But we must. And when we do, the almost inevitable course is to scatter the bulk of our relatives’ possessions to the winds. We must do what the ants do, removing not only the crumbs but also the very memory of them. 

Mercutio puns, after receiving a mortal wound, that if we ask for him the next day, we shall find him a grave man. Wrong. We won’t find Mercutio at all, or much of anything that recognizably belonged to him. The body returns to the dust it is made of, and the possessions return to the stream of commerce and the trash cycle from whence they came. 

The actual ant workers who clean up behind actual picnics are comparatively fortunate. True, they live on average only six months. But as they carry away the crumbs and share them in their colonies, they feel no regret. And they know exactly what to do. In their highly organized way worked out over millions of generations, they have honed their task down so that there is no guesswork, no ambiguity, nothing but the task, which they undertake with silent efficiency. Everything goes, and when the job is done the ants sleep well. (Well, technically probably not; they lack eyelids, and most insect biology doesn’t seem to require sleep – but you get the idea.) 

We can only envy such clarity of purpose and planning, such lack of doubt and such dispassion. We are stuck with wondering, at the end of the day whether, had we not stuffed into that big plastic trash bag the old Christmas cards that Granny received, her grade school exams, her theater programs and her prayer books, we might be closer to not having lost her. And the answer is we would have kept her closer – at the cost of having too much old stuff to live our own lives with, not to mention having created an even bigger stack of stuff for the next generation to cope with. We owe it to the generations to come to do a reasonable triage ourselves. They will have to clean up after us; they should not have to clean up after the ones we survive as well. That’s our job, like it or not. 

The trash cycle is of a piece with the human cycle, when you think about it. We need to clear out Granny’s stuff. And, harder to admit but true, we need to clear out Granny. Paradoxically, death is vital. Without it, there would be no room in our society for newcomers, little room at the top, not enough wealth to go around. So at the end the funerals and the dealing with the stuff not only feel like but are in fact all one process. One incredibly sad, incredibly poignant, and utterly necessary process. The dead and their personalty, never much separate in life, must both be dispersed in death. And we are the ones who must do it.

One Comment

  1. Fiona says:

    I found myself shouting “so true” many times while reading this. This article should accompany those many comforting bits of paper given to relatives at the undertakers……..never mind all the poems meted out to the newly bereaved, this frank article would help them clear out all the “stuff” without TOO much guilt about, as you put it, putting granddad on the dumpster along with his stuff!