Philosophers and theologians have debated for millennia what happens to us when we die. I am supremely unqualified to contribute to their search for the material or spiritual truth. But six months after being named executor of a relative’s estate, I know a lot about what happens to our possessions when we die.
The liquidation process has taken longer than it would have had my second-cousin-once-removed filed a proper will, or if our genealogical connection had been better documented. In addition to being named executor, I was his closest living relative. But when the court demanded proof, I had to spend months searching our extended family tree, shaking the branches to make sure no long-lost relation fell out.
In the meantime, my wife and I had to sort out the finances and the contents of the household. Not surprisingly, creditors were more willing than the court to accept me as a responsible party in dealing with the estate, despite the fact that I had no access to the accounts. They’ll get theirs, in due course.
The household goods, now shorn of whatever emotional worth they once had to the deceased or might have to the family or friends left behind, revert back to their practical, utilitarian state. Their value is now entirely in the eyes of people looking for a good deal on used stuff.
That’s not always easy to accept, especially since my cousin had been living in his childhood home. He had kept a lot of his parents personal items. His mother had been a homemaker and bookkeeper; his father an engineer with Westinghouse. Her oil paintings adorned some walls while others sat in a closet. She had been a talented amateur. Her art will find new homes in the estate sale.
His father’s patent book, awards, and memorabilia from an interesting life that included work on Gemini and Apollo are now nothing but momentary curiosities on their way to the trash bin. So, too, the photo albums, including pictures of their 1955 family vacation to Niagara Falls. After remarking on how well-dressed the vacationers were, into the bin they went.
His parent’s wedding photo, in the typical 1940’s style that made them look like movie stars, was harder to throw away. But the death of their 65-year-old son was the end of their line. The frame was worth something, but the memories it once contained meant nothing to any living soul.
My wife and I spent four melancholy weekends sorting the memory items from the items of marketable value. We did set aside a few personal mementos, tangible bits to help us keep their memories fresh in our minds. Neighbors stopped by to offer condolences and share their own remembrances, which helped make the whole process less wearying.
But once the sorting was done, it was time to think like an executor. My cousin was not the sentimental type; he wanted his property turned into cash and distributed – after expenses and the executor’s cut – to the five youngest members of my family. Even without a proper will, he had made his intentions clear.
To meet his expectations, we turned to an online estate auction company. The magic of the market never ceases to amaze me. In its purest form, sellers and buyers exchange items that each finds more valuable than what they had. I suspect that if all manufacturing were to cease for a year, and we could find a way to perfectly match sellers and buyers, all our material needs could be satisfied by swapping around what already exists. Perhaps that’s why capitalist invented planned obsolescence and the fashion industry spends millions convincing some people that they need to be trendy.
Aside from some tools, lawn and garden equipment, and a few collectibles, I see little of value in this 1950s cape. But virtually everything here will find a new home in the auction, even the not-quite-mid-century-modern furniture that spent the last five decades in the hermetically-sealed formal living room. The alchemy of the online auction will turn lead into gold.
The house itself will be seen by someone as the perfect place to live, and perhaps raise a family. It had first sheltered a young family of four, and in the end protected the last member of that family until the paramedics arrived. Soon, a new chapter will begin, and the house will again be a home. Old memories will be replaced by new hopes and dreams. Even in our inanimate objects there is a circle of life.