Aug. 19, 2021

4: The Value of Physical Stuff

4: The Value of Physical Stuff

When we die, we'll leave behind a lot of physical stuff. How should we think about the value of that stuff? And how can we make it easier for our loved ones to distribute it after we're gone?


When we die, we'll leave behind a lot of physical stuff. How should we think about the value of that stuff? And how can we make it easier for our loved ones to distribute it after we're gone?

Transcript

Here's the thing about things, we imbue them with our identities and with others identities. I mean, that the act of giving up something, giving something away, can often mean accepting that you're never going to be the person who uses that thing. Again, I'm encountering that with some of the letting go of the old musical instruments that I haven't touched for years. But in my mind, I still have the identity of being somebody who plays music. 

And we also imbue objects with the identities of other people, you know, we treasure something because it belonged to someone once and we remember them using it. And therefore, there's some way that we think of this item as like carrying a piece of them. 

There's something about the act of thinking about where your things will go. Where we are giving credit to thinking that this is where we will go. We are projecting ourselves into the future, and thinking of that legacy of ourselves and wanting us ourselves to live on, and to actually carry forward in some place, space and time.

But that's not actually what happens, you know. In the future, these will just be objects. The things that are important are the stories. So if you don't give an object without giving the story, then it just becomes an object. And things that are nothing can be valued based on the stories, based on the memories. So maybe we should all invest more in the stories that we're passing down in the memories that we're building and other people and less in the physical things that we are collecting in our present and handing down in our future. You know, of course, the objects can help people remember those stories. But the things themselves are not as important. So, I’m going to embrace that as I try to go through my pile of stuff. And I'm also going to embrace trying to become more present with who I am right now. And less about hanging on to the memory of who I was, and see if that will help me to cull through these things and let some of them go.

Hello, and welcome to Dying Kindness, the podcast for people who are going to die someday. I'm Cianna Stewart, and I'm going to die someday. You will too. So let's all learn what we need to do and make some key decisions before we die, in order to be kinder to those we'll leave behind. You’ll hear me talk about collecting these decisions in one place, into a Death Binder. To get a template for your own Death Binder, head over to DyingKindness.com. Thank you for being here and for thinking ahead. You’re awesome. And now, on with the show.

I’ve been having a hard time getting this episode out. I promised that it would be about dealing with our physical stuff - and then promptly went into a bit of a spiral. Let me explain.

As soon as I mention thinking about our possessions in the context of Dying Kindness, people assume I’m talking about the practice of Swedish death cleaning.

[TINA]: Dὅstἅdning

I’ll definitely talk about Swedish death cleaning in the future, but I need to note that it hinges heavily on the idea of having a predictably limited amount of time left to live, like because you’re elderly or critically ill. In these first episodes, I’m discussing preparing your world for dying unexpectedly, like in an accident.

(Side note: If you haven’t heard the previous 3 episodes, I suggest going back and listening to them. They all build on each other.)

I’m grappling here with how to plan for when death isn’t expected to happen soon. Like, I need to find a way to have and keep stuff that supports how I want to live now, while making it not too painful for my family and friends who would be dealing with it if I should die suddenly. I don’t have a magic solution to this. I still think it’s important to think about, though.

I went into a spiral because talking about dealing with our stuff feels personal and immediate. I’m in the middle of a move right now. Actually, kind of three moves at once. I moved in with my elderly aunt to help her out - but I don’t have much room there so I’m having to make some decisions about what I need in order to feel comfortable and like it’s my home, too. At the same time, I’m moving into a shared office where I can produce this podcast since I can’t do that from my aunt’s place. Lastly, I’m taking the things that I want to keep but which don’t fit into my aunt’s place and I’m putting them into an active storage space. 

It’s this last piece that’s really challenging me. And it’s because I keep pausing when an item makes me think about my identity. Like, am I still this person who needs this thing? Will I be this person again in the future?

One of the tools I’m developing to help me think through my stuff is based on conversations I’ve had with others, and my own experiences closing up houses after people I knew and loved died over the years. 

Through this, I’ve realized that a key will be to shift my perspective from me and what I want, to the perspective of the people I’d be leaving behind. I think there’s a lot to be gained from trying to look at my stuff from their vantage point.

Viewed through another’s eyes, the idea of what’s “valuable” isn’t the same as mine. Like, some things that I find really valuable may be valuable to certain individuals, but will have little to no value to most people. And some things won’t be valuable to anyone. 

For example, one thing that I greatly value is a ceramic vase that my mother made, one that was always displayed in our home when I was growing up. It’s shaped like an ancient water pitcher, light green on the top and bottom, with a band of Egyptian-inspired figures around the middle. Right now I’m looking at it. Facing me is a person carrying two baskets slung over his shoulders walking by an ornate column. I find the vase beautiful and amazing. I proudly tell people how my mother freehanded all the figures on it. I value it because she died when I was a teenager, and because it’s one of the few items I have from her time as a ceramicist in the Philippines. Once we moved to the States, she never again had a workshop or made another thing. So it’s a link to my mother and also to who she was when she was younger.

Who else might place equal value on this vase? My brother and no one else. My aunt might value it, but less so because it didn’t figure into her childhood. My brother’s wife and children may also value it as an heirloom, but it wouldn’t carry the personal memory of my mother. And since I don’t have a partner or children, I think that’s the sum total of people who would value this beyond any intrinsic value it might have as a piece of decor.

Some things I find important have even less value, like my scuba dive log. That’s important to me, but once I’m gone I don’t see any reason that anyone else would want to keep it.

[DING]

I’m now imagining placing things on a Venn diagram with four overlapping circles:

  • monetary value
  • family sentimental value
  • societal value
  • and re-use value

...and there are some things that sit outside the diagram because they ultimately have no value.

Let me break these down a bit more.

[DING]

Monetary Value

This is pretty obvious. Some things are assets that will grow in value or have resale value. Things I’m thinking about here are homes, jewelry, cars, camera equipment - that kind of thing. 

Of course, some things get valued beyond the monetary if they also have sentimental value. The worst stories about hurt feelings and the breakup of families stem from someone not specifying what happens with things of monetary value, and the worst of the worst is not having clear direction for things of both monetary and sentimental value. You should definitely identify what stuff you own in this category and be sure that you’re clear about who you’d be leaving it to.

[DING]

Next is Family Sentimental Value

By family, I mean both your legal and your chosen family. And note that I didn’t label this just “sentimental value” - that’s because I wanted to keep the focus on what others would value. Simply saying “sentimental value” risks keeping the focus on our own memories. So this category is Family Sentimental Value, and would include things like my mother’s vase or your personal photographs. Things that are important to your family and maybe no one else.

Tricky thing here is that we might not know what others value because often what makes them valuable is a story or a memory, and memory is so personal, and often linked to childhood. Someone might value a particular skillet because they remember you teaching them how to make pancakes using it, or a piece of art they remember hanging on the wall when they visited you. You might never guess that these items would stand out to them in particular.

I will pull in one thing here from the practice of Swedish death cleaning [INSERT TINA]. It includes the idea that you’d have conversations with your loved ones about what they’d want and then either give it to them right away if you’re not using it, or put a label on it to help with distribution when you’re gone. If you did this, you might hear some great stories and memories. It’s always interesting to learn what people remember about you. And, if they hold all these stories until your funeral, you’ll never get to hear them!

[DING]

Third, let’s talk about Societal Value

Some of us own or have done things that are valued by the larger society beyond our families. General subcategories here are things that are valuable from a cultural, artistic, historic, or scientific standpoint. There may be others subcategories, too, but these are the first that came to mind for me.

Some examples to make this concrete:

If, say, you owned artwork created by a known artist - or maybe you are a known artist and have created artwork that’s still in your possession - then these items would have both monetary and artistic value. Please be clear about what you’d like done with this because otherwise some major disagreements and even legal battles may lie ahead after you’re gone. As an extreme example, Picasso didn’t have a Will, and his complex constellation of children, grandchildren, and ex-lovers took some 6 years and $30 million in legal fees to sort it out. A more common example is having purchased a piece of art - its value may have gone up or down since then depending on the fate of the artist. Be sure that you have a record of the name of the artist and a purchase history to help everyone out when you’re gone.

A different scenario: Some of us have been involved in moments of cultural or historic significance. If so, then how awesome would it be to identify a museum or archive who’d want items you kept from that time? For example, a museum here in San Francisco had an exhibit on the Summer of Love that displayed a wonderful collection of original music posters that decorated the telephone poles on Haight Street during those crazy days in 1967. 

Ideally, you’d make arrangements yourself before you die with a particular archive because you know all the relevant information about the items you want to donate. Let me give you an example of why you should do this: When my father died, he left me a collection of his photographs and artifacts from different tribes in the Philippines in the 1960s. He believed they have anthropological value. I’m sure they do, but they are all unlabeled so I don’t know which tribe each thing is from and I’m no anthropologist. End result is I have boxes of stuff that I don’t know what to do with that someday I’ll have to elicit someone else’s help to get appraised and placed. For now, it’s just another thing I’m storing.

[DING]

The last category is Re-Use Value

Here, we’re talking about all the things that get distributed and donated because they are still usable - clothes, books, kitchen items, tools, decor, scuba gear, etc. You should expect that your loved ones will go through and take what they’d like, and then either donate the rest or sell it through an estate sale. 

When people think about their things in this way, it can be hard. It’s weird to imagine your stuff going to strangers, but that’s the reality. Ultimately this is a good thing - it means that the object is still in use, that it’s not going into landfill. Try to embrace that.

[DING]

Speaking of landfill, this brings me to our last category - anything that doesn’t have value after we’re gone, all the things sitting outside our Venn diagram. I’m a far cry from a minimalist, but it’s sobering to think about what I own that would just end up being tossed once I’m dead. I’m trying to keep this lens in mind as I’m packing for my current moves and making decisions about what to keep. I still have no resolution for the things that challenge my self-identity, but that’s probably beyond the reach of this podcast.

[DING]

The more I think about these categories, the more I see how they can be useful going forward. I’m going to try to be mindful about what I collect in the future. Ultimately, I’d love for what I leave behind to still have value after I’m gone, for my things to go to people who will enjoy them as much as I did while I was here. This won’t apply to everything, but maybe I can make it apply to more. If we all thought this way, I expect that we’d have homes filled with less clutter and more joy. It’s a good goal.

[music]

Thank you for joining me on Dying Kindness. If you found this useful, please share this episode with someone else. Most podcast players have a “share” button at the top to make that easy.

Many thanks to Tina Owenmark for trying to teach me how to pronounce Swedish. The music is by Blue Dot Sessions, and everything else was done by me. Please visit my website, DyingKindness.com, to leave any questions or comments. I really do want to know what you think. 

Until next time, I'm Cianna Stewart, and I'm going to die someday - but hopefully not before I finish this move. 

[music ends]

 

Today’s death reading is “If You Knew” by Ellen Bass from the collection “The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy,” edited by John Brehm.

[BELL]

What if you knew you’d be the last

to touch someone?

If you were taking tickets, for example,

at the theater, tearing them,

giving back the ragged stubs,

you might take care to touch that palm,

brush your fingertips

along the life line’s crease.

 

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase

too slowly through the airport, when

the car in front of me doesn’t signal,

when the clerk at the pharmacy

won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember

they’re going to die.

 

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.

They’d just had lunch and the water,

a young gay man with plum black eyes,

joked as he served the coffee, kissed

her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.

Then they walked half a block and her aunt

dropped dead on the sidewalk.

 

How close does the dragon’s spume

have to come? How wide does the crack

in heaven have to split?

What would people look like

if we could see them as they are,

soaked in honey, stung and swollen,

reckless, pinned against time?

 

[BELL]