On Minimalism and Death (or, Where Will Your Stuff Go When You Go?)

Last Friday, I went to a funeral. My two-doors-down neighbour Antonio was 70ish years old, and he passed away from a heart attack very suddenly after shoveling the early morning snow. It was a shock. He was a lovely man, and despite the language barrier between us (he spoke mostly Portuguese, and I speak, OK, none), we got along well. He and his wife bought my son a little outfit – sweet overalls and a matching cap – when my son was born; he would regularly take the little girls who lived next door into his lush backyard – again, in spite of the language barrier – and very gently, through gestures and nods, show them how to plant seeds and tend to the slow-opening roses and curling grape arbor. In short, he was a good person, and I could tell from the largeish crowd of Portuguese women and men at the funeral service that he was well-loved and respected in the community.

As I sat huddled in my parka at the back of the freezing-cold church and the funeral mass went on, I started thinking about what we leave behind. I’ve read stories on several simplifying/minimalist blogs about people who had to contend with other people’s messes – or entire houses stuffed from a lifetime of buying – after their loved one(s) had passed away. Many of these anecdotes are presented as cautionary tales: “Don’t make others deal with all your crap after you die! The fact that this person/household left behind so much crap is crazy! In the end, what was the point of holding onto all that stuff?” etc. etc.

I don’t think many of us would argue with the aphorism that you can’t take it with you. Whatever you believe about this life, the afterlife or lack thereof, most people would agree that you can’t pack your iPhone or favourite boots for the trip to the other side. And why would you want to? Your physical body is no more, and so is your relationship to all that stuff you owned before you passed away. And while it’s definitely true that who you are amounts to a lot more than the material goods you live with, I would argue that some of the stuff you leave behind after you die might be more valuable than hassle to those who cared about you.

I’ll give you an example. My memories of my maternal grandparents are patchy. We never lived in the same city; I saw them maybe once a year as a child and less and less as I got older. But for years after my grandfather died, I wore his way-too-big pajamas and bathrobe because they smelled like him. And I still own several handkerchiefs, bags, and silk scarves that belonged to my Nana, because they have a quality of grace and elegance that I associate strongly with her. These physical traces helped me hold onto my grandparents once I could no longer count on their physical presence; they provided me with solace and something material that connected me to them in a very visceral way. Now, I’m not saying that everything our loved ones leave behind is useful, evocative, or even worth considering (elastic band balls, anyone?) – but I am saying that sometimes, a few physical reminders of a person can go a long way towards keeping them alive in our minds and our hearts – maybe for just a little while longer.

So, I’m interested: where do you see your stuff going when you go? Or maybe a better question is: what will your stuff mean to others when you go? When those that loved you can no longer count on your physical presence, what will they hold onto in your absence? And what do you want to leave behind?

Rest in peace, Antonio. You will be missed.

About Lisa

Living with stuff since 1972. Writing about it since 2011.
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