What’s in Your Basement?

As an estate planner I think about death probably more than most people. I have considered death as a period to the final sentence in the final paragraph that is life. Of late it seems to me to be like a colon: that which follows after it is as much a part of life as the words before the colon. If you consider your death as a part of your life, perhaps you will be inspired to prepare for it rather than to turn away from it.

Let me offer one example of what happens when you view death as the end of your presence and therefore your impact on others. I once probated the estate of a fine, responsible, and highly intelligent man who also happened to be my father. I was his Executor; therefore, I had to sort through his tangible goods, most of which were contained in his basement. This basement was above ground and about five hundred square feet, and, among many other items, contained the following: a 1945 safe with an unknown combination that was too heavy to move, obsolete but interesting medical equipment from an American ship in the Korean War, a collection of tobacco pipes, 10 tobacco tins full of rocks collected from a nearby creek, 14 tubes of mercury, 40 years’ worth of National Geographic and The Smithsonian magazines, enough tools and assorted equipment to start a small factory, clothing that would not have fit the man for at least two decades, boxes and boxes of personal letters, tax returns going back to the ‘60s, pipe cleaners, nails, an old doorbell along with all its wiring that had been in my grandmother’s house, jewelry-making equipment, sheets of stained glass, bird feeders, tubing of all sorts and sizes, old shoes, record albums, and so much more.

What happened to all this stuff?

I wondered if my father thought about what it would mean for us to face his life of collection. I think he had not considered it, that he saw his death as a period. None of what followed was simple. I hired a safecracker to open the safe. It contained two pieces of burned wood (not the original Coca-Cola stock I had predicted).

I texted my siblings: “Fortunes remain unchanged.” My nephew, who just graduated from medical school, has the medical equipment. The magazines went to local schools. I poured one tin of rocks into the aquarium my betta fish lives in on my desk. I hired the EPA to come collect the mercury at a cost of $500. The local PTA took the clothing. I shredded the tax returns. I installed the doorbell in my home. The balance of the items remains, but it will happen eventually. My mother still lives in the house above the basement so there is not the normal rush to finalize the extraction. Though she is 89 and should enjoy her days, I know she spends a good portion of time in the basement sorting.

I once asked my father how he wanted to be remembered. He replied he wanted to be remembered as having lived up to his responsibilities. In almost all ways he did. He was on the town’s library board for 50 years; he started the first cardiac care unit in his state; he supported his wife and put four children through all levels of schooling. I am forever grateful to him for all that he did for me, but when I stand in his basement, I feel burdened and overwhelmed.

Take a moment. What would it mean if you died tomorrow? Will the process of handling your goods leave loved ones gasping for air from shock? Will they sort through items that you could discard now? Will they even know what they are looking at? Will they know the combination to the safe? Do that which is difficult to do: recognize that even after you physically leave your life, your impact continues on and on. Live up to your responsibilities and take care of things. Give away your old clothes. Recycle the magazines. It will be the most loving thing you can do for those who will stand in your basement.

Originally published in Southern Neighbor, May 2011

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