In the fourth scene of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol there’s a comic exchange where the servants in Scrooge’s household meet up in the second hand store with items pilfered from his estate. The cleaning lady has his bed curtains, the laundress has his sheets, and the undertaker has plundered the nightgown from his dead corpse.
Joe went down on his knees for the greater convenience of opening the bundle, and dragged out a large and heavy roll of some dark stuff.
“What do you call this? Bed-curtains!”
“Ah! Bed-curtains! Don’t drop that oil upon the blankets, now.”
“Whose else’s do you think? He isn’t likely to take cold without ’em. I dare say. Ah! You may look through that shirt till your eyes ache; but you won’t find a hole in it, nor a threadbare place. It's the best he had, and a fine one too. They’d have wasted it by dressing him up in it, if it hadn’t been for me.”
It’s a little cold, but it’s realistic. Voddie Baucham has commented from the pulpit, “We’re going to die, someone’s going to get all our stuff, and the world’s going to keep on spinning. It’s not even going to slow down to acknowledge our loss.”
All that stuff? What to do with it? The stuff of a lifetime. It all has a memory attached to it. It’s odd that in A Christmas Carol, it’s not that Scrooge will become worm food, it’s what will happen to his stuff that worries him. That’s a creepy thing to realize about STUFF. We have an emotional attachment to it. You can actually get sentimental about STUFF.
You get an overview of a lifetime when you visit a second hand store. You can divide the various goods up by era and it’s predictable, the coffee table books, the mid century furniture, the LP collection of 33’s, the artifacts from exotic places that were displayed proudly to show that the urbane proprietors had travelled to far off lands and were therefore the right kind of people. All nice and fine, but those people are D-E-A-D dead and they’re not coming back. The remaining goods are just the flotsam and jetsam of time.
It’s also instructive to see how little people really care, when you put your used goods up for sale. You may have emotional attachment to your stuff, other people won’t. I sold a guitar that I considered “extra” and the man who got the great bargain wouldn’t go away, he insisted on crowing about his good fortune in my face for half an hour, (me, the corpse being picked). It kind of redefines “sorry for your loss”. Don’t expect much pity there, people are too busy eyeballing your goods and hoping for a bargain.
I’ve seen this up close working as temporary help for an auctioneer who did estate sales. We were assigned the invidious task of transporting all those earthly goods from the dearly departed’s home, onto a truck. Of course there were a callow few in the bunch who filled their boots along the way. It was in bad taste. Often, the corpse was not even in the ground yet, but none of those pocketing the goods seemed to much care.
Well, I’m not a corpse yet, but we haven’t done a big cleanup in about a decade and it’s time. A total cleaning like this, is part of Scandinavian culture. They even have a name for it. In Swedish, the exercise is döstädning, which means a “death cleaning”. It’s the clean up you do to get rid of all that stuff BEFORE someone else ends up having to do it for you. I had to think about this seriously for the first time because I have for example, a huge stash of antique planes and other tools. If I had died from my heart attack in January, my kids would have had to deal with getting rid of all that junk. They would be burdened with items they neither know about nor care about at their age and stage.
You need a bit of reflective time to go through this exercise of downsizing. It’s not just placing things in bags and boxes, it’s your life passing before your eyes. I culled my library as part of this process and found myself a bit lost in reverie, revisiting various decades, what were my passing interests, my hobbies, cultural issues and things I wanted to learn about. All come and gone, and getting packed away for the next person.
It’s funny when you think of your life as a series of accumulated goods. Cars, houses, clothing, toys all get added on the upswing… then, the inevitable downslide, of no longer needing the same. It’s the parable of the Rich man from the Bible. “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” Who will get your goods? Something to consider. We ain’t taking anything with us, last I heard.