Death and Stuff
One day last week I lifted the garage door, took a look, and quickly retreated. A couple of months ago the last of my furniture and boxed up goods from storage, following a house move in 2014, were delivered to my flat. My fairly large three bedroomed home and my garage are now, despite at least a once a month trip to a charity shop, and three or four recent trips to the dump, full of ‘stuff’. For the last five years of his life my husband John (who died in 2010) and I were what is often now referred to as ‘living apart together’ (i.e. in different places) and my mum Dorothy (who died in 2012) lived alone, a widow since my dad, Ron’s, death in 1979.
So, the household objects and other material goods of three people, the contents of three lots of kitchen cupboards, innumerable bookcases and boxes of personal chattels are now all mine. I have given away/thrown away much of the furniture and most of their clothes (but not all; as used clothes bear traces, hold memories of their wearer). Yet, I still have most of John’s collection of musical instruments and many of the small mum-related gifts I bought for birthday, Christmas and Mothering Sunday. My mum and my husband were both generous present givers themselves so many of the pictures on my wall, the books on my shelves, the ornaments in my cabinets and the jewellery I wear were gifts from them. Amongst John’s possessions were a small number of pieces that belonged to his parents and my mum had kept a few bits following the death of her sister more than 15 years before her own, along with some possessions belonging to, and writings, by my dad.
Recently I read a couple of articles suggesting that downsizing, even minimalist living, is both an acceptance of mortality and a recognition of the fact that descendants and friends are unlikely to feel the same about the particular bits and bobs that are especially precious to us. I accept this and as a childless widow with no siblings I am conscious of the need not to physically and emotionally burden my dearest friends with the responsibility of sorting out and disposing of my belongings.
And yet, there is a need, I think, to reflect on the issue of privilege when thinking of the relationship between death and stuff. The pleasure I experience on re-reading a letter my dad wrote to me in 1978; listening to a favourite CD of my husband’s; or looking at the painting my mum bought me for my birthday a few weeks before she died; warms me and enriches the memories I have of them. And whilst I accept that a significant amount of what I own is destined for landfill I hope that close friends and various charities might find use for, and experience pleasure from, some of it.
Although I have been thinking about the personal politics of material goods for a while now I
have found myself revisiting this issue in the days since the Grenfell Tower fire and again just now in National Refugee Week (19-25th June). I have written elsewhere about how, despite some commentaries to the contrary, the fire and the response to it is inevitably political
Further to this I believe that any discussion of the negative aspects of materialism needs to balanced by a consideration of what it must feel like to be left with nothing, to lose all or almost all of everything one owns. Many of those personally affected by the tragedy in West London (and also others who have to flee their homes for whatever reason) are bereaved and having also lost their belongings have no personal, particular, things to remember their family members and friends by. I have no intention here of denying the huge significance and power of memories and of the emotional and spiritual legacies of those who have died but to not be able to hold a loved one’s favourite book or trinket and to have no photographs to smile at can only add to the sense and scale of loss. That many of us leave behind us an online presence might mitigate against this loss for some but again the issue of privilege is at play here. With all this in mind I am grateful for the clutter that I am left with.