What will be your legacy?

During a presentation at a conference I attended a couple years ago, Illinois-based professional organizer Sue DeRoos made the obvious, yet insightful comment:

Everyone gets organized at some point, they just might not be around for it.

DeRoos’ comment was morbid, but absolutely true. At some point, someone is responsible for sorting, purging, and getting your affairs in order — either you do it while you’re alive, or your loved ones do it after your gone.

I was reminded of Sue’s comment after reading The New York Times online editorial “How to Lose a Legacy” from July 12. The author, Ellen Lupton, uses the op-ed to express her mixed emotions about her possessions, specifically her fears that her things won’t be of value to her daughter after she is gone:

I probably wouldn’t have kept [a set of Wedgwood cornflower blue china inherited from my mother’s mother] if I had bought them in a junk shop 20 years ago. But they were my grandmother’s, so I keep them safe, and take them out a few times a year for family celebrations. As I wash each piece by hand, I wonder, with a pang of melancholy, if my daughter will someday do the same.

I had somewhat of a negative reaction to Lupton’s piece. I stand more firmly in DeRoos’ camp. I think that if you truly love people, you don’t want to burden them with your clutter after you’re gone. You want to make things as simple as possible for them, not bog them down with guilt, piles of stuff, and responsibilities. I hope to ease their grief, not make it worse.

What are your reactions to the DeRoos quote and Lupton’s piece? What are your thoughts about what you plan to leave behind? Yes, it’s morbid to ponder, but we are mortal. What do you want to be your legacy?

79 Comments for “What will be your legacy?”

  1. posted by Anonymous on

    My wife’s mom is a hoarder with an absolutely gigantic house (as well as other buildings on the property). My wife has lived for years with the stress of knowing that someday it would be hers to take care of, and I took on that stress a bit, too, when we got married. But we’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t want the house and probably won’t need the money from it’s sale (except if we needed to pay someone to get rid of it), so perhaps there is someway we can make it someone else’s problem (legally, of course). We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, I guess, but giving ourselves permission to not plan to clean it personally has helped. It’s still awful to think about, though, and while I know it is more awful for her mom to live in and deal with this disease (which she refuses to get help for), we can’t help feeling a bit mad sometimes that we’re expected to take care of all that junk — in some form or fashion — when my mother-in-law passes or otherwise can’t take care of it.

    My own mother tried to force stuff on me that she had kept — with the condition that I don’t get rid of it. Stuff like toys I played with as a young child and my first washcloth — things I don’t even remember, let alone care about. Why should I have to hold onto stuff that she doesn’t even want? What I couldn’t refuse, I got rid of. And yes, she was very upset.

    I wish our parents would understand that we don’t want their stuff. We want time with them. What good are heirlooms when we don’t even know the stories behind them? And we can keep the stories without the stuff.

    But they’re too busy taking care of the stuff, cleaning the stuff, sorting the stuff, buying more stuff, repairing the stuff, working hard to pay for the stuff… I’d rather my mom spend time with me than in the mall buying stuff for me that I neither need nor want, but she insists on it.

  2. posted by Jen on

    Just looking at the above quote, I would tend to agree with you. When I read all of Lupton’s piece, however, she seems to agree with you and DeRoos more than disagree, so I’m not sure what the cause for the negative reaction was. I think she’s very realistic and thoughtful about addressing our emotional attachments to objects and heirlooms.

  3. posted by Maffalda on

    If you’d like to read more on the subject, read Regina Leeds’ Zen of Organizing. There is one chapter where she tells the impact dealing with her deceased mother’s belongings had in her life.

  4. posted by Kelly on

    My 21-year-old daughter is not shy about expressing her opinions of my stuff. “I want that when you die,” she said, pointing to a piece of Southwest art on my wall. “Great!” I said, “You can have it when I’m alive… as soon as you get your own apartment, it’s yours!” The rest of my stuff she has no use for. So I’m paring down and trying to keep only what I really need.

    I’m still trying to get my husband on the decluttering bandwagon. Baby steps, baby steps.

  5. posted by Dorothy on

    Great post, Erin, and great comment, Anonymous.

    Anonymous, please know you can hire someone after your MIL’s death to come in, have an estate sale, and get rid of everything in the house if that’s what you need to do. Your attitude is mine — your wife should have zero guilt. If your MIL doesn’t care enough about this “stuff” to care for it during her lifetime, your wife doesn’t need to pick that burden up when her mother is gone.

    I am just about done moving into a house my husband and I built. He died about 4 months before the house was completed. Much of our stuff had been in storage for three years due to several moves for work assignments. As I’ve unpacked, I’ve purged a good deal (in volume, probably half of what we had).

    And of course, I’ve had to go through all of my husband’s things. In frankness, beyond a few keepsakes, most of his belongings are just “stuff”. It’s broken my heart to dispose of his papers for instance — binders full of technical material he used for his work that he printed out and meticulously filed. This material has no value to anyone but him. Anyone who needs it would look it up on-line these days. I’ve probably put 15 cartons of papers into the local recycling bin.

    So it’s really made me think about what I’m keeping — and I’m looking with a jaundiced eye at everything I own. As much as I’ve purged, there’s room for more efforts. For instance, I’m an avid reader, but I have 20 cartons of books stacked in my garage for donation. Do I really need to keep the family silver and china I’ll only use a couple times per year or would it better go to a young woman just setting up her home?

    Thanks for reminding me where I’m going on this path in my life!

  6. posted by Jill on

    As someone who used to be sentimental about stuff and just spent the last month to month and a half cleaning out her uncle’s house (he moved into my grandmother’s house when she died in 2008 and he never cleared out her stuff before moving in), I can assure you that the sentimentality of most of the stuff will be gone when you are faced with the clutter. It helped that he wasn’t very clean, so most everyday kitchen stuff and torn or outdated clothing was promptly thrown out. Any dishes, pots and pans, teapots, bedding, blankets, clothes, etc. that are still in decent shape were boxed up and are ready to be picked up by charity. We have kept a few things, but I am surprised how little of it I wanted. And I’m paring down myself now. No one thinks of the stuff they are leaving behind for their relatives to dispose of. Thanks for such a timely post.

  7. posted by JC on

    My parents asked us years ago to tell them specifically what items we wanted when they died – the rest is to be sold or donated. (I was even informed that my mother’s china was purchased at a yard sale and is NOT an heirloom.) I am in charge of their estates when they do pass on and have the master list. My mother is a very neat and tidy person and believes in keeping only those things that mean something, or perform their function well.

    I have some things from deceased family members, but they are mostly things I use regularly. A cookie jar, my great-grandmother’s china for four, and some 150 year old crystal glasses.

    The mounted head made me laugh. My husband’s family are avid hunters. On our walls we have a buffalo, two mountain sheep, and a caribou. We also have three bear hides hanging over the loft railing. They are not really that bad when compared to the full body mounted sheep standing on a fake rock that we inherited when my FIL died. It’s not my favorite, the men like it, and it really is one of only three items he has of his father’s (and they were on that hunt together). We currently have the space for it, so it stays. I feel somewhat for my son’s future wife, but maybe she will have the same rules I have – they must be at least 10′ up or higher on the wall so I am not looking at them head on.

  8. posted by Morgan on

    I have been challenged lately to decide what is special and what is a weight around my neck.

    Last year, I was looking at the knitting needles my grandmother left behind when she passed away eight years ago. Instead of being attached to the needles themselves, I learned how to knit. I have used some of the needles she left, but I also have bought some new ones (different sizes). But I know that the needles aren’t what is special. What is special is knowing that my grandmother knitted (and crocheted) and now I know how, too.

    I’m glad I wasn’t overly sentimental when my mom and uncle were going through her things, because I would have kept a lot of junk I didn’t need to remember her. What I have now is the ability to use my hands and create the way she did. That is a more precious memory than some stuff she used.

  9. posted by Mark Savage on

    When my dad’s dad died in 2007, he left a mountain of stuff behind. Having watched the intense effort and pain that my dad and his siblings went through to get rid of it, I’d hate to put my family through that.

    Now I own so few things, it’d take just one trip to the Salvation Army to be rid of it. Quite a thought, I have to say. All in all, though, I think I’m ok with that. 🙂

  10. posted by Gilda on

    From the quote above, I think it’s natural for Lupton to wonder if her daughter will treasure the china that has been passed down. But whether or not her daughter does shouldn’t be influenced by her mother’s (especially after she’s dead) wishes. Lupton valued something and took good care of it. Maybe her daughter will too or maybe she’ll sell it at a garage sale and someone else will value it.

    What would be worse would be to assume, oh my kids won’t want this and just dump it all before you die. It’s possible that Lupton’s daughter is expecting to get that set, and that would be a real tragedy. Best thing to do is open the lines of communication and talk to her daughter about what she would want and what she wouldn’t, then only those things that she wants (and would care for) are passed down.

  11. posted by DR on

    My father-in-law was recently diagnosed with ALS and given 3-5 years to live. Given that my in-laws are retirement age already and the disease is advanced enough that his mobility is becoming increasingly limited, I was almost in a panic at how urgently they needed to get out of their tired, split-level home and into a townhome or something more amenable to enjoying whatever time he has left and the cadre of people coming in and out to help care for him.

    My biggest concern was the mountains and mountains of STUFF. Probably not anything too unusual compared to a lot of people, but the kind of thing you’d expect to find with busy, unorganized people of retirement age (and a 30-something son who’s never moved out of the house). Old, broken snowblowers and lawn mowers in the garage. Papers, magazines, and old computers in the basement. Junk, trinkets, gadgets everywhere.

    My in-laws, to their credit, have shown a lot of urgency in their handling of the situation. They quickly put together a list of projects to bring the house up to a condition worthy of sale and they’ve spent most of the summer on that.

    Unfortunately, they haven’t adopted the shift in mindset that it requires to purge themselves of all their stuff. They’re simply renting a storage unit and shoving whatever they can in there. They’re keeping items they have no business keeping and, I am certain, will never, ever use again. My wife challenges them on many of these items, to no avail.

    As someone who has given up a lot of time to help them this year, it’s sad, frustrating, and enraging all at once. But we’re on the outside and there’s only so much we can do. It’s a shame because they’re spending all their time worry about stuff rather than researching treatment options or spending it with each other.

  12. posted by Jacquie on

    Reading about people clearing out their Mum’s stuff is making me feel there must be something wrong with me. I know my sister and I were ‘lucky’ in that Mum died before Dad, so there was no time constraint in clearing her stuff, but we had a ball.

    Mum had always said she didn’t want to leave us to deal with all her things, but from her late 80s through to 90 when she died, she didn’t have the energy or motivation to deal with it. We also felt that she might make bad judgements about what to keep and what to throw (from experience, when she sold some valuable books to someone who knocked on the door) so we didn’t push her at all.

    She had a workroom packed full of craft type things, the vast part of the study with books, more craft and her painting stuff (art, not DIY!), and her clothes filled the wardrobes and under the beds in the spare room as well as her own bedroom.

    Dad’s first request was that “it would be nice to be able to get across her ‘workroom’ to the wardrobe” on the far side, where his spare clothes were, so that was where we started.

    We basically had rubbish bags, recycle bags, send to her handicrafts group bags and keep bags. The last had a very small proportion of the stuff put in it, but if either of us showed an inclination for anything at that stage, we kept it.

    Dad was bemused at the speed in which bags left the house, but was thrilled at being able to get to his clothes easily for the first time in years. Nearly everything we opened had money in it, (which is why we went through literally everything,) and pieces of cardboard. I guess card was short during the war.

    We went through her clothes as well, (she was a very stylish dresser even at 90 and I still wear some of her silk shirts) and tried to remove enough of her things for Dad to be able to cope, without changing the feel of the house too much.

    Each evening after he had gone to bed, we would spread out the ‘keepsies’ for the day, and look at them properly, and share them out. I still enjoy using her craft tools and I know sister does too. A lot of what I brought home then (6 years ago) has gone since, I just needed to keep some things for a while as part of grieving, I guess.

    Since then Dad has died too, and after his death we had more household type things to sort out, but we still didn’t find it traumatic. Perhaps because we were good friends with our parents to the end, and understood and empathised with Mum’s not too severe hoarding, we were able to see the funny side of a lot of what she kept, and enjoy the treasures as we found them.

  13. posted by Amanda N on

    I have lost both grandmothers in the last year. As my momma and I cleaned out my grandmother’s house, she assured me that when she passes, my sister and I should take only what we really want from her house and then sell everyting else without a bit of remorse or hesitation. She said she does not want us agonizing over the idea that we might hurt her feelings if we don’t want something that she likes.
    She is already working to get rid of things that she does not want us to have to sort through. I hope it is a long, long time before I have to deal with that, but I really appreciate the fact that she is already thinking about what she needs to do to spare us from the pain of sorting through her stuff.
    Also, when my Gramma was first diagnosed with Alz., she had the grandchildren come and tell her what they wanted from the house at the time and she just gave us the stuff right then. I loved being able to use those things while she was alive and treasure them even more now that she is gone.

  14. posted by Iris on

    I agree totally. My mother-in-law expects that we will look after all the stuff she had saved for generations and would make us feel guilty if we don’t want to look after them. The thought of having to deal with a big house full of ‘legacy’ just makes me feel stressful.

    And she has a very different idea of how much ‘stuff’ we need in order to get on with day to day life. Whenever she visits, she will try to ‘fix’ the lack of kitchen tools by buying us lots of single taskers, which was sweet of her but we were left with a kitchen with overstuffed drawers. She was pretty upset when we have finally managed to tell her to stop.

  15. posted by Kimberly on

    I grew up in a very cluttered house and my parents continue to live in a very cluttered house. In addition my mom is very sentimental about family “heirlooms” and refuses to get rid of items whether she uses them or not. It is hard for me to get my own possessions out of my old room without her trying to make me promise I won’t throw them out. I wish she would understand that physical items are not our memories or our love for our family members. I dread having to go through her things after she’s gone not because it will be traumatic, but because it will entail cleaning up a big mess I didn’t make. I want to make sure I leave a minimum of mess for my kids to take care of and that I make it clear to them they are welcome to whatever they want and free to get rid of the rest.

  16. posted by Leslie on

    I never understood the “special” china that was only used on holidays and would often complain to my mom; especially since I was always tasked with having to clean all the pieces we would be using for that meal. My mom finally decided she didn’t need two sets (everyday and special occasion) and got rid of the everyday set. She said she enjoys her meals more on the nicer set and doesn’t mind having to hand wash them as she only cooks for 1 now.

  17. posted by Kara on

    What a timely post. My mother passed away in December and cleaning out all the stuff was horribly taxing in many ways. Guilt, anger, and sadness. I wish my mom had not collected soooo much stuff, hours and hours and hours have been spent trying to figure out what to do with all of it. Many trips to Goodwill and a dumpster for the trash and of course we still have things to sell. 8 months later and we are still dealing with the stuff. This is not the way I want to remember my mom.

  18. posted by Franklin on

    If you’re holding onto stuff for no real reason, by all means throw it away. But I take issue with one point in the post:

    “… if you truly love people, you don’t want to burden them with your clutter….”

    I didn’t know love was “making sure nobody has to deal with your stuff when you die”. By that logic, you shouldn’t own an estate or have a will when you die, because someone’s going to have to deal with it, and it’s going to be messy.

    I certainly see where you’re coming from with the post, but defining love in terms of clutter is a bit hokey.

  19. posted by shannon on

    I like the idea of dealing with my own stuff and clutter so that someone doesn’t have to.

    I also like the idea of enjoying the things I have even though it may be clutter to someone else. Erin might vomit if she saw my house, but if she were my daughter should I feel obligated to whittle my lifestyle to match hers so that my death is a seamless transition? I think not.

    The guilt with heirlooms and such is a serious one. Ask your children what they want and what they would enjoy. A small vase in my window sill would be a daily reminder and smile especially if it held a memory- a giant moose head that scares the dog is not. Better to have some giddy person at an estate sale squeal over your Wedgwood and serve her guests with your special china, she will love it as you did. I think that is what most of us want with our ‘precious’ stuff.

    Also if the word is out- however tacky it may seem, there might be friends or extended family that would love special items but would never dare to ask or impose.

  20. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Franklin — The key word is “clutter” in that quote of mine. A Will, estate, etc. isn’t what I’m discussing. I’m referencing actual clutter — unprocessed junk mail, boxes of stuff in the basement or attic you don’t even care about, or (like the author of the NY Times piece) an avalanche of books that are overflowing from boxes in storage.

  21. posted by Christine Simiriglia on

    My husband and I have no children. Lately, we have been moving away from owning things that don’t offer function or beauty on a regular basis. If someone I know admires something I have, I usually give it to them now while I can enjoy the act of giving. No use having them wait for me to die. I want to leave nothing behind but my love.

  22. posted by Franklin on

    Thanks for re-explaining that. Must’ve missed your primary meaning.

    On a side note, my (rapidly aging) mother has a rather large collection of board games that I’m unfortunately going to inherit. I knew she didn’t like me 😛

  23. posted by Elle on

    Franklin, you certainly have the opportunity to donate those games to those who would appreciate them. Have you considered a local charity or elementary school?


  24. posted by Dawn F on

    When I think about the turmoil, energy and aggravation (and possibly money) my husband and I will have to spend dealing with my in-laws clutter and stuff I think I will fall over dead myself!

    In all seriousness, going through their 50+ years of accumulated items, stuff, boxes, junk, etc. stored in a home, garage and TWO storage units (and a broken down car and a second home in utter disrepair) not to mention trying to muddle through impossible volumes of paperwork (to determine where accounts are, where is the will??, who is entitled to what, etc., etc.) seems like such a horrible legacy to leave behind. I could not imagine leaving this burden behind for MY family – and it’s not like they love or treasure their possessions in the first place – so why keep it now or for the heirs?

    I sincerely wish my in-laws would get their estate in order – I wish that with all of my heart.

    Our home, our estate and our belongings are in meticulous order and will be easy to work through both for our benefit now (because we enjoy living a clutter-free, organized, simple lifestyle) and for our son’s. I wish my in-laws felt the same way.

  25. posted by Jude on

    I’ve spent all of my daughter’s lifetime organizing other people’s possessions. She is now 28 years old. The year she was born, my father died. I still haven’t sorted through everything he left behind in his workshop (although my brothers took the most valuable items right away). As people died or moved away, they left stuff here. I don’t think my house would be cluttered if it weren’t for these seemingly infinite decisions. That sewing machine from the 1940s–is it worth anything? My brother said I could probably get $600 for the antique two-man saw–but how do I sell it? I gave away my father’s stamp collection, and other people were appalled. Yes, I could have saved it for my sons, but I gave it to someone who already loves stamps and therefore will love the collection. My sons might develop an interest in stamps later, but they don’t have it now. 28 years of sorting, donating, and maintaining other people’s junk makes me truly intolerant of clutter.

  26. posted by Tiffany on

    When I visited my grandparents two summers ago they asked me what I wanted from their stuff. I was taken aback, but immediately stated that all I want is the set of teacups we had tea parties with when I was young. I want to have tea parties with my kids with those cups one day. Other than that…I didn’t care, because it is just stuff.

    Though I was a little appalled to be stating what I wanted when they die, I realized that it was the best way to handle the situation. They want to give people meaningful items, so they simply ask! So smart!

    My mother, on the other hand, has kept everything meaningful to her with the idea that she will pawn it all of on me one day, even though it is not meaningful to me. I think this sort of giving and expectation is in a way selfish, and fails to acknowledge the feelings of the individual that you are demanding keep your things. Yes, there are things of my mother’s that I would love to have because they remind me of her, and carry emotional weight, but those are few and far between. I do not want the stuffed animal I played with when I was 7. And frankly, knowing it’s been sitting in a dusty basement for 22 years, I don’t want my kids playing with it either!!

  27. posted by hippolyta on

    @Christine: “I want to leave nothing behind but my love.”
    Beautiful! Amen to that.

  28. posted by Rae on

    When my dad was dying, he had very few material possessions left to give away but there was one set of fancy, expensive dishes that he wanted me to have because I’m the oldest. But I move regularly and don’t entertain. I asked him to please give them to my sister with his blessing because that’s where they would end up. He agreed. They were beautiful dishes, but they would have ended up being clutter and a burden while my sister is overjoyed to have them.

    Besides those, my dad pretty much left nothing, causing those who helped clear his apartment to declare that it was sad and rather pathetic that he died with so little to give. Meanwhile, I was nursing him and having Important Conversations with him about life and death. He told me that he was leaving me a bit of money and to not waste it; that I should travel or move cross country or have some wild adventure.

    A year and a half after my dad died, I’d downsized from a 1,000 square foot home to a 120 square foot RV and fulfilled my dream of being a perpetual traveler by becoming a full-timer RVer. My dad’s legacy is that he taught me that the only thing you can take with you when you die are your memories and that’s what you should focus on accumulating, not stuff.

    I keep a blog about my travels and see that I am inspiring others to do what I have done. Perhaps that will be my legacy?

  29. posted by Julia on

    If Lupton wants to know if her daughter will value the china as much as she does, she should probably ask now.
    Years ago my grandmother started a tradition she calls Grand-daughter day. This is a day when she invites all of her grand-daughters over for a little get together. She says it’s because most of her grand-daughters are not close and she wants to bring us together. This is her legacy. For most of my life the only times I ever saw my aunts, uncles, and cousins were when I was visiting Grandma.
    But I digress, each Granddaughter day, my grandmother collects some of her antiques, jewelry and other nicknacks and let us each pick a piece that we wanted. I’ll probably toss the jewelry I got, but the antique vase she gave me on the first Granddaughter day is something I’ll cherish for a long, long time. With that vase, I don’t feel that I need any of her other nick-nacks.
    When my grandfather died, my grandmother grouped some of his things into categories. She let each of her kids pick from one category (things like tie pins, watches, cufflinks, glasses, a magnifying glass he always used to read with). Us grandkids got to pick from things like handkerchiefs and ties. Everybody got something of my grandfather’s (quite an accomplishment, my family is huge) and my grandmother is making sure, now, that everybody get’s something of hers.

  30. posted by Whiteoak on

    I have been reading through these comments and find a big problem in a lot of people’s thinking. When your relatives die and leave their stuff to you to deal with there is a ton of work and effort in cleaning it out but there should be no guilt. The person who left it is no longer there to guilt you, any guilt you feel is your own doing. The belongings are now yours to do with as you want.

  31. posted by Franklin on

    I couldn’t agree more with Whiteoak. When I purchase something, it’s for me. I’m not worrying about who’s going to deal with it when I die x-many years in the future.

    I’m NOT advocating piling up as much stuff as humanly possible. I’m saying that if someone chooses to live a “cluttered” life (by this site’s standards anyway), that’s their choice. It doesn’t mean they love you any less.

    I agree that dealing with tonnes of paperwork is a hassle, and sorting the contents of an entire attic may not be fun. But it seems silly to condemn someone because they spent their money to buy things you’re now inheriting. That, my friends, is the crux of capitalism.

    I think this would make for an interesting psychological case study: “Does More Clutter After a Parent’s Death Increase Stress and Guilt Feelings?” 25000 words, double-spaced. Due Monday. 😀

  32. posted by timgray on

    My legacy will be copies of the 2 books I actually had published, my personal Journals, and the photograph albums. most of the “stuff” has been photographed and then written about on the back of the photo or on a page next to the photo. I will be using one of the vanity publishing houses to have several “me” books printed to put in the chest with my gradeschool pocket knife I got from grandpa, Dad’s war medals, and other very small trinkets to be given to the future grandkids, great grandkids, etc…. My life will fit in a 24″X24″X24″ box. easy for the future to haul around and with multiple copies in there to share. nothing in “digital” form as that will be worthless to future generations. I would like to leave behind video and audio… but I cant see anything I can record on now being listenable in 120 years..

    As for my in-laws legacy… 6 buildings of clutter to the ceiling for my wife and her siblings to deal with are what they are leaving behind.

  33. posted by Margaret on

    Anonymous – if you won’t need to maximize money from the sale of the home, I would even consider just selling AS IS because there may well be somone who would love a chance to sort through all that junk on the chance of finding treasures.

    JC – my husband is a hunter, and we have mounts too. I do not really like them, but oh well. I only wish we had high enough ceilings that I could implement a ten foot high rule! If anything ever happens to my husband, those dead things are going to GO!

    My mom has teacups that were her grandmothers or greatgrandmothers or something. When one of my cousin’s children graduation from high school, my mom gave her one of the cups, and my cousin said it was very meaningful to her because she used to visit my mom and have tea from those cups. I told my mom after that that if she has anyone else like that who would love the cups, she should give them away to those people, because my only memory of those cups is them sitting in the china cabinet and us not being allowed to touch them. The only thing that I can think of right now that I absolutely know I want to inherit is a nativity set of my grandmothers. I started buying her the Fontanini nativity set probably 10 years ago now for Christmas because she didn’t have a nativity and she didn’t need anything. I have on purpose never bought myself a nativity set, so someday, I want to have that one, and it will be more special to me because it was also my Baba’s. On the other hand, if something happened and I did not get it, I would be disappointed, but I don’t think I would be devastated.

    re Whiteoak — I think it is hard to just say that you won’t have any guilt about dealing with stuff, especially if somebody has spent years training you up to feel guilty about it, or if there is anyone left alive who is going to heap the guilt on you for disposing of things. I’m not disagreeing with you — I think it is best to deal with things without the guilt — but I think it is easier said than done in a lot of cases.

  34. posted by Lyn on

    While I would like to be absolutely organized & uncluttered, I doubt I’ll get there, and therefore my kids are going to have to deal with a certain amount of stuff. I love my boys dearly, but as I’ve spent over 30 years dealing with a lot of their stuff, I’m not feeling too bad about it!

  35. posted by WilliamB on

    It seems to me that one reason that some of the commenters reacted strongly is that “clutter” is both a subjective word and a pejorative one. (Y’all have seen George Carlin’s routine about clutter I hope? If not, get ye to YouTube forthwith!)

    My parents have a lot of stuff. Much of it has objective value. Far more of it has sentimental value to my mother than it does to me. In addition to giving me things I value, she dumps stuff on me; in both cases she feels she has some right to determine what I do with it. My choice is to deny that right and forego the things of value, or keep all the stuff she gives me till she’s no longer in a position to object.

    My parents have done many things right with their stuff. Here are some which I will appreciate when the time comes:
    1. They have distributed many items while they are still alive, prefering to see their descendents enjoy them.
    2. They frequently tell stories about their stuff, especially the stuff from their parents and grandparents.
    3. They gave me contact info for their lawyer and their executor.
    4. I videorecorded them talking about all the things in their apt – what it is, where it came from and when, why it is interesting or valuable or what great story it evokes. I distributed copies widely.
    5. I videorecorded my parents talking about their lives. One of the most interesting (if occasionally weepy) episodes was going through the family photos. We did this with my grandparents as well. Many copies distributed widely.
    6. They hired a slightly OCD organizer to organize and label their shelves, closets, etc. It’ll be easy to tell the difference between their very good everyday plates and grandmother’s “good” china.

  36. posted by Grace on

    Discernment. I do not consider china handed down over generations to be clutter. Living should be about all that we hold dear on life, including family and friends. Holding on to every little thing and an unwillingness to let go or simply to possess begets clutter. Family china, on special occasions, begets memories, love and gratefulness. Can you have it without the china? Of course you can. Would I want to? No.

  37. posted by Stephanie on

    Despite a lot of uncluttering, my parents have a lot of stuff right now – especially after moving into my grandparents’ old house. And they enjoy looking for antiques, going to estate sales, etc. I’m glad they’re enjoying themselves. But there’s no guilt involved for me or my brother. My parents always say, “These are *our* memories, not yours.” That’s a good thought to keep in mind when confronting stuff. Whose memories are they? Let it go if it’s not yours.

  38. posted by s on

    So much of my stuff is clippings or journals or pictures or mementos of events and achievements. I collect it and protect it and keep it all organized in totes or boxes. But even I don’t ever go back and look at it. Why would anyone else? Still, I’ve just moved into a small apartment and don’t have room to pile this stuff up. How can I part with it, since it’s unique and personal and can’t be replaced? But why do I keep it when I don’t know what’s there until I look through it? All the stuff brings back interesting memories, but I don’t think it’s a problem to have the memories without the stuff, or even to not have the memories that aren’t triggered without the stuff.

    I do think I keep some stuff for “CYA” purposes–in case someone asks or if I want an example of something I did before. But I seldom remember to go back to the references and don’t know if I could find what I was looking for if I did. And there are always new sources of ideas–people, internet, magazines, etc.

    I would be such a minimalist if I could just avoid acquiring stuff (and saving it) in the first place.

    On a whole other side, sometimes I buy stuff in anticipation of something wearing out or being used up. Then I take such care of the thing (shoes, furniture, pretty paper), that I never use it all up or wear it all out…and it lives with me for a long time before I realize that I haven’t used it in so long that it’s become meaningless to me.

    Wanna walk through memory lane (on the way to the recycle bin) with me? =)

  39. posted by chacha1 on

    My 93-yr-old grandma is being moved from a “senior apartment” to an assisted-living facility this week. She was evicted from the apartment because of her hoarding. She also is nearly blind, has lost most of her short-term memory, and has mobility issues, all of which have been a long time coming.

    She is trying to get my uncle and his wife to “save” all of her junk in their barn. They are telling her “no.” One of my cousins wants them to save some of the stuff until he can get there to look through it. They are telling *him* “no.” They are the only family living nearby and they certainly have my blessing in shoveling it out in the quickest, most painless (to them) way.

    My in-laws are fast losing their ability to manage independently (deafness, blindness, mobility). My FIL has filled their house with videotapes … from three VCRS constantly running for the last nearly ten years … thousands of hours of TV programming most of which he has never watched. DH and I have no idea what, if any, end-of-life or long-term-care or financial arrangements they’ve made, because they discuss such things only with his older brother, the “first son.” Who they currently aren’t speaking to.

    My other grandma died of Alzheimer’s and long ago had her kids, grandkids and siblings go through her art, jewelry, books etc to lay claim to whatever they particularly wanted. She put little labels on everything! She didn’t give anybody any guilt-tripping about things she’d collected. They were HERS, not ours, and she didn’t think any of us ought to want them just because she did.

    I’m just glad we had at least one family elder who didn’t confuse her actual relationships with the stuff that was in the room at the same time as the people.

  40. posted by jenG on

    I wish I’d had WilliamB’s foresight. I still have a USB recorder that’s meant to capture family stories, but I keep…missing my window.

    I took a pretty hard line on my mother’s estate, which I’ve mentioned in the comments before. There was virtually nothing of objective value (that term would’ve been useful at the time), so it came down to subjective value. And no one was allowed to judge what anyone else wanted…or didn’t want. Whatever anyone in the family wanted, they were welcome to have. I knew what items I wanted and would defer only to my brother if there was a conflict (there wasn’t). I did push everyone to think of something that they wanted–a ring, a teapot, a mug–something that would make them think of Mom and smile.

    Mom was only semi-attached to the stuff, but very attached to the house. I know she would have wanted us to keep it, but she also knew before she died that it would have to be sold…she couldn’t bring herself to list it. I like to think that her legacy was raising kids who could make that happen, no matter how hard it was.

  41. posted by Barb @ 1SentenceDiary on

    In the last two years, we have unfortunately had many deaths in the family. This has caused us to think about these things in more detail than ever before. Some of the “treasures” we found were items such as ticket stubs from much-enjoyed concerts — meaningful to the concert-goer, perhaps, but to me? Not so much.

    But on the other hand, I greatly enjoy using my grandmother’s piano, my grandfather’s screwdriver, and the crystal goblets that my other grandmother gave my mother and which she has now passed on to me. I have a piece of needlework which I love that my mother started, my grandmother finished, and my grandfather mounted. I am so glad that I have these items. I would remember my grandparents without them, but I get much pleasure from using them.

    As for the quote that Erin pulled from the NYT article, about whether the daughter would get joy from the dishes: I feel that way every day. I wonder about not only the material possessions that get passed along, but also other traditions: the recipes that have been used and loved for generations, the ability to chant the ancient tune of the Torah (in a Jewish synagogue), and the retelling of family stories (some are about ancestors who died long before I was born, but their stories live on). I constantly wonder about the line between giving my children a good grounding in their own past and where they come from without burdening them with things and traditions that weigh them down.

    I think life is full of trade offs, and we each have to find our own balance. But it’s not always easy, at least for me.

  42. posted by Patch on

    Already answered this in the forum threads here:

    I have no close family that I would particularly want to leave anything, much less burden with or have them “touch” my Stuff to get rid of it, so disposing of my own household falls to me alone, while I still can…Besides, I was born owning nothing, and when I leave this earth (which could be anytime, as no one is guaranteed a tomorrow) I want to leave in a similar manner, owning nothing, or as little as possible. As a preacher from my childhood church once said, “there are no U-Hauls behind a hearse.”

  43. posted by Changing Spaces on

    The issues discussed above are just what many families hire Senior Move Managers to help with. Senior Move Managers (SMM’s) can help seniors downsize while they are still active enough to enjoy their retirement without being weighed down by so much STUFF. We can assist with sorting out the meaningful from the meaningless, and can open lines of communication about objects found in senior’s homes so the entire family can be part of the process of hearing why certain things have been kept all this time, and what the stories are behind them.

    We can also assist families downsize after the death of a loved one. Senior Move Managers are experienced and caring professionals that can help families sort through items, arrange for sale of certain items, donation of others, and responsible disposal of the rest.

    Downsizing at any age can be a difficult and emotional process, which is why SMM’s are here to help! There are Senior Move Managers located all across the country, and a listing of them can be found at http://www.NASMM.org.

  44. posted by Mike on

    I really have to hand it to you guys, you have some great ideas and methods for handling what is really a very emotionally difficult process. I especially liked the idea of videorecording them while they are alive. Now that we have cell phones that can shoot HD video (!!), a luxury unheard of even a few years ago, there is no reason not to shoot at least a few minutes of video every time the family gets together. My grandmother has been very, very happy to be able to spend time with her great-granddaughters, but I know that when my little girls reach adulthood, Great-Grandma is almost certain to be long gone. I’d like them to be able to hear her words, live and in color, just as if she was still with us in fact as she will be in memory.

    Her husband, my grandfather, passed just over a decade ago. Even though he was spartan and minimalist, the product of a military life, there was still a fairly large load of “stuff” to go through. So I hope those of you who are discouraged about this, especially those dealing with hoarders, can take some solace that there is going to be a “Stuff Ordeal” no matter what; it’s just a matter of degree. Hopefully the guilt won’t press so hard on you when you realize that you are not alone in this, and nobody, not even the cleanest people, are passing on simple, clean, pre-boxed estates ready to be hauled away in a single car trip.

    We ended up pitching a lot of Grandpa’s stuff, mainly threadworn clothes that even a dedicated miser would have had difficulty reselling or repurposing as fabric. We scanned photographs and cleaned them up in iPhoto, and the originals will crumble to dust before much longer so we pitched them. Grandma kept the household items, of course. My father had a well-equipped garage already, so Grandpa’s tools ended up being a huge benefit to ME as I built MY household! I went from not even owning a drill to having enough tools to dismantle a locomotive engine. I haven’t yet had use of it all, but there’s a place for everything and everything in its place, so it’s not costing me anything to keep things until they’re needed. And so far it has saved me untold thousands in purchases I haven’t had to make at the local Lowe’s or in hiring contractors to make repairs.

    The only other things of Grandpa’s that I kept were his medals and other regalia from World War II. And that stuff is staying in the family for as long as I am alive to have any say about it. Some of it is in pristine condition, while other items have actual battlefield wear and damage. That’s the kind of family memory and legacy that you can’t buy at Wal-Mart. I think, in the end, we just want to make sure we hang onto those kinds of things and don’t lose sight of them amid piles and piles of transitory consumer junk. Good luck to each of you in your efforts.

  45. posted by Mletta on

    Grace, I think you summed it up well for many of us:
    “Holding on to every little thing and an unwillingness to let go or simply to possess begets clutter. Family china, on special occasions, begets memories, love and gratefulness. Can you have it without the china? Of course you can. Would I want to? No.”

    One person’s clutter is another’s treasured family keepsake. I would killed to have had something from my grandparents, for example.

    It really saddens me to read the responses here because there is so much vehemence about the “work” involved in cleaning up spaces after a loved one’s death. People just seem so angry and put out that they are left to do this. Also, a heck of a lot of judgment on how that person lived.

    I get that it’s work. A lot of life is,including things that involve family. But if this is how you look at a one-time requirement of your time and energy, there is something else going on with a relationship. My mother drove my brother and I crazy most of her life with her behavior yet we did not feel this way about dealing with her stuff. And we did it twice, with virtually no notice and a very short turnaround.

    We didn’t bring attitude to the process. We all just did it. Was it fun? No. Was it frustrating at times? Yes. (Trying to be sensitive to her feelings, which we tried, while trying to compress a house worth of stuff into a one-bedroom apartment and then that stuff into a one-room ALF room, not easy.)

    My issue is the use of the word legacy to apply to “things” no matter how much value (real and/or sentimental)and no matter how many or how few.

    Legacy, to me, is not “stuff.” It’s about the life you led and how you lived it with those you loved and how you contributed to the world, small or large, on a daily basis.

    I have already apologized to my friends (it will be they, not my “family” of only one person still living), who will be clearing out my apartment, which is chock full of books (my legacy) and a home office. Do I feel bad? Yes. But not to the point of NOT living the way I want to right now. In any event, if I live 30 more years, I’ll probably be living somewhere else and I’ll have to arrange to have it emptied out.

    I’ve prepared for all of this, but the reality is, people will only do what they can. For all those folks who left instructions about giving stuff away, we all know that you are dependent on the honor of others and sometimes, well, people just toss everything.

    There are only a few material things that I think are worth passing along. Who knows what any friend will think. Does it hurt to think that a friend won’t want an item I leave them? Yes, but there’s nothing I can do about that. I would like to leave something as a physical reminder that I was here and a reminder of our connection. I do believe material items are not just sentimental junk. And you would be very very surprised who values what. I have seen friends go nearly crazy when learning that a sibling had just tossed all of a parent’s stuff without allowing them to go through. Same with siblings and their stuff. And the thing is, it is not even about the relationship they had per se, but about a life they shared.

    And I seriously hope that I will have the opportunity to keep an item or two when my friends pass if I’m still here. And if that means I have to clear out and sort their home/apartment, or hire someone to do it, I will. Gladly. A small price in my mind for getting to share a life together.

    FYI: The books are going to either a library or to individuals who want them. The only thing I care about IS the disposition of the library (it is a library). And despite the advance of e-readers, many people still love books and still will.

    One last thing: I urge everyone who is dealing with elderly parents on these matters to go easy. Try hard to imagine what it would be like if someone were dictating the disposal of YOUR current home and its contents. Because that is what you are doing to them. Show some compassion and patience. It isn’t easy but it helps if you think about how you would feel, WILL FEEL, when it is YOUR turn!

  46. posted by Fiasmom on

    I recently joked to my mom that we’ll have the best estate sale in town when she dies – a long time from now I hastened to add – and she has taken this joke to heart and is busy “casting off” as she says. I think all the clutter in cupboards and behind closed doors is embarrassing to her, and I now tell her daily how proud and grateful I am for the effort she is making.

  47. posted by chacha1 on

    Mletta and Grace – really? You wouldn’t want to have the family gathering if you couldn’t have it without the d***d china?

    “Can you have [the special occasion] without it? Of course you can. Would I want to? No.”


    Surely that’s not what you meant.

    Also … of course we try to be sensitive to the needs of the elder who is having to downsize or is losing control. Compassion and patience go without saying. But I think the point of this particular discussion is that the person whose stuff it is kind of needs to cop to the fact that those left behind may consider dealing with the stuff to be a burden. And govern themselves accordingly. And not assume that THEIR treasures should be treasured by everyone else. That’s all this is about. Thinking it through and talking it over.

  48. posted by charmed2482 on

    I honestly don’t want to pass on anything when i die, I hope I can get rid of everything before then so people don’t have to deal with it.

  49. posted by Andrew on

    Dealing with both of my parents’ possessions after their deaths was what got me started living an uncluttered life. I promised myself that I would leave behind no more than one trash bag of clothes, one small box of memorabilia, 100 books, and no guilt about any of it. In fact, the greatest honor they could do me is to pass those things on to people who need them.

  50. posted by Malcolm on

    Whew! there are some stories here and no mistake. Interestingly, this seems to be an issue that turns on mother/daughter relationships.
    Of course men are involved in all these things too. I am 65 and my father died 15 years ago. He was a clutterer (so am I but am recovering at the moment) but he passed most of his clutter along to me during his life. These “things” were of no real importance to our relationship. Some of the things I treasured most were a collection of hand tools, an entire workshop full, which had been my grandfather’s – my father never used them but I did – but some time after Pa died, we had a burglary and ALL those irreplaceable tools were stolen. Stuff is transitory, you never know what will happen to it, so it is no good being attached to it. Be attached to the circumstances of its use and the person who owned it, that’s the only thing that lasts. As Simon and Garfunkel sang “preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you…”
    And Mletta, thank you for such a thoughtful post.

  51. posted by sylrayj on

    I’m somewhat lucky, in that when my mom dies, I expect to get nothing at all. I have nothing of my dad’s, and I think she got rid of most of it. I don’t even have anything left from when I went to college. It wasn’t convenient for her, so she turfed it. I do have a significant clutter problem – it’s hard to let things go when I learned that if nobody can find what I consider valuable, they can’t ruin it, and that if I need it I won’t get it unless I convince my sister that she needs it too, so loading up with *everything* means I’m protected. It’s very hard to clear out life lessons like that, but I’m trying. I don’t want my family to have to dig through crud to try to find what is valuable.

  52. posted by Another Deb on

    Just two weeks ago I was in another state helping clear the house of a young man who died in an accident with no relatives living within 600 miles.

    Everyone was in shock and it was hard making decisions in a small time window we had to deal with the estate. Lots of things went to charity but we came across a few things that had meaningful memories to the family and we did our best to decide which relative should take them.

    But, as a lasting tribute to the meaning of “sentimental clutter”, we came across an old pocket watch that no one could identify. His mother insisted that we should keep it because it “looked like” an heirloom. Even though we will never know the significance of the item, there was an obligation to preserve it for the ages.

  53. posted by panig on

    I have three grown children who have lives of their own. I am going to be 60 and could live another 30 + years. However, I have decided not to keep any sentimental items around anymore, knowing that I have been pretty lucky so far. I have given away to my children what they want. Some of it went to my nieces and nephews. Now I have what I need to live- like minimum number of dishes, beds and clothes that are all well used.

  54. posted by Melissa on

    Generally I like what my family does. While people are still alive, the elderly folks/parents ask each child individually what things they like and why. They keep note of it.
    If they want someone to have something, they give it to them right then, while they are still aware of mind. My grandpa gave me a cedar trunk he made in high school, when I was in high school. Unfortunately it’s since gotten beat up due to my using it/being in a closet that flooded. But I love knowing he made it. I also have a coffee table that my great uncle made, because no one else wanted it, and a sweater that was my favorite uncles, who got killed by a train when he was only 21. I wear the sweater in the winter time, and treasure it. I feel connected to their memories, but I genuinely love the things I have and use them regularly.

    I think it is important to have things of our family members. But at the same time, people now have SO MUCH STUFF that it’s ridiculous, and it’s hard to sift through what is genuinely important.

    There isn’t much of my parents stuff I would want. Just the bird figurines my mom brought back from Germany, and some photos. I just like having copies of photos of my family members. I don’t really want anything else.

    My grandma collects dolls, and we feel awful because none of us like dolls. We would love to find someone else who would treasure them. I have two she gave me as gifts, packed away, but that’s really all the dolls I will ever need/want.
    She’s a collector, and my mom and I are not at all.

  55. posted by Kenneth on

    My wife’s family is still going through the process of sorting out the parents’ house since my wife’s father passed away about 15 months ago. Yes, there was a lot of stuff and a lot was just dumped. They had lived in the same house for over 30 years, ever since my father-in-law retired. He was an engineer and had a large collection of tools, many of which were from his father, who was also an engineer. I recall a few years ago him my father-in-law saying to me when were walking through one of his sheds that he didn’t want anyone arguing about who would get what. Well, there was enough for everyone to have all they wanted with some left over.

    It was a job going through everything, which only happened this past June. While it could have been very sad, mostly it was somewhat enjoyable in a sentimental way because my father-in-law’s character came through in so many little ways and he is missed. However, he would not have been better off had he not had any of that nor would we and no one had a problem with getting rid of things no one wanted. I grew up in a house that was practically empty and my father died rather poor, so it is easy to understand how “stuff” is important to some people when you’ve never been burdened with any degree of wealth.

  56. posted by Molly on

    I’m really enjoying all these comments. I already get guilt about “things you inherit have to stay in the family.” Um… why?
    When my grandmother died a few years ago, the only thing I wanted were her aprons. I have a few now, and they make me smile every time I use them. They’re very frilly half-aprons, and it’s quite amusing when my husband wears them.

  57. posted by Anita on

    Reading the majority of these comments, I guess I’m lucky not to have hoarder, collector, pack rat or guilt-tripping parents. In fact, though I doubt they’ve ever heard the word “unclutterer”, they live its spirit, despite having grown up in poverty, despite having lived through a famine, and despite having moved across an ocean with all our belongings in 4 suitcases a few years ago.

    What I admire most about them is that, since I’ve become financially independent at least, they live for themselves, not for their child (i.e. me). They don’t buy stuff to pass it on; they’re not out to create a physical legacy. My parents’ greatest gifts to me, while they’re alive and after they pass (which won’t be for a long time), will be their love for me, the guidance they gave me growing up, and the freedom to make my own choices. And that’s enough.

    I don’t plan on having children, but my legacy to whomever survives me will be what I’ve accomplished, not what I’ve collected. At the same time, however, I don’t intend to deprive myself of anything I want to have in my house just because someone will have to deal with it after I die. I don’t care what’s done with my stuff once I pass, but while I’m alive, I’ll judge what comes into my home by my own values, not my survivors’.

  58. posted by Kay Chase on

    My parents are currently downsizing, and having some trouble with the fact that none of their children want some of their things, especially things which are sentimental to them and not to us.

    I’m beginning to realize that some of my hoarding habits are actually my parents’ hoarding habits — they’re not severe, but it’s there. I remember being a kid and trying to “unclutter” my room, only to be told that I couldn’t get rid of this or that because it was a gift from or had belonged to someone who mattered to my parents (but not to me).

    I’m just grateful that they’re doing this now, and we don’t have to deal with stuff and death at the same time.

    @Kenneth — a fire destroyed all my personal possessions years ago. It struck me at the time how most discussions of materialism and how you “don’t need stuff” assume a basic level of material goods — I didn’t have a TOOTHBRUSH, I didn’t have a WALLET; my mother made me buy CLOTHES HANGERS but I didn’t have any CLOTHES. I think a lot of the “unclutterer” mindset is about focusing on the luxury of having *enough*, which is a privilege and a luxury which is hard to have if you’re distracted by too much and *more*.

  59. posted by Karen on

    My in laws are leaving a legacy of clutter. My husband’s baby pictures were found, a few years ago, on the floor of a cluttered closet; my mother in law didn’t know they were there, but when she found them, she was reluctant to even let me borrow them to make copies so my husband has some record of his childhood. Their house is infested with insects and mice and rats, but my mother in law won’t consider moving until she’s “gone through” all her stuff. Her “stuff” is hoarded canned and boxed food stored in the bedrooms, it’s old mildewed books that she can’t dream of just tossing (no library wants mildewed books, nobody wants to buy them at a thrift store either). Her stuff is church bulletins from over a year ago, and letters collected over decades and stuffed in drawers.

    It’s depressing. They are in their seventies and live in a house nobody can stay overnight in to visit–we have to get a hotel room–because it is so dusty and moldy and cluttered. It’s hard to have our kids visit their grandparents, and they’re missing out on a rich relationship.

    It’s not just about what happens when you die. It’s about the memories you can build if your life is uncluttered–or the experiences you deprive your grandkids of, if your life is surrounded by and filled with junk.

  60. posted by teresa on

    I dread having to deal with my FIL’s stuff when the time comes. He is a 2nd/3rd degree hoarder. He has acknowledged that he has a problem and is taking some baby steps to help the situation.

    Sadly as part of the hoarding he lost a large number of family heirlooms like his father’s WWII papers and letters, his mom’s wedding ring, china and family photos that his kids actually WANTED. He had the items in a storage locker along with a lot of junk. The storage locker went to auction for unpaid fees.

    We had offered to store the wanted items (3 boxes) or ship them to the kids who wanted then but he wouldn’t let us.

  61. posted by Kenneth on

    The “luxury of having enough” is not a privilege, now is it? And for that matter, is having enough a luxury?

  62. posted by Lilliane P on

    Most of us no longer live in homes that have been in the family for six generations or more when the idea of keeping things within the family made some kind of sense. Now that we’re so transient and have to a great extent lost our feel of history, it makes little sense to continue as if we still lived in the old way. Photos, for me, are the things to keep.

  63. posted by Kay Chase on

    @Kenneth — I do not understand you. Unless you believe “enough” is the human norm, than “enough” is a privilege. Unless you believe “sufficiency” is common, “sufficiency” is a luxury.

    I suspect you are arguing exactly the point I was trying to make, which is the germ of many pointless internet comment threads.

  64. posted by Marcie Lovett on

    As a professional organizer, I help people get rid of clutter, often things that they have received from someone else and don’t want.

    I agree that you should not be bogged down by excess; however, I also believe that family members should know why certain things were meaningful to their owners.

    If, for example, Ellen Lupton’s daughter doesn’t like the dishes at all, then she shouldn’t keep them. However, if she knew the history of the dishes, and could use them, would she prefer to keep them instead of going out and buying a new set?

    I inherited a set of silver-plated souvenir spoons when my aunt died and I didn’t want them. I held onto them for almost 15 years before I realized that it was okay to give them away. I didn’t like them and I didn’t use them, so I’m sure my aunt would have been satisfied with my decision.

    I ask a simple question when someone is struggling with whether to keep an item: Does it add value to your life? If not, let it go.

  65. posted by Kenneth on

    To Kay, it wasn’t the idea of having enough I was arguing about but rather the concept of privilege. I am not saying that having enough is necessarily a norm. Just having enough is usually termed subsistance living. The idea that living any other way is a privilege is an unacceptable idea.

  66. posted by Jen on

    As others have more eloquently said above, I would like to live my live based on what I value and cherish, within reasonable parameters, not on how easy it is for my family to clean up when I die. But – as others have also pointed out, it is important not to expect others to hang onto what I leave behind.

    Moderation in all things . . .

  67. posted by Mletta on

    Mletta and Grace – really? You wouldn’t want to have the family gathering if you couldn’t have it without the d***d china?

    “Can you have [the special occasion] without it? Of course you can. Would I want to? No.”


    Surely that’s not what you meant.

    No, that’s not what I meant. Can’t speak for Grace.

    I’m basically saying that if my mother or grandmother had something that I also valued and it was left to me, and I refer here to a very special family token/momento, I’d like to have it.

    This post continues to equate having “stuff” with clutter and with hoarding.

    How much you have is relative (no pun intended). The contents of one crowded one-room apartment/office is different than the contents of a multi-room house (for the most part). Most people I know have more in their attic, basement and/or garage than I have in my whole apartment. (Even if their “house” is uncluttered!)

    I’ve only met a few people ever, who lived with next to nothing in a particular house. And almost ALL of them had other houses, whether second homes, vacation homes or they just were wealthy and had multiple properties.

    To me, that’s a lot of excess and clutter, no matter how spartan their interiors. So “clutter” is very subjective, folks.

    And I bet anything that a lot of people who are calling others “hoarders” in response to this column are exaggerating.

    Are people with art collections, book collections, etc. hoarders?

    I doubt people here are using it in the most accurate clinical sense.

    And nobody is saying anyone should feel guilty if they don’t want what someone else wants them to have.

    I don’t believe in guilting anyone into keeping something, but I do think that some requests are made with a much longer view in mind. (You as the children of your parents may want nothing of theirs. But you may one day find out that YOUR children did!People should just TALK about all this in advance.)

    And it’s funny, but nobody mentioned here all the ill will, bad feelings and lawsuits that result over who gets what stuff, or, more importantly, who does not.

    So let’s not pretend that “stuff” doesn’t matter. Whatever quantity. It does. And yes, that is because we ascribe a value to it–whether we keep it or toss it. The whole world can’t be so Zen about everything, nor should it. Just my opinion.

  68. posted by Rae on


    “Mletta and Grace – really? You wouldn’t want to have the family gathering if you couldn’t have it without the d***d china?

    “Can you have [the special occasion] without it? Of course you can. Would I want to? No.”


    Surely that’s not what you meant.”

    Your comment comes across as hateful. Shame on you. I’m among those who feel as the posters you’re attempting to ridicule do, and your post was snide and uncalled for. One of the wonderful things about this site is that Erin doesn’t generally look down her nose at others, and we’re all free to come away with what we find useful. Get off of your high horse.

  69. posted by rosita on

    I am a senior citizen, who appreciates this blog and living the uncluttered life. I have started a plastic tote box with alphabet dividers clearly labeled SHRED. I’ve removed a lot of files from my regular 4 drawer file and put it the SHRED box. Fortunately I can still remember what’s in each file. When I die, these documents, personal papers that have meaning only to me (health records for example), or that I don’t want anyone else to see, can more easily be purged. Gave away heirloom antique china to a young person starting out, that I don’t even know. Bringing boxes of books to used book store. It’s a very good feeling to know I am reducing my “things” and they are going to good homes. Good to do this gradually and before it gets left to your family to deal with.

  70. posted by panig on

    I have heard that when someone passes away, often relatives descend on the house and help themselves to things even before the funeral is over. It may sound mean, but I don’t want certain people to have any of my stuff even when I am gone. Therefore, I have started to regift some of my sentimental possessions to people with whom I have good relationships. I have also heard that people should take pictures of valuables (with instructions as to what goes to whom) and keep that document in a safe deposit box.

  71. posted by Nisijane on

    My mother, who has incurable lymphoma, has been very conscientious about paring down her belongings in order to spare her family this onerous task whilst in the throws of mourning. I appreciate her efforts, and am still saddened by it all; what must it be like to rid yourself of possessions you’ve had for 50, 60 years because you know you’re going to die soon(ish)? I guess to me it feels like she’s throwing away bits of herself, and that forces me to face the inevitable — a life without my beloved mother.

    The thought of going through this myself someday sends me into a tailspin. What if my treasured items end up at the Goodwill or worse, in the landfill? What if my daughter ends up with piles of stuff I loved and she could care less about but having to face it and get rid of it makes her feel like she’s throwing bits of me away?

    Ugh. It’s too much. My conclusion is that I have to get rid of it all now so no one else has to clean up my messes, emotional or otherwise. When thought of in these terms, my treasures feel more like burdens; the price of keeping them is greater than the enjoyment they bring.

  72. posted by nicole 86 on

    My parents are hoarders, may be I would keep a few items : a few letters, some embroideries and a few china pieces, may be nothing. I think I will get rid off each photo.
    As for me, except for a Chagall drawing my daughters gave me I hope I have a few weeks to throw away all my stuff.

  73. posted by meribor on

    Unlike most of you, I cannot remember my past clearly without visual helps, so I will at least need photos of things. timgrays idea is totally great and I hope to implement that in my family.
    My mum is very relaxed about what we do with her stuff when she dies, so that won’t be a problem. It will be more *fun* when my grandpa dies, because he has made plans (which he updates regularly), about who will be invited and how the party will be. Weird, no?
    My mum and I would happily throw his wishes to the wind and do it the way we want, but my aunt and uncle will adhere to his wishes. Well, let them have the hassle, is all I say.

  74. posted by gypsy packer on

    My mother appointed me to have her estate sale while she was dying. She gave a few heirlooms to her brothers and sisters, and I sold out everything else in one weekend.

    My niece is to be left a few items from my stash, IF I die a natural death of old age. The remainder will be sold and the proceeds donated to a charity. My relatives are ruthless, and a combination of charitable beneficiaries and some notices to the life insurance industry should be sufficient to keep them in line.

  75. posted by Kenneth on

    Thoreau said that when someone dies, we take stuff out of their attic and put it in someone else’s attic. When we die, we literally kick the dust.

  76. posted by Jen on

    My mom has been a hoarder her whole life. She apparently has things that belonged to my grandparents and great grandparents in this one particular closet, but I’ve never been able to physically get into the closet to go through anything with her, because the door has been blocked with her stuff, and the closet itself is 15 feet long, 5 feet wide, and 4 feet deep of stuff. So when it comes time to clean out my mom’s clutter, I’ll have missed out on so many potential stories about the things that had sentimental value to her.

    Time is more important than any of the things. It will take weeks to clear out what she leaves behind, and it will be a sad, dreary, dusty task (most of her stuff is papers from teaching elementary school over the years). But what gets to me is that we (physically) couldn’t share a couple hours together when I still lived at home to look at her parent’s things from when they lived in Poland, or any other items that might come with interesting stories attached.

  77. posted by Colleen on

    My mother passed away when I was 12, so I was not the one tasked with purging clutter. My aunt & grandmother did that with a ruthless efficiency, which at the time I did not understand, but now appreciate. My aunt (who raised me from that point on) kept specific pieces of furniture that my mother had requested go to me and my sisters, as well as my mom’s jewelry box.

    I have several jewelry pieces from her that have sat around in boxes collecting dust. Just this week I went through the box where I kept all of this jewelry and realize there were only 3 pieces I actually associate a memory of my mother with, the others are– for lack of a better word– just junk. Yet I feel a pang of sadness, and perhaps guilt, in getting rid of them, because they were hers and she wanted me to have them for some unknown reason.

    I offered them to my sister, who had most of my mom’s jewelry stolen from her in a burglary (had already sent her some pieces directly following the burglary), but anything she doesn’t take… I’m not sure what I will do with them. It has been over 20 years since she passed away and there aren’t too many people who would want this. I’ll probably end up selling or donating all but the key pieces.

    Ironically, in all these gold and pearl necklaces, the only one that is “worth” keeping is a cheap pukka shell necklace that my mother wore almost daily. THAT is the one piece I’d be crushed to lose. Funny what does and does not have value (alas, my neck is too big to wear it!)

  78. posted by Wendy on

    I suppose it is morbid, but I have been dealing with morbid since January of 2006 when my father died. My mom had to deal with the uncomfortable task of sorting through his clothes and a few of his belonging. However there was too much of a mess left for her, and she didn’t do much else. Sadly, she took ill in July of 2007 and now resides in a convalescent home, where she will spend the remainder of her life. My brother and I are left to deal with sorting through tons of stuff. Unfortunately, his view is that that none of this really needs to be done now so he just doesn’t deal with it. He and I think opposite on just about everything. I started some of the cleanup on my own a few years ago and made some headway. I consistently chip away at it now. However, without his help, much of the belongings just sit. He won’t deal with any of it because he doesn’t want to think of unpleasant things. I just stress over how long it will actually take to clear out the house before we eventually sell. I don’t want any of it save for a few pieces of Mom’s jewelry. Otherwise, it can all be donated or given to her friends. To me, this isn’t morbid. I feel that everyone has a responsibility to deal with their stuff so that someone else doesn’t have to.

  79. posted by Elisabeth on

    it is interesting to me to note that the majority of the time, people talk about inherited clutter that came from someone AFTER they died.
    sometimes, it starts long, long before that.

    my father’s parents hated him. they loved his children. they liked my mother (his wife at the time). therefore, when they died, they made my mother a steward of all of their stuff- to “hold onto” for me when i was “old enough to be a lady of my own home.”

    my father’s parents were in their early forties when he was born, so I am VERY young compared to other family members of technically the same generation. this means that my grandparents were people who were born within the first decade of the 20th century, and grew up in both times of polite/rich society excess and depression and war, and again, returned to the society where having things means a fruitful life. because my grandparents came from older money (but certainly weren’t vanderbilts or something).
    this means that when it came time for me to move to my own place (an apartment for a college student), i inherited about 7 sets of china, countless pieces of flat and dishware for specific single purposes, oodles of supposedly antique chinese ephemera, more antique furniture than i know what to do with, freaking sterling silver table brushes, french, russian and english tea sets, crystal decanters, vases, and massive amounts of tablecloths, napkins and other assorted “proper” decorative items.
    the problem is that it’s all TOO MUCH. I have literally inherited things from relatives i never met because my grandfather hoarded all of their things after they died. I have kept some of the furniture leftover supposedly from my great great aunt, who lived in china during the late 19th century to mid 20th century. (what’s stupid is that my family is not chinese at all, but i have had more authentic chinese antiques than my friend FROM china!) my husband and i are choosing to keep A set of depression dishware, some silverware, and very little of the pretty ephemera (and 2 sets of the teasets- he likes the russian, i like the english). outside of that, i have little to no interest in keeping these things anymore.

    my problem is that because my mother was the steward of all of this stuff during my childhood and WELL into my adult years, she feels that unless I choose to give these things BACK to her, I’m “throwing them out”. she gives me hell for deciding to put most of it on consignment, or trying to sell these things at a yard sale. She believes that because I won’t get the full value’s worth of these items, i shouldn’t get rid of them at all. Even items that WEREN’T antiques of any value she had a fit over when i donated nearly 7 carloads of items both modern and antique to goodwill- still using the term “throwing things out”, or worse “trashing them”.
    she essentially says to me, over and over again, whether she realizes it or not, that she doesn’t trust me as a grown and educated woman to make my own decisions about stuff my family has and left to me, and worse, doesn’t respect the decisions i DO make unless I KEEP THEM or STORE THEM or GIVE THEM BACK.
    She and I have had this dance more and more as i’ve gotten older, and worse, married. Now she feels it’s her job to make sure I have *everything*, even some of her own things and her mother’s, because i’m a married woman.

    let me be clear: i am not rich, neither is my husband, neither is my mother. I do not have a home nor a career that can justify having this kind of stuff, as beautiful as much of it is. I DO NOT NEED SEVEN SETS OF CHINA. we simply do not live the kind of life that requires Orange juice glasses versus iced tea glasses, or gold espresso spoons, or decanters, or individual butter knives.

    these blog articles, and some of the commenters, seem to think that clutter can mean a small set of teacups, or plates, or clothing.
    perhaps it is. But the problem can be, and usually is, bigger. it’s worse when people who have the feeling of ownership of things are STILL ALIVE, and aren’t satisfied with passing on A teacup (or seven), but 4 TEASETS.
    Clutter, with a capital C, is every piece of dishware, china, silverware, knick-knacks, coin dish, souvenier, napkin ring, butter tray and vase that was ever collected before and after your grandparents marriage, world tour honeymoon, and during the time your grandmother owned a Treasure Shop full of more of the same. Clutter is also the emotional guilt-tripping that comes with having a relative still alive that feels that storing things in boxes and bins never to see the light of day because you DON’T USE THEM is more preferable to selling them (even for less than what they are worth), or simply giving them away. the stupid part is that I had some of it appraised: less than half the things left to me as “valuable antiques” are not at all, and have only been overexaggerated and inflate din my mother’s mind. the only people I have who could truly tell me the “value” and history of these things are long long dead.

    My mother in the last 5 years, especially after a severe skeletal and joint injuries (rendering her wheelchair bound for three years), and after her mother’s death, has made a point of trying to reduce her clutter so she doesn’t, and I don’t have to deal with it all after she dies. however, the caveats and the conditions that come with all of that make me wonder if she really understands how much value she places on Things as opposed to her own life or her relationships. She doesn’t seem to realize that i’m still dealing with the clutter aftermath of grandparents I barely knew, nevermind preparing for her eventual death.

    So for the people who say that you should be keeping things for the children to decide if they want them or not- DON’T.
    Saying that keeping things for your children to decide on later comes with a can of guilt worms that no one wants to acknowledge. sure, you can keep the pretty blue china that was your great grandmother’s that you use during thanksgiving, and hope that your daughter wants it as well. WHAT IF SHE DOESN’T? what if she says no? how will YOU feel? are you prepared to deal with it and respect their wishes, or will you be resentful, or worse, will you just say “oh, maybe you’re just not at the point in your life that you can *appreciate* this kind of stuff”, keep it anyways, and let it be an albatross just because YOU can’t let go?

    the only major real Bad Spot in my relationship with my mother is the resentment she feels at the fact that I DON’T want most of the stuff she spent over 2 decades storing for me, or worse, things of her own that she genuinely loves and wants me to have for emotional and sentimental reasons.
    The truth of the matter is that I never ASKED her to keep all of that stuff. The storage costs and the emotional toll it’s put on my relationships with family and my husband have far exceeded the worth of 3 sets of cambridge pink ten-sided depression dishware.

    Wanting to pass on something valued and family-owned is natural, i guess. But with that can come the tendency to decide that that status applies to more and more Things, not just a pretty blue dishset used on Thanksgiving. for people who habitually attach emotional value to things, it doesn’t just stop at one pretty blue dish set.

    This is probably the reason the author had a negative reaction to Lupton’s op-ed- because some people just don’t know when to stop, and the hard decisions about things with emotional attachments are therefore unfairly placed on the people left behind. When exaggerated emotional attachment is placed on things, making someone handle it after you’ve gone (even if it just moved away), means making them handle your emotional baggage as well.
    try asking your kids if they want to have any of your emotional attachments after you’re gone, specifically the ones that come with dish sets, and see what they say.
    letting them keep memories, instead of things, might be an option they choose more readily.

Comments are closed.