Monday, November 10, 2008

Death and Taxes

I've been knee-deep in managing my father's estate for the last several weeks.  

Although I have three brothers, only my oldest brother is a "full" brother and the son of my father.  My other brothers are technically "half-brothers", but I don't really think of them that way. 

Because it's just the two of us, and I happen to live here in Florida, I was designated as the personal representative of my father's estate. I'm in charge. I'm The Decider, if you will. 

This doesn't present any major issues. My brother and I are on the same page, and there are no petty clamorings for possessions or money. My father had no will, but he did have a fairly straightforward financial situation; no debt, a paid-for home, a paid-for car, and some money in the bank.  

Oh...and one very large plasma TV....that just so happens to be dominating our small living room right now.  When I brought it home, the kids were initially thrilled to have the chance to play their video games on it. After just a few minutes, The Rationalist hit an undercurrent of my unexpressed feelings:

"This is Grandpa's. How come we get to take it?  Isn't that like stealing? It doesn't seem right to take someone else's things."

I explained things to him and he understood, but I apprehended the sentiment. It is a weird sensation to profit from someone's death; to have a checking account that is fuller than it has ever been; to use a prized possession that is only yours because someone else has ceased to exist.  It seems scandalous, somehow even a little like grave-robbing.

It's even harder when I think that my father's hard work and thrift is so quickly divvied up between us.  I know that's just the way life is.  I know that my father wouldn't begrudge it to us, but it's still strange.

As I've worked through the process of emptying his house, changing things into my name, and making plans to renovate his property, I can sense the primitive urgings that people have always had in relation to their dead.  I wonder aloud if this is what he would have wanted as I move his things around.  I know he can't hear me, but I still do it.

The natural inclination to save personal items important to the person who has passed seems unavoidable.  I have no pyramid to store his things for the after-life, so instead they come home with me, littering my house with unneeded clutter, resembling some dusty inner room full of cat statuettes and libations for the dead.

The urge is there.  It affords me a greater understanding about cultural traditions such as the Day of the Dead, relatives setting up memorial altars and photos of the departed. Perhaps the physicality of the assembled objects fulfills an unconscious need to connect with those who are gone. It's preservation.  

The body disintegrates and fades to nothingness when left to its natural course, leaving little to show for the person who once was there.  All cultures attach great importance to the way a body is treated after death, with many viewing an improper burial as a great dishonor and indignity.  

I felt that primitive urge also.  Like the Greeks in a Homeric epic, I mourned the indignity to my father's body, though I knew he was no longer there. I couldn't escape the compulsion to view the state of his body as something shameful and embarrassing. 

It makes no sense, logically.  The ceremonies and remembrances are for the living, not the dead. Yet...I was surprised at how easily those thoughts and feelings could be summoned.  

Suddenly the Aztecs didn't seem so strange and the Egyptians seemed like kin. 


MInTheGap said...

It is a strange feeling-- that is for sure. Especially if you have memories attached.

The same thing (to a lesser extent) is happening at my job, where my whole group has been let go and I'm trying to make sure that my dad (who works at the same site) gets some of the better stuff I have when I leave. The vultures are circling!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Very thoughtful. Each family's experience is different, and it is hard to find universals even in our own culture. But the desire to handle items associated with the departed, to arrange them in odd places even if they are valueless and not representative, seems very common.

We have kept mainly decorative objects from our deceased mothers. Clothing and other objects of use seem to be robbery. Yet I know that I would wish for my sons to use anything they might desire of mine and feel no discomfort. If a shaving brush or a belt brought back memories of me, so much the better. The picture looks so different from the two ends of the relationship.