Professor Marett was right, not only about the practical problem of the corpse, but also about the problems of the “gear.”And I assure you, if you are even a pretty ordinary middle class citizen of the United States, and if you have lived for very long, you will leave plenty of gear when you “pass away” (no one dies in America, they all either pass away, return to their maker, or are called to heaven).
First there is the problem of the “unmentionables,” underwear and other intimate items of clothing. Nothing can be done with them other than to dispose of them as conveniently as possible. But what about the multitude of other items of clothing, blouses, skirts, slacks, sweaters, jackets, hats, scarves, gloves, and on and on, clothing acquired over a lifetime (few people actually throw their outdated clothing away, preferring to keep it for when the fashion returns). Even though much of this gear is in pristine condition and right in style, selling it is not something you really want to do as it just doesn’t seem right. You can offer it to the survivors but they, too, are reluctant to accept or wear it. So you donate it to a thrift store or the Goodwill (or throw it away). Unfortunately, in a small town (with many unemployed people), if you give it away you might well see it appearing on the street or in the supermarket. This can either make you happy, knowing you have helped someone less fortunate, or it can make you sad as a reminder of happier days. At best this is an unpleasant task.
Disposing of clothing is just the beginning. There are, you find, hundreds of personal items tucked away in drawers and obscure places, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, probably dozens of cosmetics, exotic tools and items for personal grooming, even items so strange you never heard of them before and have little idea of what they were used for. And there is kitchen wear, especially if you spouse was a serious cook, and cookbooks, endless cookbooks, cooking magazines, recipes, spoon collections, egg cups, teacups, cans and jars of exotic condiments and spices you have no idea what to do with, and drawers full of tools like rolling pins, spatulas, garlic presses, egg and cheese slicers, whisks, graters, and specialized tools for the cook that has everything. At this point the overwhelming magnitude of the task before you shocks you into depression and a desire to somehow escape it all.
This desire to flee is exacerbated when the unpaid bills appear, sometimes bills you did not know you had. Correspondence appears some of which needs answering, some from people you did not know but might have heard of in some distant past. If your spouse was an academic of some kind you will also find yourself overwhelmed with books, notebooks, tablets, pencils, pens, staples, staplers, rulers, and, of course, nowadays, with videotapes, cassettes, disks, reams of paper, and other supplies you might have thought for an army. What is worse, by far, if your spouse was also a teacher, might be hundreds of term papers, assignments, lecture notes, mimeographed articles, and quite possibly filing cabinets filled with past papers and correspondence that just could not be thrown away. I am not exaggerating. What are you to do with this virtual lifetime accumulation of stuff that has no meaning to anyone other than the deceased? In desperation you begin to just throw it away as even inspecting it carefully for content would require hundreds if not thousands of hours and would most probably not be very rewarding. You cannot throw all this stuff away, no matter how impractical the alternative, without feelings of guilt and remorse. It is as if you are destroying a life, the life that is represented by this collection but cannot be saved. Bits and pieces are saved to be passed on to succeeding generations but you know that with every passing generation the meanings become more faint and the destruction more complete until the person finally perishes completely. We like to think that when a person dies their life comes to an end, but it doesn’t, it lingers on in memory and in whatever artifacts survive for an indeterminate amount of time. Perhaps if one is a Shakespeare or a Michelangelo one never truly dies. But even ordinary people leave a presence at least for a time.
To be continued.