Sunday, March 24, 2013

Shutting Down a Life

One of the great early anthropologists, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, created an evolutionary theory of religion that was, in its day, quite remarkable, and in fact laid the groundwork for much of what was to follow in the never-ending quest for the understanding of the Great Mystery. Tylor’s evolutionary theory of religion was criticized for being too intellectualistic. He was overly concerned with what people must have been thinking when someone died and paid little or no attention to the practical, emotional and social factors that must have necessarily also been involved. R. R. Marett, another of the great early anthropologists,brought up the question of practical considerations:
  “The mourner has to act as undertaker as well. Here is the dead man’s body, what, then, are we to do with it? Here is the dead man’s gear, with the smell of him, as the Australian natives say, still in it—that smell which itself testifies to his change of condition. Will he want this gear any longer, or, in any case, do we dare to use it ourselves?”

This, I have been learning, although insightful in its day, does not even begin to consider the problems of shutting down a life in the present. Taking care of the corpse is a relatively simple matter these days with professionals who specialize in such things. Cremations and burials, although somewhat expensive, are easily arranged. What to do with the “gear,” after someone’s journey to the west is completed, becomes an almost never ending nightmare.
I recall (dimly) reading long ago that when Gandhi died his estate consisted of a couple of loin cloths, a pair of eyeglasses, a pair of sandals, and nothing else. He was, of course, quite a remarkable man who, although he left little in the way of material possessions, left a legacy that has endured for years, but what about those who are not famous or even particularly well known? Everyone is a VIP to someone, perhaps to several, but what of their material possessions? Obviously the problem varies depending upon the particular person. But in the modern world there is likely to be, literally, a mountain of possessions that must be dealt with. If you are unfortunate (or fortunate) enough on your own journey to the west to have to deal with someone else’s demise, especially someone very dear to you, I assure you this is not a matter to be taken lightly, and the question of what to be should be done with all this “gear” is maddening.
First of all there are photographs, hundreds if not thousands of them. Many of these are family photographs and can be saved for the immediate family. But there are also hundreds of pictures of individuals the deceased person knew who are unknown to the survivors. Most of these are not labeled. Although they are obviously part of the person’s life, quite likely very important parts, what are you to do with them? No one seems to want hundreds of unidentified photos, why should they, so what do you do with them other than simply throw them away? Probably there is a collection of postcards that have been saved for years, postcards from all the people who knew the deceased and who sent them postcards for years from all parts of the world. These help to paint a picture of the person’s life and even reconstruct parts of it. But we do not generally try to reconstruct people’s lives unless they are celebrities or otherwise famous. Apparently there are people who collect such cards, perhaps they can be given away to someone who will appreciate them independently of the messages conveyed.
There can also be correspondence. This can be very extensive if the person was concerned to save it. There are letters from former friends that are unknown to the survivors, letters from firms and other people who did business with the deceased, letters from banks, insurance companies, manufacturers, politicians, doctors, lawyers, perhaps even Indian chiefs. Virtually all of these can be discarded if not truly recent, but, again, it is like destroying elements of the person’s life. There can even be letters from former lovers or even husbands, love letters, emotional letters of despair, sadness, parting, joy, gratitude, happiness, longing, loss, and depression. Unless you intend to write the person’s biography you are far better off not reading such correspondence and disposing of it quickly. There can also be diaries, personal diaries, travel diaries, and perhaps other records of daily life, thoughts, emotions, and so on. As I regard personal diaries as highly private I cannot bring myself to read them, and I do not think others should read them either, unless they have some very important reason to do so.
This account so far does not exhaust the complexities of the problem, the execution of the task, or the excruciating emotional experience involved in trying to complete it. Shutting down another person’s life is not for the faint hearted, nor is it easily and quickly done.  
To be continued.


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