Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dumpster
January 22, 2012 3:59 PM   Subscribe

In the last year on our road into town in rural Vermont, we have seen the personal effects of 3 people who have recently died packed into dumpsters at the side of the road. In one case the family had a tag sale and sold all the valuable stuff (her crystal collection) and tossed the rest in the dumpster. For some reason this creeps me out big time and I don't want it to happen to me. Are there best practices for disposing of the personal effects of family members?How did your family dispose of the stuff of the deceased that you didn't want? Yes.... I know about a will and have one.
posted by Xurando to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Usually what I see happen in Vermont is that people have estate sales. That is, the family takes the precious things that they want, or even sentimental things and then the rest is auctioned off to people. So some of this is useful stuff like tools and whatnot, but other more personal effects are put into boxed lots so you might get a box or three of non-fiction books or what-have-you. The best way to make sure people don't toss your stuff after you die is to get rid of pretty much all of it while you are alive. You can direct specific items to go to specific people in your will and this means that all your things won't get tossed out in one dumpster, but unless you put some pretty asshole caveats into your will, you can't really assure that people don't get rid of things.

We've put off this level of thing dealing with my father's estate by basically maintaining his house as a bit of a museum to him. We are lucky in that we have the geographic proximity and the funds to make this a reality, but many people don't. We've slowly given away his clothes to the local thrift organizations and have started giving some other non-sentimental [usually tech] stuff away, but it's a weird world where the effort that it might take to find the perfect person who could actually USE a free wireless router or three is often much much more than the cost it would take to just buy another one. Odd times. I've been thinking about this question a lot myself lately.
posted by jessamyn at 4:06 PM on January 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

When my step-dad died things got divided into a couple of bins:
papers which were easy to put in the trash - shredder
paperwork which had to be gone through to find the 1% of important papers like SS cards, etc
clothing (sentimental)
sentimental possessions

When all was said and done, the sentimental items went to family members who would appreciate them, the important papers were stored away, most of the clothing was donated.

A lot of items ended up in the trash (2 dumpsters full) since they were un-donatable and were pretty much garbage anyway. This included old toiletries (15 years old +) , old financial papers, broken things, underware, water damaged things, etc...

Someone walking buy might have thought there was "good stuff" in the dumpster but it was mold damaged, mildewy old worthless stuff.

Another family member has done a really good job of cleaning up stuff after having dealt with his parents household items. He's gone though his papers and has special small boxes marked well, others say the contents name and whether it could be thrown easily away (e.g. old magazines for research - can be thrown away)
posted by bottlebrushtree at 4:22 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

When one of my relatives died, he owned a few very good things, like a vintage car, and a lot of very ordinary personal effects. We divided up valuables, and donated a lot of his personal effects to Goodwill. He had a lot of good suits, so we donated them to a church group that provides support for needy people trying to get into the job market.

I know a family that owns an antiques shop. Their specialty is estate sales. When someone dies, they buy the contents of the house, clean out the junk, (first thing to do is throw out the toothbrushes!) and sell the valuables through the shop.

I agree with Jessamyn... you can save your loved ones a lot of grief by writing down some sort of instructions about how you would like your effects distributed.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:25 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my grandmother's estate, this happened (she had 4 surviving kids and a plethora of grandchildren):

-- Specific bequests went to specific people

-- An inventory of the estate was taken and sent round the family, and all her kids got to pick out things they wanted for themselves and families (thankfully there was no wrangling)

-- Grandkids like me got things like kitchen stuff; I treasure that copper frying pan

-- Executors invited family to the house the day before the estate sale in case anyone fancied anything at the last minute

-- Estate sale happened over a couple of days

-- Unsold things went to charity

-- Undonatable things were thrown out

-- Papers got boxed up to sort through later

-- House got sold.

My grandmother was lucky in that her executors were very competent people who'd known her, and some of her family, for a long time. Choosing good executors is more than half the battle.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:26 PM on January 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

This reminds me a LOT of what my great-grandmother did before she passed. She did have a long life, so once she hit 85 she started giving away her inheritance. Not money, but things like Grandma Ruth's silver set and her 140 pound coin collection. Instead of waiting to die so my mom could have it, she gave it to her early and got to sit there and talk about the memories they shared with it. She also would have a few days where everyone went up to the lake and she spread out her old Reader's Digest condensed books and said basically "whatever you don't want is going to the thrift store, where someone will like it so don't feel bad."

Basically, label the hell out of everything- if you want it to go to someone special, you better put a note on it so there's no arguments. Better yet, give it away while you're alive. If no one wants it [because three bookshelves of condensed books are a lot for anyone], then take it to the thrift store or request that anything not "of value" be donated. There are lots of organizations that take random household items.

And, I hate to say it but a lot of stuff really is just trash. I know no one wants my old collections of fabric scraps. If it bothers you for it to be thrown away when you're dead, get rid of it now. Throw it away if you have to. Because if no one else possibly wants it, what are you doing with it?
posted by shesaysgo at 4:28 PM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

When my mother died, we called a local service agency who were willing to take away a pile of stuff of mixed value. We didn't include any out and out garbage or damaged goods though. And we made a pretty big effort to donate specific things when we could find people or organizations who wanted them. She lived very simply and cleanly-- for a well-off suburban lady-- but it still seemed like a lot of stuff. I am going to try to leave behind as little as possible.
posted by BibiRose at 4:31 PM on January 22, 2012

I had to think about this when the Navy made me make a will before going to sea a couple of times. I just made generic legal ones from a template, but someday I'll have to make a real one, I guess.

I've gotten stuff I really had no special interest in, and it just makes me feel guilty to get rid of it.

I think I'll specify the valuable stuff and stuff I know either means something to people or would mean something for me for them to have it. In the last case, I'll include a note why. The rest, sure, throw away, or divide amongst yourselves, whatever.

But then, to me, my stuff is just stuff. I mean, I have furniture because I need to sit down. I don't really have any "essence of me-ness" stuff, like Fred Rogers' sweater or something. When I'm gone, who cares what happens to all the stuff? Ideally, everyone would want to have one little memento that reminded them of me every so often, and the rest would go to needy people or the dumpster. Maybe I'll actually write that in.

I know what you mean about it seeming kind of sad, but at the same time, I have stuff in my garage that I myself have been meaning to get rid of.
posted by ctmf at 4:37 PM on January 22, 2012

If your limit the stuff you have, your heirs won't have to sift through it. My Mom cleaned out the house and sold it before she died. It was a huge gift; no one had to go through 45 years' worth of stuff. When my neighbor died, they would have benefited from having an antiquer do an estate sale; I scavenged a few nice things, and am happy to have a remembrance of a friend.

I have lots of stuff, but I make some effort to keep it organized. It's easy to give kitchen goods, clothes, furniture, etc., to Goodwill. The craft stuff is organized enough to sell at a yard sale or give away. My peculiar collections - honey bears, fortune cookie fortunes, pez dispensers, mint tins, are unlikely to have real value, and can be given away. Craiglist has a free section, and freecycle is a great resource for matching unwanted stuff with people who want it. I have 1 child, who says he wants the books, so I hope they will have a home.

When I think about the sentimental items I have, I realize that a few of them may have value, a few may have sentimental value to my child, but they mostly matter only to me, and when I'm gone, they will be junk.
posted by theora55 at 4:51 PM on January 22, 2012

My parents lived in a three-story house. I live in 700 square feet. As much as I love(d) my parents, some stuff I can't use or store, and some stuff just won't sell. It is not, in any way, a measure of love when someone gets rid of some stuff after you die.
posted by sageleaf at 4:56 PM on January 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

For those things that you feel guilty or conflicted about getting rid of now and have little or no value, use technology. Taking pictures of items like this and/or scanning them and then archiving the results with a little story can help you let go of things and create a document for others, later, if those archives prove meaningful to them (if not, cleaning out a digital archive is a little different from piling a dumpster full of someone's things).

All the advice, above, then is good--indicate your plans for items that you feel should belong to others, where you want useful items donated, and how you want the rest deposed of.

When my father died two years ago, he left with very little. It was obvious how to divide his dear things up between my brother and I, obvious that his single couch, TV, bed and clothing could be donated. Less obvious was the multiple suitcases I found piled in his one closet, each case packed tight with hundreds of work accomplishment certificates (the kind of thing your boss or unit passes out at review meetings or what you get after attending a professional development exercise). These spanned his entire working life. He had saved every single one and had saved basically nothing of anything else. 50 YEARS of these--from embossed gold stars to crumbling "this is to certify that" printed on plain 8x11s.

I've mentioned on mefi before that my workaholic, no vacations dad finally retired and died six weeks into his retirement of a massive heart attack. Finding those suitcases was . . . well.

The only things I actually put in a dumpster. So reserve or extend your forgiveness, friends.
posted by rumposinc at 4:56 PM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

My mom's job used to involve dealing with rich people's possessions when they died. These people would have detailed lists of things they were bequeathing to whomever. Such things are helpful, but definitely be detailed in describing things (take pictures!). My mother would spend ages trying to figure out what the hell some of the stuff on the list actually was. (Or people would own multiple homes and say something was in one house when it wasn't.)

Basically, she'd identify everything that had a specified destination, send it off get an appraiser in to look at everything, send the stuff of value to an estate auction, donate as much of what was left as possible and chuck the rest. Somewhere along the line, the descendants would say if they wanted anything specific and that would get sorted.

This is, I think, roughly what my dad's cousin did when her parents died. Before deciding what to sell/donate/chuck, she made everyone in the family a bag of stuff from the house. My guess it was partly so everyone could have something of her parents' and partly that it was stuff she didn't really want, but couldn't face getting rid of entirely.

It's not a fun thing to get rid of someone's stuff, but there's not much else you can do. It's a lot of work, too (think about moving), and I can see why people would throw in the towel and chuck stuff that maybe could find a new home.
posted by hoyland at 5:16 PM on January 22, 2012

In 2011 I went through trying to dispose of two estates, the first belonging to my step-mother-in-law who died, the second belonging to my mother-in-law who went to a nursing home. Both had their three bedrooms home stuffed with possessions. The paperwork of one was extremely well organized, the paperwork of the other consisted of boxes and boxed of papers piled to the ceiling in the garage. A lot of things ended up in the trash, a few more were in good enough shape to be donated, a very few were kept. Too much stuff is too much stuff.

Going through fifty or so shoe boxes filled with unlabelled pictures has spurred me to eliminate, eliminate, eliminate. I do not want my children to suffer through a similar situation after my death.
posted by francesca too at 5:37 PM on January 22, 2012

I'm a small-time slumlord landlord (I own a two-family, so I have one rental unit), and a couple of years ago my tenant fell ill, went into hospital then hospice and then died. There was no local family and no local friends who were up for handling the stuff[1], so I was kind of stuck with dealing with it. I managed to find contact info for a relative who asked for a few specific things of sentimental value, which I mailed to him.

The rest of the stuff I disposed of one of the following ways: obvious trash was trashed. Good to medium quality stuff went to goodwill and/or the local homeless shelter so people becoming not-homeless could use it. I think I made several dozen trips to local charities. (yay pickup truck.) The rest of the stuff that seemed too beat up to go to charity or that charities didnt' want (eg 'unmatched coffee mugs') got put out on the front porch the night before trash day and I posted an ad to craigslist saying that an apartment full of stuff was available for free and gave the address. The next morning after the vultures had picked over it, everything else got trashed. Living in a densely populated area with a lot of subsistence-level and recreational trash-pickers was helpful here.

I intentionally didn't sell any of the stuff because I didn't want to end up with relatives showing up later saying that I'd somehow profited from his estate, so I figured donating all of it to charity at least was some demonstration of non-profiteering good intent on my part. I did keep a few books and jar of pocket change for my troubles, although this didn't even cover the cost of mailing stuff to the relative.

I think there's still some cruft of his in the basement, too, and at some point I'll purge that.

As for family, my father died a few years ago, but my stepmother is still alive and living in the home they shared so the big purge hasn't had to happen yet. There's a gradual purging going on there, where we occasionally take bags of his clothes up to a donation box or something. He had a lot of business paperwork, some of which should probably be securely disposed of, so one of these days I'm going to get a bunch of boxes and take them to a drop-off shred company.

[1] The tenant's boyfriend was mentally ill, in and out of hospitals and generally living on the streets when he wasn't staying at my tenant's place. I tried to find him through a social worker to get some photographs of them together to him, but couldn't. After a year of sporadic attempts, I tossed them and felt bad about it.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:18 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know what you're saying; it seems cruel to see the material representation of an entire life discarded; but at the same time, the person whose life it was is gone, and the people who loved that person have their own lives. Best practice in my opinion is to make sure that everyone gets what they were promised (if anything); that everyone takes what they especially need or want (if anything); and that anything usable goes to people who can use it.

When my mother-in-law died, leaving a husband who would need to go into aged care (as she was his primary carer; he had dementia) the family (three of her sons and their partners) operated this way:

Furniture and household effects like towels, bedding, crockery and cutlery, cleaning stuff: we kept a comfy chair, nice bedding and TV for father-in-law's room in the aged care facility. Then we asked the care facility where my severely disabled brother-in-law lives if they needed any furniture, and ended up giving some things to them (but only what they asked for). We then asked a cousin who works for a charity if there was anything she wanted to take for her clients, and we packed up the remaining crockery and took it to a local charity shop. Finally, everything saleable that was left was picked up by the Salvos; the rest went to the tip.

Family history: all the family photo albums, personal records, baby books, etc, were kept by one of the sons who will hang onto them. He also kept important jewellery (engagement and wedding rings) and my father-in-law's medals.

Personal effects: everyone took the books or records of most sentimental value. The rest, along with most of the clothing was donated to a charity shop; underwear etc went to the tip. My mother-in-law's wedding dress was taken to the tip: we felt regretful about this, but none of us had the room to keep it and it was not in a saleable condition.

Food: went to the care facility (since a lot of it was tinned) or was discarded.

The "good" crystal and china: we all took one or two things, gave a few sentimental pieces to mother-in-law's friends, and the rest is sitting in boxes waiting for us to sell it. None of us want it - it's all very flowery stuff and we're all non-flowery people living in much smaller homes than mother-in-law was.

Other: I took all my mother-in-law's hand embroidery; it doesn't match our house, but nobody else wanted it and it was kind of my sentimental remembrance of her.
posted by andraste at 7:40 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

When my grandmother died, anything specifically bequeathed to someone went to that person. Some of her furniture went to her longtime caregiver. We (my family, my aunt and uncle, and a few other relatives) went to her condo and chose things we wanted. (I have her china and some of her books, plus an end table) My dad took her personal papers and had her mail forwarded to our house. My parents have some of the family photos, my uncle has the others. Everything else was sold at an estate sale and her condo was sold too.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:01 PM on January 22, 2012

In many very rural communities, there's no way to get furniture, etc., to a charitable donation center without taking it there yourself. Where my dad lived, in rural Massachusetts, the Salvation Army came around once every two months. Fortunately, I could afford to hire movers to take all of the still-good furniture, appliances, dishes, etc., that my brother and I didn't have room for and that his friends and neighbors didn't want over to the nearest Salvation Army donation center. I can imagine that for someone in an even more rural area where money is tight that the dumpster just seems like the easiest option.

It is not always simple to get donations to the places where they can do the most good, alas.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:31 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went through this process last year, and with two other family members in the last few decades. The main problem is that 92% of any given person's possessions are effectively worthless.

You have to draw the line somewhere. There is only so much you can do. You're faced with a colossal task, at the same time that you're in mourning, short on time, short-handed, and growing increasingly fed up with the process.

Everyone draws the line differently. In the case of my most-recently-deceased relative, his wife refused to throw anything away. She felt it would be disrespectful.

I honor her decision, but I feel obliged to point out that it took her an entire year to sort through and distribute everything. And she was unemployed at the time - it would have taken longer if she hadn't been able to devote all day, every day to the task.

I really hope that when I die, my family skims off and sells or keeps the good stuff, and then junks the rest in one fell swoop. I can't bear the thought of someone spending months and months agonizing over what to do with every little thing I'll leave behind.

If you don't want it to happen to you, the best thing you can do is start culling and decluttering your stuff now. Bonus: it will make your home so much more awesome!

Also, talk to your relatives. Let them know that you don't want your stuff to end up in a dumpster on the side of the road. A will is great, but it's also helpful to know what someone wanted, in plain English, straight from the horse's mouth so to speak.
posted by ErikaB at 9:53 PM on January 22, 2012

My FIL has been gone 10 years and my MIL is still throwing his stuff away. They have had 5 dumpsters full of stuff over the years already. He collected computers, books, gemstones, gardening stuff.

My husband began paring down his collections after seeing what happened to his father's things. He still has a lot of stuff (thousands of books, records) but less than before.

My grandfather in contrast gave away everything including money while he was still alive. He kept only his war medals, a photo album, and a handful of other trinkets when he moved into a nursing home in the last year of his life (he was 97 at the time). Grieving was no easier, but at least we didn't have to deal with a house of stuff as well.
posted by wingless_angel at 2:40 AM on January 23, 2012

Thanks for all the thoughtful suggestions. What this reminds me of is the briefness and tenuousness of this life. All this stuff that I think represents me has no meaning to anyone else. The one place where I can carry on into the future seems to be the archives of MetaFilter which don't seem to get dumpsterized. I'll be putting more energy there. Lastly, this all brings up another question. Is there any place/use/need for sentimentality and its keepsakes in our lives?
posted by Xurando at 11:39 AM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there any place/use/need for sentimentality and its keepsakes in our lives?

I'd say, of course there is! But we don't get to control what people see as keepsakes, just as we don't get to control the way they think of us. Everyone will be remembered in ways they can't control.

I'm sure my mother-in-law would have preferred we kept her china, because that was her sentimental keepsake stuff which she loved; but to me it's far more important to keep her embroidery, which she made with her own hands, even though she used it as napkins and runners and didn't seem to feel especially sentimental about it at all. But the china will be sold and will go to someone else who does love it.

After all, if everyone hung onto everything their ancestors cherished, we'd all have houses stuffed full of stuff which meant something to someone in the distant past :)
posted by andraste at 12:00 PM on January 23, 2012

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