How can I ensure a treasure-hunt proceeds after I die?
October 4, 2017 9:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm planning to leave my friends and family a treasure-hunt on my death. After solving a series of clues - each more fiendish than the last - they will uncover my Final Message To Them All. (Don't worry, it's a nice message.)

Some problems to chew over:

The only reliable item in this plan is my death. At this point, my nearest kin will be informed, if I have any (I live in a "western" country where deaths are reliably recorded and processed). My death may happen suddenly, or I may be physically/mentally incapacitated in the years leading up to it. Either way, I cannot rely upon even myself. Equally, I cannot know which of my friends and family will survive me. Oh, and I want this to be a complete surprise to everyone.

I have several ideal requirements:

The initial clue must be just enough. It should demand attention without putting people off, or leading people to think it's fake, and so on. What form might it take? Perhaps a simple written message, beginning "X has left you a series of clues. This is the first."?

The initial clue must be delivered, preferably to multiple people at once. How can I reasonably guarantee this happens? Perhaps a long-lived legal firm, entrusted with a set of letters, to be delivered to those I invite? Sounds expensive, and unreliable. Email is obviously possible, but seems... half-hearted... and prone to failure. Physical adresses change, email goes unnoticed or filtered.

Solving each clue should require more than 1 person, and ideally should require a combination of maybe any group of 3 people. However, no clue must depend entirely on one person - some of my contemporaries may also be 6ft under, with me. Consequently I have to consider that the combination of those involved will be random and unknown. Just making the clues "difficult enough but not too difficult" is very tricky. I don't want to leave an insoluble clue. Alternatively, I've considered breaking clues into pieces, or distributing clues among several people. However, this risks a piece/clue being lost or undelivered. Frankly, this requirement is the trickiest, to my mind. I may abandon it in favour of clues that are "just hard enough".

One clue will be a physical object, a cube of metal approximately 1ft x 1ft x 1ft. I'd like it to be buried, to be uncovered when it is found. The problems are: how exactly will it will be uncovered (metal-detector and shovels? In which case where can they be stored?); and where can I bury it such that it will remain both undisturbed yet accessible?

Any and all thoughts welcome.

If you want to discuss, email me: dead.treasure.hunt at Google's popular email service.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, if you want to make sure this zany scheme is successfully deployed, it will be most likely be expensive. You need to spend money in the present for future work, and tracking down kin reliably is not an easy or fast process.

One line of approach would be to look at trust corporations, and talk to them about putting the property of physical paper letters in trust, with payment for delivery after death. Here is a small blurb on trust corporations.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:43 AM on October 4 [1 favorite]

I think that, before you consider the implementation details, you should find a lawyer who will act as the executor of your estate and can advise you on how to structure your will to facilitate this.

I'm really sorry to be boring. But you need to sort out the feasibility first.
posted by tel3path at 9:44 AM on October 4 [10 favorites]

And btw, I do think this sounds like great fun, and I hope that at the time of your death you have people around you who will enjoy it as much as you do.

...erm, well, enjoy it as much as you are enjoying the idea now... you know what I mean.

So when you inquire with a lawyer, make sure you ask about the process and cost of updating your will to suit the tastes of your heirs-to-be. You will know more about them as your life progresses.
posted by tel3path at 9:46 AM on October 4 [2 favorites]

You'll need to bury the cube on private land that is not poured over by people with metal detectors. That's a tough issue unless you own land that someone who can run off trespassers lives on.

How you solve that depends on what the land use is like in your country, or maybe you can bury the object in a different country. You might be able to contract with a large landowner who will be around owning the same land for many years -- perhaps a private land preservation trust would be willing to set aside a few square yards that would remain undisturbed in exchange for a donation. Make sure to stipulate that your heirs will have access to it. Get a lawyer to work out how to do this.

Give the hunters some cash and the metal detectors and shovels can be "stored" in the marketplace. Storing batteries for the detector for many years would be tricky, and technology evolves over time for metal detectors just like everything else.

You'll need to consider the geology of the burial area and whether that could result in the object being buried deeper or becoming revealed.

You'll want to use a non-ferrous metal like aluminum for the cube. Aluminium is also much lighter than most metals, at only about 170 pounds for a cubic foot. You'll want to provide enough money to your hunters for expenses that they will be able to hire someone to deal with this if they can't. Lifting a metal cube out of a hole is not easy. This might be a factor in how inaccessible the place you bury it can be.

Keep in mind that your hunters will be older than they are now, and could well have acquired injuries, illnesses, or disabilities that make traveling, hiking, digging, etcetera more difficult or impossible for them.

I think you need to take a close look at the part of this where your next of kin is notified, especially if you travel at all. If you were away from home and your ID was not with you (perhaps stolen from your body), how would anyone know who to contact? Consider a tattoo.

A long lived legal firm is pretty much how this sort of thing is generally dealt with. It shouldn't be that expensive in comparison to everything else you have planned. Legal firms try to find inheritors who might have moved all the time, it's not unusual -- however, you can expect that not everyone will be contacted at the same time.

When you are deciding who gets the clues, consider that some people might not be suitable players while they are alive if the clues rely on their memory. Sadly, Alzheimer's and dementia visit many of us.
posted by yohko at 10:04 AM on October 4 [4 favorites]

Your metal cube may be the hardest thing about this project. I'm assuming you need to place it somewhere in the next year, and it needs to be undisturbed for 60+ years. But it also needs to be accessible, which precludes burying it in a remote location. If it was buried in a not so remote location, then in 20 years or so hobbyists with roving packs of metal detecting robot rodents may find it. A cemetery might work, purchase a plot for it, but the main issue might be an employee stealing the cube.
Maybe set this up as a conceptual art piece, and as part of that have a museum store it buried in their storage collection as a loan.
posted by Sophont at 10:09 AM on October 4

Sorry if this is a kill-joy response, but I would vote not to put this crazy burden on grieving friends and relatives? It sounds cute for a short story, cruel for a real-life situation.
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:36 AM on October 4 [51 favorites]

Along with all the issues of mobility and memory hassles and so on that often accompany even mild old age, I think I would be put off my this, especially if I was indeed old and well set for both money and "stuff." I would be too busy grieving your passing to have any interest in a "treasure hunt."

I nearly lost it in the bank when depositing a FROM THE ESTATE OF cheque just because of those four words next to the name of my now-dead relative. People are fragile after deaths. Yes, admittedly, everyone grieves differently, but I have never been in a mood for games at the same time I've been named in a will.

Three people died on me this year and all three brought up a lot of complex issues vis-à-vis who was on speaking terms with who in the aftermath; fortunately some old faded relationships were restored, but there was still a lot of awkwardness in people having to deal politely with people they didn't like very much. "Get together with X's friends and family to find the mystery cube" might not be an enticing gambit.

Also, this sounds bad, but, if the contents of the cube are just a message, it may be that I might worry it was some deathbed screw-you-all, and I would prefer to remember you as you were, and may not have any interest in tracking this down.

Worse, right now, my life is overburdened and busy and I would be annoyed. "Anon knows I am going through a difficult spell and do not have time for this." I would not have the time for a treasure hunt and I would be hurt and confused as to why you would have wanted me to spend time on such a thing.

It sounds better as a plot for a 1970s detective show on TV than it does as a thing that has a good chance of working out as you hope in real life. If you want to leave (kind) final messages to people, let it just come via registered mail from an attorney's office. Your loved ones do not want to end up put out with you for your putting them to a lot of work. It sounds a touch more "special snowflake" than anything else. The more one ages, the more common having loved ones get severely ill, the more common having them die, becomes. It gets difficult. I just can't see many people being excited by "X has left everyone a goodbye message. Enclosed is the first clue..." If I did not ignore it I would probably just call the attorney handling your estate, say I could not decipher the clues (not having bothered to try, games not being my thing in grief) and ask for the escape clause, so to speak. Because the attorney will have their own copy on file in case the one you want people to find is lost or destroyed, or to help out people who might receive this news on their own deathbeds, right?
posted by kmennie at 10:49 AM on October 4 [22 favorites]

I nearly lost it in the bank when depositing a FROM THE ESTATE OF cheque just because of those four words next to the name of my now-dead relative. People are fragile after deaths. Yes, admittedly, everyone grieves differently, but I have never been in a mood for games at the same time I've been named in a will.


Worse, right now, my life is overburdened and busy and I would be annoyed. "Anon knows I am going through a difficult spell and do not have time for this." I would not have the time for a treasure hunt and I would be hurt and confused as to why you would have wanted me to spend time on such a thing.

This x 1000.
posted by Amy NM at 11:27 AM on October 4 [9 favorites]

It may just be that consent is a really big thing for me, but this idea of yours sounds controlling and mean-spirited. You're trying to set up a scenario in which you are still dictating what your loved ones are doing even after you are dead. And for a message? Honestly mate, life is too short. If you have something nice to tell people, tell them while you're alive. If you really do know a bunch of people who would be into a zany treasure hunt, why not set it up for them - letting them choose to participate or not - while you are alive to enjoy their efforts and the reward.
posted by Athanassiel at 11:36 AM on October 4 [23 favorites]

People are different in their reactions to grief (for instance, I'm sure I would enjoy both the idea of this and the actual act of solving the puzzle by way of starting to work through my feelings) so I'm taking this question under the assumption you know the people who might be involved well enough to know their reactions, and those reactions are something you want to elicit.

Does the cube need to be buried? Is putting it in a safe deposit box (which I believe in many states you can link to a trust) an option? The location of the box could still be a mystery.
posted by superfluousm at 11:45 AM on October 4 [4 favorites]

I disagree with the comments discouraging this.
I have had several close family members and friends die and every one was a terrible experience. How much better I would have felt if one of them had done something like this! Death is such a taboo that we have very limited social scripts to follow: put on a suit or quiet black dress, stand around in a house or weird funeral parlor and cry. Spend a few months regretting that your relationship with the deceased wasn't better. We feel so helpless after a death, we have to do something, so we cleave to the instructions closely.

And of course it's miserable! The instructions say "be miserable"! I was so grateful to be the one to handle the arrangements for disposing of my father's body, it gave me something to do.

Others are doing a better job of the logistics, but my practical advice is to put some gold or something else of material value in the last box besides just a message. The message will be touching, but after going on a treasure hunt, people are going to want treasure. Even if they're already financially secure.
posted by Krawczak at 11:54 AM on October 4 [4 favorites]

kmennie said something that was in the back of my mind.

I've been thinking about this a bit more. Normally I would agree with Krawczak but there's more to it.

At this point, you don't know to whom you will be leaving your legacy. So you have to write the will assuming you're going to die tomorrow, and whoever is currently in your life will be doing the treasure hunt.

Are you sure it'll mesh with their sense of humour? Think about what would have to happen for them to take this well. Think about their individual tastes, and history with you.

It will help if you have a tradition of doing treasure hunts with these people, so that doing another one after your death will be a way for them to have one more moment with you, and not some bizarre thing that gets imposed on them out of the blue.

And you will have to constantly update your will to make sure you have the best chance of it being fun for your heirs, rather than distressing or tasteless.

And constantly be playing puzzle games with your nearest and dearest throughout your life, so that you become That Puzzle Guy in the heartwarming short story, and not That Weirdo who made them jump through emotionally distressing hoops to get some shitty ring and a Christmas-cracker joke at the end of it.

And I would strongly recommend providing a "cheat code". If the executor of your will senses or is told that this is not the fun idea you thought it was, they should be able to tell your heirs that they can just hand over the "treasure" if they're not feeling it. For this to work the executor would have to make clear that the "treasure" is of only small monetary value.

In the treasure box you would need to put a nice little something, say a precious but not ultra-expensive item of jewellery or a rare book or something, that is personally and thoughtfully chosen for each heir and labelled for them; plus a few "stocking stuffer" things of similar value for more "generic" heirs.

And I do think the safe-deposit box is the method most likely to succeed.

I mean, this is not going to be a one-shot project, is what I'm saying.
posted by tel3path at 12:24 PM on October 4 [6 favorites]

they will uncover my Final Message To Them All

What kmennie said. The lawyer should have a copy of your Very Important Message to give to those who opt out of your little game.

No one should be required to play. I hope there will be nothing of value at the end of the hunt. You would be essentially throwing it away. Even if your will provided funds to set this up after your death, the executor would be free to ignore the game and just distribute the funds to the heirs.

OTOH, if your family and friends are composed entirely of MIT undergraduates, I'm sure it will be a big hit.

On preview: what tel3path said, too.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:33 PM on October 4 [5 favorites]

Perhaps you could talk to some Alternate Reality Game firms. Some of them have created incredibly sophisticated games with massive global participation.

More at ARG Wiki page

Often times these games start out with a physically mailed clue, or a link to a website with hidden info or an invitation to various groups to be at X location at Y time to see 'something special'.

Usually these games require cooperation of several players before the next clue is found. They also usually have a game runner or writer that can help with additional clues as needed.

Yes, you want something on a smaller scale. One of these firms may be able to share their insights on what works best, and maybe you can hire them to carry out your final puzzle.

Perhaps together you could come up with an outline of things that need to happen, and things that would be nice to have, and pay them some retainer fee + monthly into your account and a note to the executor to make sure things happen?
posted by dreamling at 12:34 PM on October 4 [3 favorites]

You don't say who your family consists of, and whether this is a good idea depends on that information and also on how you died (which you won't likely control).

If you have minor children or will have in the future, don't do this. This would be so confusing and distressing for them, possibly leading them to believe that solving the puzzle would lead to your return.

If you have a spouse, don't put them through this. My husband died unexpectedly a year and a half ago and I would have been beyond furious if he had put some asinine game in place upon his death. I spent months going through his belongings, dealing with the financial fallout, chasing down passwords, etc. I had plenty of puzzles to deal with.

If neither of those things apply to you, I recommend making arrangements to cancel the game if you have a traumatic death (murder, suicide, traumatic accident, etc.). I can see how one last, low-stakes treasure hunt courtesy of beloved pop-pop, who passed away peacefully in his sleep at 90, could be enjoyable for people. Being confronted by a puzzle game after your 35-year-old son or brother is killed by a drunk driver would not be fun for anyone.
posted by jeoc at 12:57 PM on October 4 [13 favorites]

Just wondering: was this inspired by The Westing Game, by any chance?
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:41 PM on October 4

If you're in the US, the exact execution of this will hinge in part on what state you are domiciled in / own property in when you die.

Anyway, most western countries have solved your initial problem with some version of the probate system. The rest, in terms of clues and metal boxes and such, is kinda your problem, no?
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 5:52 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]

You need a lawyer who is a good friend, younger than you, who shares your enthusiasm for this, and they need to be able to guide the players through if they get stuck. And yeah prepay for it, and yes there are ARG folks who could help or be hired. I love the idea personally, but do give some thought to how some of these people might not want to go through it. Wargame all contingencies.

Hiding as opposed to burying the final McGuffin can be just as effective and removes the digging part.
posted by vrakatar at 6:27 PM on October 4

A dead man's switch would be one way to get the message out. Basically, the service emails you at a set interval. If you don't respond appropriately within X amount of time, the switch is triggered, and your message gets sent out. This will undoubtedly require some maintenance and vigilance, as you're trusting an Internet service, which in general, don't have a reputation for longevity.
posted by chrisamiller at 5:57 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]

And I also have to echo jeoc about the potential burden on your heirs. This is a slightly different angle from what's already been said, but I think it's worth emphasizing.

This was also at the back of my mind while reading and answering previously, but I didn't bring it to the forefront because a) I wanted to take you at your word and b) it's a long time since I lost someone.

But... when someone dies it is a hell of a lot of work for the chief mourners. People will tell you to remember to take time for yourself to rest and reflect and etc., but, I mean, you can't? Because you *have* to do a shitton of things and they can't wait? it's just a colossal chore, even when it's straightforward.

Under the best of conditions, it's like the actual moving house part of moving house - packing your stuff up, transporting it to a new location, and unpacking it. Even if you just do the minimum, you're not resting until you've unpacked the bedding and linens, made the beds, turned on the water and electricity, and it's been a long day just getting there, and maybe the hot water doesn't work...

And then if anything's complicated, it's like the actual buying a house or finding a rental part of moving house, with the mortgage or the tangling with potential roommates and the saving for the deposit...

I mean, supposing you were in great emotional distress, dealing with colossal Life Stuff under time-constrained conditions - and then the former house-owner decides to set you a puzzle. You're probably not going to pay much attention to it, and if the puzzle is the only path to something vital - like "figure out the password to turn on the hot water!" you would find that distinctly unamusing.

So that maybe doesn't add much to my previous answer, which is "be careful how you do it and keep it updated throughout the lifespan so as to avoid inadvertently burdening your heirs" - but it does look at it from another angle.

In practical terms, maybe set the game to deploy 6 months after your death, when things have settled down a bit? And of course, make sure your affairs are in order generally, life insurance and all that, so that your heirs are less likely to be dealing with horrific damage to their quality of life as a result of your death.


More and more, I think the best way for you to make a success of this will be to learn to become a great source of enjoyable puzzle games in life. Do it now, with the people you love now.

Done right, I think it could be a great way of building close relationships, and could really have a positive impact on your life with your family and friends.

And then by the time you leave this world, that one last game really will be the punctuation mark to your legacy and really will be the warm-hearted and fun gesture you mean it to be. For this to work, I don't think you can separate it from a life well lived.
posted by tel3path at 6:31 AM on October 5 [3 favorites]

The cube could be buried in a cemetery, if the cemetery wasn't too stodgy. Hollywood Forever comes to mind: the symbolic remains of DEF Records are interred there. Throw in an all expenses paid trip to L.A. for participants and this treasure hunt becomes a nice gift from the beyond.
posted by Scram at 8:12 PM on October 7

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