What’s Going to Happen to All the Crap I’ve Accumulated When I Die?

All across America, we boomers are finding ourselves stuck with heirlooms and mementos that we can’t give away.

stuff after you die

You gather up a lot of flotsam and jetsam in a lifetime. What happens to all your stuff after you die? Illustration by Nathan Hackett

Not too long ago, we had guests over to the house — a rare event anymore, even as we all slowly reenter the World of Other People. The occasion was an annual picnic we host for relatives, back on again after a summer skipped because of COVID. As I welcomed the first arrivals in the living room, I felt compelled to apologize for all the crapola lining my bookcase shelves. I could see my niece and nephew taking in the array of ancient elementary-school art projects, nesting dolls, Rubik’s Cubes, animal carvings, music boxes and pieces of driftwood with a sort of nervous curiosity.

“They’re for Lucy,” I explained, referring to my two-year-old granddaughter. “She likes to play with them.”

They nodded, looking not entirely convinced.

I don’t blame them. I’m not really a knickknack kind of girl. I never have been. Or, at least, I never used to be. I do my own dusting and vacuuming, so the idea of having shelves filled with quaint little tchotchkes that have to be removed and then put back into place every week was never appealing. For most of my life, I ran a tight memorabilia ship.

But then I got old, and somehow, I started having more stuff. People died — my dad, uncles, aunts, cousins — and we survivors had to divvy up their treasures: old family photo albums, china, curios, silverware. Children moved out but somehow neglected to take their belongings with them. Past lives added up: What do you do with the records from the Girl Scout troop you oversaw for a dozen years? The hundreds of children’s books you assembled over the decades that turn out to be unwoke now that your kids are finally having kids? And the cookbooks, since you’ve more or less quit cooking completely, except for those rare occasions, like a picnic for relatives, when you have people over and they gape at your trinket-stuffed shelves?

One thing you don’t do, clearly, is pass things on to your children. Mine are such minimalists that I can’t even interest them in really choice items like the family silver. “Too ornate,” my daughter Marcy said apologetically when I offered it to her. “And won’t it need to be polished?”

“I have silverware,” my son Jake told me, simply stating a fact. That he might on some future occasion require salad forks, soup spoons and butter knives for 12, all monogrammed with initials that aren’t his, was apparently unfathomable. And, come to think of it, he’s probably right.

I’m not alone in realizing that my offspring aren’t interested in my stuff. All across America, we boomers are stuck with heirlooms and mementos that we can’t give away. Generations who grew up to respect speed and convenience — who keep everything they need in their phones, thanks, and sigh audibly behind you in the grocery-store line when you pull out your checkbook — aren’t likely to clutter up their lives with Great-Grandma’s mahogany drum table or the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Their homes are sleek and streamlined, pared down, meant for easy movement and recalibrated lives. They travel light.

Part of me admires that. I, too, was young once. I can remember the allure of thinking I could pivot at any moment and change my surroundings, head off to Paris or New York City with nothing more than the clothes on my back.

The rest of me laments that I can’t find homes for these ancestral items — that they, and the whole trailing history they hold for me of Christmas mornings and crowded Sunday dinners and barely but fondly remembered elderly relations, are fated to wind up on shelves at Goodwill or the table of a yard sale, to take up residence, if they’re lucky, among other people’s families, other people’s lives.

My husband Doug’s mom, who’s 89, is going through her second stage of deaccession at the moment. Two decades ago, she and her late husband moved from the home they built themselves when they were married, in the foothills of Central PA, to a much smaller one-story place in an over-55 community. She’s pondering moving again now, to assisted living. That means Doug and I are going through our second stage of parrying her proffers of taxidermied deer heads and World War II uniforms and lawn ornaments. This time around, I feel her pain — well, maybe not for the deer heads. But when things have meant a lot to you or someone you loved for a long time, it’s hard to consign them to oblivion.

My situation is, ahem, somewhat further complicated by the fact that a lot of my most cherished belongings — the blue-and-white ceramic elephant occupying the fireplace hearth, the mid-century sideboard in the dining room, the Art Deco candlesticks — have no meaning for anyone. They’re just items I picked up at thrift stores back when Marcy and Jake went off to college and I made (I think; I’m not in therapy) a stab at filling the hole their absence left with shopping. In other words, I took other people’s discarded crap and made it mine. I bought stuff just because I liked it and no longer had to worry the kids and their friends would break it with errant field-hockey sticks. It would be a lot to ask anyone else to adopt that elephant. Even though — and I think this shows admirable restraint — it was part of a pair, and I only bought one.

At this point, my home is so knickknack-heavy that it resembles a Victorian parlor crammed with scrimshaw and broidery and antimacassars and artwork made from human hair. This isn’t all that odd, I suppose, considering it’s a Victorian house. I could try to justify my interior design by saying I’m simply taking the architecture back to its roots. Alas, that doesn’t account for the Rubik’s Cubes.

Every now and again, I’ll noodle around online to try and figure out if anything I own is worth any money, hoping I might entice the kids to take it into custody that way: “Hey, I saw a couple of candlesticks just like this on 1stDibs, and they were worth 500 bucks!” Apparently, though, I don’t have an unerring eye for quality or value, only for elephants. Pity. What’s worse, I’ve begun to reluctantly accept furnishings I once gifted to Marcy and Jake that they now want to return to me, as their careers build and they’re able to hit Wayfair up for household goods they actually like.

I’ve been somewhat heartened lately by stories in the press about how thrift-store shopping is the original recycling and is gaining new cachet among young consumers drawn to its ecological pluses. This should add another arrow to my quiver of arguments for getting either Marcy or Jake to adopt my wrought iron plant stand when I’m ready to offload it. Why buy new stuff and add to the world’s pollution and congestion when I have a house filled to the brim with useful and unique items? I’ll even deliver them to you! Of course, this rationale sort of undercuts my refusals of Doug’s mom’s mounted deer.

And then there’s the grandmillennial mode of interior design, which one “lifestyle blogger” (I hope never to use that expression without scorn quotes) recently declared “the Jackie O. of interiors” — it never goes out of style. I understand it juxtaposes wallpaper, floral fabrics, patterned pillows and upholstery, bold colors, and furniture with “classical elements” like cabriolet legs and curved arms. This is, literally, a description of my living room, so long as you include the elephants. (In addition to the china one in the fireplace, there’s a rattan one that’s a plant stand, another carved from soapstone, one that’s part of a series of animals surrounding the rim of a wooden bowl from Kenya, and a very nice FAO Schwarz stuffed version that crouches, hugging a smaller stuffed bunny, on a curlicued metal bench whose cushion I covered in a handsome brocade. Hey, whimsy is my middle name.)

Living through a pandemic has a way of making you think about death and dying. And thinking about death and dying makes me wonder: What’s going to happen to all the stuff that I’ve accumulated?

Meantime — and forgive me if I sound a tad bitter — our home is the repository for all sorts of items the kids feel free to borrow and then return to us, just so they’ll never have to buy and store them for themselves. Backpacking equipment, tents, ladders, roof carriers, gardening utensils, power tools and coolers of every shape and size roost in our basement and garage, like a homeowner’s lending library of wonders. There was a time, not so long ago, when Doug and I grew cross if a chainsaw or camping stove was checked out and wasn’t returned. Now, we cross our fingers and pray the missing goods will just enjoy their new, more active home.

That’s not to mention the books burrowed in boxes all through the house — the aforementioned kiddie books and cookbooks, sure, but also all the photo albums, the hardback set of Harry Potter, the Scouting manuals, the complete Baby-Sitters Club and Goosebumps oeuvres. … Add in the VCR tapes and CDs, and what you have is a time capsule of middle-class American life circa 2005. We should just declare the place a museum and charge for tours.

At some point shortly after I had kids, my dad announced that he was going to throw everything belonging to me and my siblings the hell out if we didn’t come and remove it from his house within 30 days. I think he’d have made good on the threat, too; he wasn’t as sentimental as I seem to be.

But living through (so far, anyway) a pandemic has a way of making you think about death and dying. And thinking about death and dying makes me wonder: What’s gonna happen to the elephants? The china sets? The lovingly stored-away class photos of the kids from preschool through graduation gowns? It’s easy enough to say, “Put it all on eBay!” But nobody on eBay wants those old class photos. And I’ve yet to see anyone’s VCR tape collection ring up big bucks on Antiques Roadshow.

Marie Kondo insists I should strip myself of anything that no longer brings me joy. There would be a lot less stuff in my house if I made joy my barometer. But it wouldn’t reflect what I’ve weathered nearly as well.

I could always stuff all this crap into Hefty bags and toss it out with the trash. I mean. It is trash, right? Stripped of my memories of when and how it was acquired and used, it’s not worth dick. At this point, I’m concerned about not burdening my offspring (and Doug, who’s such a workout fanatic that he’s sure to outlive me, though if he doesn’t, just saying, that will be the sweetest revenge ever) with going through it all. I faced that task after my dad died, which is one reason there’s so much memorabilia at my house, including Dad’s and my mom’s old yearbooks, their wedding and honeymoon albums, and a 20-volume black-and-gold-bound set of Shakespeare’s works, bought early last century one book at a time by my grandmother from a door-to-door salesman, faithfully preserved by my dad, and now my responsibility. At some point, somewhere down the line, someone is gonna have to say: Enough! To hell with it all!

I don’t think, though, that it can be me. That nag Marie Kondo insists I should strip myself of anything that no longer brings me joy. Life isn’t all about joy, though. It’s also about wistfulness and grief and pain. There’d be a lot less stuff in my house if I made joy my barometer. But it wouldn’t reflect what I’ve weathered nearly as well.

As I drive through America, now that we’re more or less free to drive through America again, I marvel at the acres and acres of land devoted to self-storage units — those attached garage-like edifices stretching across vast vacant fields along highways. According to the most recent statistics I can turn up, the industry is now worth $39.5 billion annually. More than a tenth of American households rent self-storage units, at an average cost of just over $89 a month. That’s more than a thousand bucks a year … to pay for empty space.

The self-storage industry got its start in the 1960s in Texas, where houses don’t have basements, and has been burgeoning ever since. What’s weird is that the business model has grown and thrived even as the places where we live got bigger,­ morphing from rowhouses to split-levels to McMansions. In 1973, the average single-­family American home took up 1,660 square feet. By 2015, it had grown to 2,687. And still, there isn’t room for our stuff. Imagine what my grandmother, parsing out pennies for her handsome set of Shakespeare while feeding and clothing seven kids during the Great Depression, would have made of a house with a dedicated gift-wrapping room. Have you ever seen how tiny the closets in a Philly rowhouse are?

I used to wonder what lay behind all those identical blank doors of all those storage spaces. I imagined frantic consumers avariciously laying in circus-style popcorn poppers from QVC, garish Christmas inflatables, unused pressure cleaners, decades of old tax records, bins and bins of cheap fast-fashion clothing in sizes ranging, per the latest diet trend and their ability to stick with it, from small through extra-large. Now, I’ve softened. I’m more tolerant. I see them crammed instead with layered accumulations that are the natural outgrowth of our nation’s prosperity, as generation after generation washed up on America’s shores with not much more than pocket change and dove headfirst into capitalism, which is, after all, about acquiring stuff. We may be choosing cremation over burial these days, but self-storage units serve as the new cemeteries: hilltop monuments to our impoverished pasts, tributes to our heady successes, funerary urns holding all that will be left of us after we’re gone. I’ve come to think of them as shrines.

My house is a shrine, too, for as long as I’m here.

Still, I remain self-conscious, worried the kids will think I’m tipping over into hoarding. When they’re slated to visit, I make a stab at streamlining, gathering up some of the overflow. Before the family picnic, for example, I grabbed a couple of boxes from the basement and filled them with some of the photos and driftwood, a couple ancient Furbys, Big Mouth Billy Bass, a host of cat toys, a stray stuffed animal or two …

In strolled granddaughter Lucy, groggy from her nap in the car on the way here but beaming when she saw me, knowing she was in for some nonstop spoiling. She glanced around the living room, sharp gaze taking in the still-plenty-cluttered bookshelves, the novel landline telephone she loves to play with, the plastic baby shark atop the TV set, the FAO Schwarz elephant on the brocade bench —

“Where’s Bunny?” she demanded, outraged that everything wasn’t just as she remembered, picking up instantly not on all that existed, but on the vacancy.

That’s my girl. We’re not raising some mini Marie Kondo. You’re never too young to start staring into the void.

Published as “Hot Stuff” in the October 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.