Dead People’s Stuff – Part 2
The idea that you could actually enjoy having dead people’s stuff around – let alone find it useful and reassuring – was so bizarre to me, that when my friend Annette mentioned that she was still using some of her deceased father’s items – happily! – I was a bit shocked.
Is it really possible to use a dead person’s wallet, or coat, and not get creeped-out every single time that you’re somehow communing with the dead via their possessions? But after I read Annette’s essay on the subject, I came to realise that it is possible, and perhaps not even a bad thing.
For other people.
But for me, the burden of history that I’d pick up every time I saw or used the dead person’s possessions would be far too heavy to deal with. I have Moroccan sensibilities, which means that:
- I feel things very strongly
- I take a lot of things very seriously that most people don’t even think about
- I’m extremely spiritually-minded, and view most of my life through the prism of the intangible spiritual realm.
So for me, dead people’s stuff isn’t just their stuff, it’s also some sort of direct connection to their soul. And I’d have to have really liked them a lot to be connecting like that on a regular basis.
But there’s another aspect to ‘dead people’s stuff’ which means that sometimes, whether we like it or not, whether we choose it or otherwise, we get stuck dealing with dead people’s stuff in a very deep way in our own lives.
Like, their emotional issues.
And all the bad character traits that they never acknowledged, let alone worked on.
Or all their funny ideas about life, and other people, and how to behave and talk and think.
In short, most of us today are walking around dealing with the consequences of ‘dead people’s stuff’ in the form of all the skeletons in the family closet, and all the dysfunctional relationships we see repeating in our own lives, and all the hopes that went unrealised and the dreams that turned to dust that have now been bequeathed to us by our ancestors.
There’s a book by Mark Wolynn that sums up this phenomenon – and provides some of the hard science to back it up, for the sceptics – called ‘It didn’t start with you: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are, and how the end the cycle.’
In that book, Wolynn explains a bit of the science of epigenetics, which at least partially explains the dynamic that can turn a relative’s piece of ‘unfinished business’ into a problem you find yourself having to deal with, without having any idea where it’s coming from or what it’s rooted in.
Here’s a paragraph from the book that kind of sums up this whole other dimension of ‘dead people’s stuff’:
“When those in our family have experienced unbearable trauma or have suffered with immense guilt or grief, the feelings can be overwhelming…when pain is too great, people tend to avoid it. Yet when we block the feelings, we unknowingly stunt the necessary healing process that can lead us to a natural release….
“Sometimes, pain submerges until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution. That expression is often found in the generations that follow and can resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain….Jesse had inherited his [dead] uncle’s fear of never waking [the uncle froze to death at young age] and Gretchen carried the family’s Holocaust history in her depression.”
I think most, if not all of us today have this sort of ‘dead people’s stuff’ to deal with, and that’s why life is so challenging for so many of us. That’s why so many people are so inexplicably depressed, anxious, fearful or struggling with huge internal issues or chronic pain, despite the fact that materially, ‘they’ve never had it so good’.
The Torah also tells us that whatever sins and issues the parents don’t resolve, those problems are passed down the line to the third and even the fourth generation, until someone finally gets a grip and decides to deal with all the ‘dead people’s stuff’ that’s been accumulating for centuries.
Personally, I’ve had enough of this type of dead people’s stuff to last me a lifetime, so maybe that’s also why I’m not really into the idea of keeping more concrete mementos around.
When my mother in law passed away recently, my abhorrence for ‘dead people’s stuff’ was temporarily suspended when it came to her Shabbat candlesticks. When I realised that my two girls would benefit from lighting their grandmother’s candlesticks every week, and taking their place in a long line of Jewish women who light candles in honour of the Shabbat, I swallowed down my objection to ‘dead people’s stuff’.
That was a tradition I wanted preserved. That was a dead person’s habit that I wanted remembered, and to passed on to future generations.
If the dead person’s stuff was being used to do a mitzvah, then in my book, that made it OK, and it obviated my other concerns about ‘communing with the dead’ and turned it into an ‘ilui neshama’ – a merit for the departed person’s soul – instead.
But sometimes I still get a bit creeped out when I have to polish the candlesticks.