Death and STUFF

To accumulate is to live as if you’re not going to die.” Guest author Robert Wringham shoves you kicking and screaming into the new year by examining the relationship between minimalism and death positivity.

This article is the second thing I’ve written today. The other was my will.

After meeting Caitlin and devouring her work, I’ve decided to come to terms with my pending decomposition. As much as I’d like to live forever, bopping back and forth between Big Bang and Big Crunch in an eternal game of ping-pong, it’s obviously not going to happen. All roads lead to Wormsville.

unnamedI wrote a will as part of this acceptance journey, but I also wrote it because I’m a minimalist and feel unusually responsible for the destiny of my stuff. A decade of purging and vigilance against accumulation has given me a heightened sense of responsibility, even affection, for the few things I own. In accepting death, a first thought was what will happen to my stuff? but, of course, I already knew the answer and had been preparing for it, through minimalism, all along.

All of your stuffmuch like yourself, madamis destined for landfill. It’s a fact of death that our once-treasured possessions will be ditched unceremoniously. Your sci-fi paperbacks will not be gently escorted to the Library of Congress and shelved with a little plaque with your name on it. Your record collection will not be sealed into the tomb with you. You’re not Tutankhamun. You’re not even Nefertiti.

Our stuff is unlikely to be used or valued by descendants. They’ll see it as a nuisance and want rid of it as quickly as possible because they already have too much stuff without inheriting ours. They’ll probably handle some of it affectionately and say “silly old gran,” before selling it off in one big lot to a clearance company or booting it into a bin.

Maybe you don’t mind what you leave behind or the state in which you leave the world once you’re dead. To have people clean up after you while you’re shaking hands with Elvis may be every human’s prerogative, a form of palliative care to which we’re all entitled. But to me it seems mean-spirited to make things difficult for the life-laundry fairies by leaving them as big a cache of junk to tackle as possible. It should be seen as embarrassing to die with so much stuff in one’s possession: it’s a case “sorry I didn’t tidy up before you got here” times a million.

Inanimate objects will not, in any meaningful way, survive us. It took me a while to notice but minimalism is strongly tied to death acceptance. Acquisition is death denial. To acquire is to fortify yourself, expand yourself, make yourself unmovable, unwashawayable. To accumulate is to live as if you’re not going to die. To have a house full of stuff, a storage unit full of more stuff, and a room at your mum’s house also full of your stuff is to live as if you’ve got an eternity to sort it all out or to use it all. We don’t. You’re all going to slip on a bathmat one day and smack your head off the wash basin, your final thought being “hope I don’t slip on that bathmat and smack my head off the wash basin”.

unnamed-1

Death deniers, those who won’t come to terms with their glorious finity, will also spend time and money on youth potions, midlifecrisismobiles, endless distractions from mortality. They treasure their so-called investment pieces, sitting around on their trash heap of perceived wealth like a CGI dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Those who truly accept death know they don’t need any of this and instead live lightly, understanding that no amount of physical stuff will cancel their date with Bowie.

Accept death, to prepare for it, and in doing so get on with life. A fine way of doing this is to pare down your stuff and not replace it. Then you can get on with having real experiences instead of shopping and stacking things on top of one another. This sort of purge is respectful of your stuff too: you can say goodbye to each object properly while you’re still alive instead of leaving it bereaved.

The benefits of minimalism cannot be overstated. It’s good for the environment (reduction being the most overlooked of “the three Rs” and the only one that really matters), for aesthetics, your health, your mental wellbeing, your way of life, and your wallet. And as I learned only recently, it’s not only good for your life but also your death.

I’m off to visit some friends now to have them witness the signing of my will. They’re minimalists too, so they’ll be delighted when I ring their doorbell, brandishing the paperwork confirming that I’ll leave them nothing.

 

Robert Wringham is an author and comedian. Support his new essay series on Patreon

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  • Liz Cole

    Yes! I am always telling my husband “I’m not going to buy that because what happens to it when I die?” He looks at me like I’m crazy. Another thought constant in my head “I better turn that light off because in 100 years people are gonna think what wankers we all were to consume so much electricity.” Come to think of it, I’m always thinking about a me-less future. Isn’t it grand?

    • Micah 李 文 Jung

      No there going to think why didnt they harness the power of the SUN

      • Liz Cole

        True true!

    • Barasha

      You deserve space, you deserve things and to live in the now and be comfortable. To live as if “what if I were dead” means you already are.

      • Micah 李 文 Jung

        how my sister wants me to cosoliate everything and I have a lot of stuff and then be apperciative of the things I do have.

      • Liz Cole

        I am so alive! I know that I deserve space and “things,” but I also am fully cognizant that the world doesn’t revolve around me and all that I want and desire. I do not mean it as any sort of morbid thing. In fact, in the last year, I have completely changed my life because of this type of thinking. I don’t know how much time I have left so I am living it to the fullest. Bought an RV a few months ago and am working towards traveling full-time with my family. How’s that for living? I’m so excited. Also, in 2016 I went to 5 new cities, traveled to about 20 different states and made a huge cross country move. I am so very excited by life and all that it has to offer that I am thinking “I want everyone to enjoy this! I better treat the earth with respect so when I’m gone others can know the joy in this planet and this life!”
        I think you took my comment completely wrong.

        • Micah 李 文 Jung

          my bitch of a sister would say we are not going to live like pigs and be rv owners! there a lower class of people

          • Liz Cole

            So sorry to hear that! haha though, my house is very clean. Check it out at lizwilcox.com/rvtour I cannot stand a dirty home (that’s why I live in a very small one. Very easy to clean!)

          • Micah 李 文 Jung

            where does your daughter sleep

          • Liz Cole

            We just built a loft for her, where she sleeps up where a cabinet used to be. haha She loves it. It stays dark up there so even better for naps. She used to sleep beside the kitchen in a portable crib. http://www.lizwilcox.com/rving-with-kids-pictures-of-what-it-looks-like/ Here is the full set up before we built the loft.

          • Micah 李 文 Jung

            how d you keep it so orgainzied and clutter free?

          • Liz Cole

            #1 I don’t have a lot of stuff. My child only has a small box of toys in the house. Outside, she has a few more in storage.
            #2 I never leave a room dirtier than I came in
            #3 I do the dishes as soon as they are dirty. I vacuum and sweep at least once a day.
            #4 Every thing I own has a place, so it isn’t put just anywhere. It is put where it belongs.

  • Micah 李 文 Jung

    but why buy things to just throw them away? Even family pictures in a couple of years who remembers them?

  • rebeca

    but getting ‘rid’ of the ‘stuff’ we accumulated will only add to the already filled land-fill. having just experienced this most recent xmas season, I was over whelmed with the frenzy with which most people continued to ‘buy’ new stuff, that will soon become old stuff, and be gotten rid of to make room for new-er stuff. it’s an endless cycle. why can’t we as a community, a state, a country for even one year, only by from thrift stores? or if you need something you don’t have, trade with someone who has 2 or 4 of what you need? (I have 17 white serving platters, and I am not in the catering business . . . I have 3 sets of flatware, I have too much of everything) . . . and I know I need to do something about this pile of ‘stuff’ I’ve accumulated, but where should it go? to the dump? to a 3rd world family that doesn’t have anything? to salvation army?

    • Micah 李 文 Jung

      but thats like going back to the old days! why not keep it? it means something too you so

    • Micah 李 文 Jung

      heck why do we keep cremated remains of the person the family mantel? who is going to get them why not scatter them or throw them away? My aunt doesnt care what happens to her remains but she is adamant about being cremated why? Cremains dont do anything to the earth now full body natural buriel helps the the earth

    • Alicia Walker

      I remember reading that in some cultures, (eg: Native American) if they had a surplus they would give it to some family who didn’t have that item. Bartering system was great! Everything was traded equally valued!

    • veggiegrrrl

      the entire planet has too much stuff. even if we stopped RIGHT NOW manufacturing items in factories, there are enough items of clothes and household goods in every thrift store on the planet to give everyone what they need..maybe not what they want, but what they need. shoes and mattresses wear out. everything else already exists in such abundance….

      • Micah 李 文 Jung

        in first world countries YES not in third world countries but who makes the money the CEO and the people who are the big wigs in Washington DC

  • pookie

    So you are a comedian! I find individuals who give minimalism a spiritual overtone really obnoxious. So by bucking the capitalist drive you are now also holier than thou in death too! So I bet you digitized all your music before you gave it the ole heave right! And all the books and movies and stuff on your computer don’t count because you don’t need a bookshelf to clutter up your actual living space. What about those people who don’t have space to begin with, you do know space is political nowadays. So how does that fit into your tight little package? You seem to have a clear idea about what is too much versus just right (keyword minimal). So as you judge others, know that your tiny interpretation of your animated stuff is not really all that important. To have stuff that is of so little value not even your dear nephew would want it reflects the greater rift in our culture. The evisceration of love. Without love you’re already dead so enjoy your token skull on the bookshelf, laughing all the way to the grave.

    • Pat Ritchie

      dear pookie, why are you so angry? It’s just one person’s blog. And a lot of what he said resonated with me. I enjoyed it.

    • westcoaster

      Hahahaaha!!!! I love it!!!

    • veggiegrrrl

      pookie, over react much? just cuz the author doesn’t want to leave behind stuff doesn’t mean you can’t leave a mountain of possessions behind for your loved ones to sort through and dispose of.

    • EZ Liv’in

      Someone sounds a little tense. That’s one way to an early grave.

    • Tink

      Pookie, you really sound like this is somebody who dumped you. It must have been one hell of a breakup, but I think you need to move on now.

  • CatCampion

    For the ultimate in death minimalism – casket-free Eco-burial!
    http://bit.ly/coeiocc

    • veggiegrrrl

      cremation and fish food for me.

      • CatCampion

        If you’re eco-minded (as I am), I hope you will consider green instead of incineration. Let me know if you have any questions. I’m a newly certified Death Midwife and love to discuss all things death!

      • Micah 李 文 Jung

        why not eco friendly cemetery?

    • Micah 李 文 Jung

      how do you get the body from the hospital to the house if you want a home funeral?

      • deathmidwiferyUSA

        I’m a pro at the home funeral piece. I presume the hospital in this hypothetical is in the USA, right? Tho’ many hospitals don’t know it, they have no legal authority to deny you the ability to take the body home with you. Death care laws are made on the state level, so laws about the specifics of transport vary state to state. Most require the face, at a minimum, be covered. B/c the laws vary state to state, I can help you if you Lmk where you are. Shrouds are great but trying to move a dead body around the place w/out the use of a rigid board or container is hard. See homeFuneralAlliance.org for more info and for my contact info. Terry Skovronek in Pa

        • Micah 李 文 Jung

          maryland but my dad died in Virginia and I thought since he was a resident of Maryland and died in Virginia he would still have death rights in maryland not virginia I asked mom if we could take him home and she said no

  • Colyn Ward

    Wow. A part of me said, “Sounds good” while the majority of me said, “He’s a comedian but he doesn’t sound like he’s joking.” I’m a death denier because I have “stuff” in my house? How dismissive. Thank you, but the things in my house are full of color, memories, and they bring me joy. I’m far from having a minimalist style; having these things around me make me feel ALIVE, which it sounds like Robert himself is denying a bit.

    And the landfill scare is more of a scare than a reality. Does he know there is a huge vintage market out there? The vast majority of my “things” came from thrift and vintage shops, where old things are cherished. Lots of things don’t end up in landfills unless you put them there. There’s also a community of folks who make their living off the things you discard, like those wonderful estate sale professionals — worth every penny, BTW. And thrifters who resale on the internet. You don’t have to expect your will executors to throw your things away… leave instructions to donate it and keep it within the life cycle. Sheesh.

    I feel William Morris had it right: “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” And beauty is in the *very much alive* eye of the beholder.

    • Micah 李 文 Jung

      proably not its the new it that people want to focus on not the old clothing etc etc

  • I think there are hundreds of ways people use to deny their own mortality (taking risks, conformity, losing themselves in a movement, engaging in conquests), the accumulation of stuff can be just one of those things. If I have wealth and power or success death will not take me. Consumerism encourages this attitude. With this next new shiny toy, I will live forever.

    • Micah 李 文 Jung

      true but I buy things that I like and hopefully can enjoy proably not anymore now since we are moving

      • Well it’s not every purchase, I think it’s just a case of being aware of the pressures to consume…are you decorating your kitchen because you need to or because your not happy at work and this is standard way to alleviate the boredom, are you paying 6 times more for a i-phone because you need all those functions or because you want to look cool, are you taking an annual holiday because that is what everyone does, are you buying new clothes that you seldom wear etc, etc..

        • Micah 李 文 Jung

          I like to buy things to keep and put on the wall or too enjoy the object I painted or did like D&D miniature dragons I paint I collected some tiki mugs to enjoy for me and guests now my mom is saying keep one! ONE or three

          • Cool, it sounds like you get real value from your purchases : )

          • Micah 李 文 Jung

            dont know how long I will have them

      • A good book on this subject was: Your Money or Your Life. There’s a short review here: http://thebookreviewblog.com/your-money-or-your-life/

        • Jan Morrison

          True! Also “Die Broke”.

          • Thanks for that Jan. I have to confess books are one thing I do occasionally spend money on. Although I ordered it second hand from Amazon for a penny. : )

          • Jan Morrison

            Libraries are your friend! I live in an isolated community in Labrador. Population 500 on a fat day. We have a wonderful volunteer library. We also have a community heritage based on making do. North West River got a bridge in the 80s. Before there was a road to the small city of Goose Bay – before there was a Goose Bay at all – the settlers of NWR got their goods by ship up the Esquimaux Bay. It is frozen eight months of the year. When the first ship came in after breakup (late June) mothers would send one of their kids down to just get a cup of flour – to tide them over until they could get to the Hudson Bay trading post and get their order.

          • Micah 李 文 Jung

            but not all libraries have all the books you want.

          • Jan Morrison

            No, but to quote the Stones, if you try real hard you just might find what you need.

          • Yes, libraries, I read a lot of non-fiction that they don’t always have though. Amazon’s second hand books are usually good though, they really are often only a penny / cent (although you do have to pay postage). Thanks for the tip.

          • Micah 李 文 Jung

            thats where they nail you

  • Barasha

    nope nope nope. I am a dragon- my lair Must be warm, comfortable, pleasing to the eye, nose and touch… and full of my cherished things that make me smile when I see or use them. You can go ahead and minimize all you want- and live in your house as if you are a squatter until Death comes for you- and never have a moment of sheer joy in taking tea in the afternoon- on your comfy couch- with your books and candles and warm couch throw. Go ahead and “exist” in a space that offers no comfort other than “well, when I die….” Live now. Suck it up with both hands- cling onto it and abandon yourself to all of the messy, marvelous, space filling- noise inducing joys and sorrows that comes with having Lived.

    • Liz Cole

      I have my tea in the afternoon, well Mountain Dew, but it comes from a fountain and I put it in a cup I’ve had for years. The things around me bring me joy…they better! I live in 380 square feet! I can’t imagine looking at stuff I hate all day long. My couch is wicked comfy, and not cheap. It should last many generations. And my bed! Gosh it was expensive but I just might die in it, and that’s okay! I don’t think minimalism is about being uncomfortable, but redefining needs and wants, and thinking outside of yourself and your world, believing you are part of something much greater and need to act that way.

    • sally

      What a lovely attitude! It made me smile. My goal is to be in the happy middle of not drowning in seas of “stuff” and not living a miserly “well, better not get it cuz I’m just going to croak” kind of existence. Isn’t it nice that there’s more than one way of thinking and living? Cheers everyone!

      • Micah 李 文 Jung

        but what if you dont have the money to go places? Do things the only thing you can do is go to work

  • Pamela Rouge

    Can’t agree more! The mental energy that our stuff drains from us can be such a burden and most of us aren’t even aware of how we’re being controlled by it. Feeling motivated to get in and rehome some stuff from the garage…

    • veggiegrrrl

      agree. and even though most people i know have more stuff than me, i still feel smothered by the stuff i have.

  • It should be seen as embarrassing to die with so much stuff in one’s possession: it’s a case “sorry I didn’t tidy up before you got here” times a million.<<< I found this interesting. In many ways, I think minimalism is good. But, when I buy a book or another piece of furniture, and I expect my kids won't want it after I'm gone, I accept that it's going to the same place I am…the great beyond. And it will be reconfigured there, as will I. I am trying to minimalize but I'm not embarrassed about my possessions. In fact, I laugh a good bit when I think of my kids going through my things. Good piece, just not for me.

    • Liz Cole

      Where is the great beyond? Your body composts much more quickly than furniture.

      • Micah 李 文 Jung

        tell that to the people who want to be cremated cremated remains dont do anything for mother earth the full body does

        • Leigh McCarthy

          Not true. Ash cremains are great for the garden. Better than an embalmed body, encased in a synthetic fabric lined, hardwood and metal casket and then a concrete and rebar burial vault with a slab of marble on top.

    • Micah 李 文 Jung

      actually it just gets throw in the trash

  • veggiegrrrl

    brilliant. i told one of my roommates to take and hide my box of unmentionables before family arrive to pilfer/trash whatever little might remain.

  • veggiegrrrl

    if one has never cleaned out the home of a big collector, it is a huge project that can take weeks or months. not an easy job. i agree, leave as little behind as possible for others to deal with.

    • Micah 李 文 Jung

      but why did you buy things you think were you going to be smoothered with?

  • steph

    I get what you are saying here, and am glad you find peace in this route. I think I share this as something I would like for just myself as well, and am always trying to live more simply. In reading the comments, I think the first poster (Pookie) may have picked up on a bit of tone in the article, and I did too, that felt a little bit, well, judgmental….and perhaps that is what those of us with personal experience of loosing those we love (that had too many things) dying and dying fast, with barely time to enjoy a few more family meals. I thought immediately of a dear stage iv lung cancer friend with only two months left after original diagnosis… or grandma, and her collections… people already in the throes of knowing they are going to die SOON do not need to read this piece. My friend was very stressed about her “stuff” and its burden, reading this would hurt her. And I hope loved ones and caregivers are not going to judge those under care for their last few days/months here with us. Those with a soon-to-be terminal diagnosis have more important things to think about than decluttering/living small/etc….

    • Micah 李 文 Jung

      how do we live good well used lives?

  • Rodolph de Salis

    There’s nothing wrong with making or having an ancestral collection. Families can be institutions like an Oxford college or a public gallery. This fellow is an anti-family nihilist.

  • Hmm. Author is British. I respect his views and definitely see where he is coming from but, as it pains me to admit, I’m more American than I care to admit. In fact, my third flat screen TV is arriving via Amazon tomorrow. Once one buys a house, it only natural to fill it will all kinds of distractions, especially if one is an introvert who prefers their own company anyway. I feel the new smart TV will distract me from thoughts of mortality for at least six months. But this essay does cause me to wonder – what becomes of all of this stuff? I inherited my mom’s stuff and most of it is in the attic or the family museum/bar/man cave in the basement. I’d like to pitch it but sentimentality stays my hand. But that, along with my knitter wife’s compulsive accumulation of yarn again makes me wonder what will become of my collection of high school memorabilia after I die, should I outlive her? So I have come up with an idea. In my will, I will offer my surviving sons and close personal friends (all three of them) first pickings off the pile. Then I will instruct that all of the rest of my stuff be piled on one great heap with my corpse on the top of it, thoroughly soak everything in gasoline, raise the flag, have a local high school ban play taps and America the Beautiful and light the whole damn pyre. Sort of an American Viking funeral of sorts. Then bury the ash in the backyard with a small marker with my name on it and underneath an inscription: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Every year following as a commemoration of my death, I’d like the newest I phone interred with my ash pile so I am never truly alone. Sic transit gloria mundi!

    • Micah 李 文 Jung

      vikings where buried or there cremated and boats set aflame

  • Leigh McCarthy

    There is nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with things you find beautiful, or that make you comfortable, or bring you pleasure with their color, shape, texture, or function. To claim that this is ‘death denial’ is absurd. What it is – is life denial. Living your life making every decision based upon how your death will impact it is not living; at best, it’s guilt tripping others into adhering to you own sense of personal aesthetics. Wringham should consider becoming a monk.

  • BlackDrake

    The first thing that caught my eye here is the photo – I thought, that is a Glasgow flat (I’ve lived in loads of them) they have a particular look. Of course I had to go and search the author to confirm, yes, he does live here, I feel oddly happy that I sussed it.
    Secondly, I go to a lot of house clearance auctions and they are depressingly full of dead people’s stuff that neither friends nor family wanted to keep, especially the lovingly gathered collections of pointless crap (thimbles, figurines, paperweights). Although I’m sure they gave the owner plenty of enjoyment whilst they were alive, if it was possible – would they be upset to see them carelessly slung in a box and sold for a fiver? It does make one contemplate life’s completion, there is a sadness to seeing what’s left of a person’s life so discarded. Is it fair to leave the task to those left behind? – nah not really, I reckon sorting through a loved one’s possessions is part of the grieving process. There are surely limits of reason though – if you’re verging on hoarder status then have a word with yourself!