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A white sandwich board style sign stands on a sidewalk near an empty street. In red lettering the sign reads Open, Dead people's things for sale

Photo by Tiziana Onstead

If you’re like me, your TikTok FYP is a mashup of some of the most macabre content on the internet – unsolved mysteries, mortuary horror stories, dark history – and the most hyper-feminine content around – makeup tutorials, shopping hauls, and anything and everything Barbie, Hello Kitty, you get the idea. Smack dab in the center of these disparate genres of content is estate sale TikTok; predominantly young content creators who have all but turned scouring estate sales into an Olympic sport. Typically they frequent the homes – or more specifically mansions – of recently deceased people in high end areas of California, New York etc.; most of them use apps or websites to track the best upcoming sales. They document the lengths they go to be the first in line to nab the good stuff, waking up at ungodly hours, and traveling long distances.

It’s fascinating content to watch and it scratches a lot of itches; it indulges those of us who love to shop, who live to find unique and high value items at bargain prices; there’s real estate porn – most of the homes they visit are relatively lavish time capsules, filled with relics from eras past. There’s also a benign voyeurism to it; depending on whose estate it is, shoppers browse through everything from bone china and real silver dishes to kinkier lingerie or flamboyant home goods.

Screen shot of four estate sale TikToks

There’s also something I can’t shake when I watch influencers rifling through the homes of dead people for content; is that it sometimes feels craven or shallow and it makes me sad to think about the deceased, wherever they are, seeing their life’s belongings scavenged for a 50-second video. Still, I’m someone who’s worked for years to undo a lot of my own death-phobia and I’ve come to understand much of estate shopping can be an ethical, eco-friendly way to consume goods, and even a way to honor the life of whoever’s items are for sale. I’m also a lawyer and I know how estate sales work and how they happen; it’s often something that the deceased is aware of ahead of time, or that the family has arranged. It’s sad but it’s not necessarily exploitive; it’s a way for families to recover costs or give new life to the items their loved one’s once cherished.

I was curious though if this is something regular estate sale shoppers keep in mind; I’m an outsider looking into this rapidly expanding culture through a screen and a series of curated videos, but is there death awareness behind #estatesaletok, and can the normalizing of buying and repurposing items from dead people actually be a good thing for our shared consciousness about mortality?

Danielle Vanacore is a vintage reseller who runs Scout & Supply; she regularly attends estate sales to source goods for her shop. She says she’s witnessed resellers rummage through people’s homes in a way that makes her feel uncomfortable, and points to the rapidly growing popularity of estate sales and material greed during the pandemic.

“When I witness this type of vulturism, it makes me think more about the original owner of the estate, which in most cases, is deceased, and their family,” she says. “Does this person have sons or daughters/grandchildren who weren’t able to pick through these possible heirlooms prior to this sale? Is the deceased looking down on us rummaging through their things wondering who the hell we are and why are we rummaging through their things?”

Racks of clothing are displayed outside as people shop

Still, the alternative is worse. Items leftover from estate sales are usually thrown in dumpsters so despite any misgivings, being able to buy and resell these items is honoring them the best way they can be, given the circumstances.

Vanacore also says she is intentional about how she honors the items she buys at estate sales; as a reseller she hones in only on pieces she feels she can sell. She’s not the kind of buyer who lines up at 3am for entry so she usually gets in once things have been picked over; this gives her an opportunity to show some love to pieces that might otherwise have been overlooked.

“I’m always happy to pick up clothing items and other small items that may have staining, flaws, or need mending as these are all things I am confident in fixing,” she says. “I love repairing and upcycling old worn garments which in a way makes me feel like I am honoring the deceased by restoring things that would have most likely been thrown out.”

She says most of the time buyers don’t really think too much about the whole death aspect of things, but occasionally it can add to the appeal. “You get that one overthinking weirdo like myself who thinks they’re potentially bringing home a haunted dress (and I completely welcome it).”

Quilt artist, Zak Foster sits in front of his hanging burial quilt. The colors are a combination of red, blue, yellow, and soft earthy tones.

Courtesy of Zak Foster

Quilt artist Zak Foster sits in front of his burial quilt, Jackpot, named for all the red 7s floating around on it. Zak says, “At the end of my life I hope I still feel like I’ve hit the jackpot of life.”

Being able to give items a second life is a common thread in estate sale and second hand culture both for items that are sold as is and those used to create something new. Zak Foster makes burial memory quilts – you may have even seen his work on A$AP Rocky at the Met Gala. He uses textiles from thrifted goods or significant items in a person’s life to create either memory quilts – something used to memorialize a moment in time like an anniversary or retirement, or burial quilts, which are buried with a loved one.

He believes strongly in the importance of reusing and repurposing goods as a way to combat the overconsumption that plagues our society.

“It is my hope that when we talk about giving objects a second life, that we do it from a place that acknowledges 1) the significance of particular objects that we lived with, and 2) the overwhelming amount of consumer goods that are unnecessarily produced each year,” he says. “We should seek out objects that already exist in this world before we go to the store and buy anything new. You need a cheese grater? Go to the thrift store.”

Honoring the goods’ past life while balancing that reality of consumption is also a central tenant of his work.

“I also hope that when we’re working with significant objects from the past, that we do so with a sense of a certain amount of respect,” he says. “I often say that everything is sacred and nothing is sacred, I think about that a lot with older pieces. You can work with these objects in a way that taps into their history and storytelling power, which to my mind is the most powerful way to work with them. But at the same time we can’t keep everything. There is simply too many things stored in humanity’s attic. If you look at grandma’s wedding dress, and you need a pair of curtains, go for it.”

Screen grab image of Paper article featuring A$AP Rocky from the shoulders up, at the met gala in 2021, wearing a colorful quilt garment. The headline reads

Material goods are both finite and tangible, and an enduring marker of who we are long after we’re gone; there are even death care workers who dedicate their practice specifically to the reality that our stuff, so to speak, often outlives us; antique businesses like Dead People’s Stuff who make no bones (pun intended) about the reality of the items they sell.

It’s impossible to siphon off these practices from the reality of death – from our awareness of mortality and its ever creeping embrace. And while on the surface this might feel morbid, indulging in the beauty and appreciation of estate sales and giving items that would have ended up in a dump or landfill new life can actually bring us to a closer and healthier awareness of inevitably of dying.

“Mortality seems to be the bookends on the human experience,” says Foster. “Mortality decides when we start and when we stop. And it’s so easy to get lost in the day-to-day moments and we imagine that things will always continue just like this present moment. So by engaging in proactive, death-positive practices like burial quilts and memory quilts, I can maintain a strong connection to my own dwindling days and the work that needs to be done.”

Caroline Reilly is a writer with bylines in GQ, Vanity Fair, Town & Country, and more – she’s also a menswear stylist (and she gets some of her best inspiration from iconic dead men, obviously.) She is obsessed with the macabre and loves writing about the nuanced intersection of culture, fashion, commerce, and death. You can find her on instagram at @_carolinereilly and you can also subscribe to her newsletter here.

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