What will happen to all their stuff?

Norine Dresser spinning a Tibetan prayer wheel inside a plastic peanut butter jar. Photo by Rita Popp.
Norine Dresser spinning a Tibetan prayer wheel inside a plastic peanut butter jar. Photo by Rita Popp.
It’s painful to ponder.

Nonetheless, we need to consider, “What will happen to our parents’ stuff after they die?”

Some of our elders may talk freely about the disposition of their possessions before the end of life and even announce, “I want John to have his father’s favorite brown leather chair.” Or, ”I want my eldest granddaughter to have my wedding ring for her own wedding.” That makes the distribution of goods an easy task.

Currently, I know a family with eight children whose octogenarian parents are downsizing. One of the daughters photographed 350 family treasures: jewelry, art, china, and household goods. She recently sent these photos to her brothers and sisters with a form asking each one what items they were “Strongly interested” in having or merely “Interested” in. If two or more siblings are strongly interested in the same object, the family will create a kind of lottery to fairly distribute that chosen item.

The next step will be a family meeting with siblings and parents to go over the lists. The parents will decide whether they are ready to give up the objects now to expedite their downsizing or wait until after their deaths.

Another friend in her 20s, tells me that when she or one of her cousins compliments Granny about one of her belongings, Granny writes that person’s name on the back of it, so that it will go to her after Granny dies.

My own mother promised to identify the names of relatives on the backs of old photos taken in Europe in the 19th century. Sadly, she never completed that task, and I have no one left to ask, so the pictures are meaningless.

The above dilemmas pertain to ordinary family possessions. On the other hand, I have a different kind of “stuff ” problem. As a folklorist, I have collected over 1,000 objects related to my professional interests. For example, I have acquired numerous multi-ethnic ritual wedding objects. These items have little monetary value, yet historically and culturally, they are prizes for future scholars to examine.

Norine Dresser’s collection of multicultural wedding ritual objects: Vietnamese red satin wedding cloth; Iranian sugar cones; Mexican and Filipino objects holding 13 gold coins; Greek Orthodox wedding crowns; Korean wooden ducks. Armenian pomegranate favor holding Jordan almonds wrapped in netting. Photo by Rita Popp.
Norine Dresser’s collection of multicultural wedding ritual objects: Vietnamese red satin wedding cloth; Iranian sugar cones; Mexican and Filipino objects holding 13 gold coins; Greek Orthodox wedding crowns; Korean wooden ducks. Armenian pomegranate favor holding Jordan almonds wrapped in netting. Photo by Rita Popp.
If someone without knowledge were to look at my walls and peruse my bookshelves, they wouldn’t have an inkling regarding the significance of such things. To my horror, the objects might even be tossed or divided by my children, boxed to sit in three garages. Eventually they would deteriorate. What a waste!

To avoid such a nightmarish ending, I have devised something that could be adapted to anyone’s possessions. I am in the process of constructing a website: “The Norine Dresser Virtual Museum of Folklore and Popular Culture.”

Each item in my collection has been photographed by art historian, Mariah Chase. Next, I have added a description and name of the object, what it is used for, and the ethnicity or culture that uses this object. I have also identified the material of which the item is made and its dimensions. Chase, who is also my web designer, and I are aiming to premiere the first 300 objects on the new website by April 1, 2016.

Now this is a huge undertaking, and most people do not have to go to such lengths when documenting family treasures. Nevertheless, the more information you have, the better it will be for the family. For example, if your parents have paintings, ceramics, weavings and other works of art, it would be useful to ask the cost and date of purchase, and any other background facts. Think Antiques Roadshow. Later on, in case you have an estate sale, the more data you have, the better the price you will receive.

While you may hesitate to talk about these practicalities with your parents while they are still alive, I’m willing to wager that they will be relieved that you asked. If they seem hesitant, appeal to their sense of legacy. Explain that this information will contribute to their descendants knowledge of how they lived and what material goods played a role in their lives.

What plans have your parents made? What plans have you made?