The dead are not really dead. They hang around to pester us. Not as ghosts, no; I don’t believe in ghosts. Nor do I mean the dead “live on” in our memory and in our hearts, nor even necessarily—as I’ve noted before—that they now have “gone on” to a “better place.” This isn’t the time to go all metaphysical, anyway.
No, I mean they all leave residue behind that commands attention and occupies mammoth periods of time and sometimes space, stretching, as far as I can see, endlessly into the future. Perhaps the dead have their rest but in the wake of my father’s death and my mother’s just eleven months earlier there hasn’t been much of that for me.
The pile of stuff my parent’s left is slowly diminishing. But culling their effects has been a chore and a pain unlike others, and I would gladly give it up. The meanest thing my parents ever did to me was leave me as an only child. If I had a younger sister I’d stick her with the job.
The minutia of the dead is a wonder. Depending on how well the dead prepared themselves for being dead, the countless bits and pieces they leave come in greater or lesser amounts. My father was among the former. He was untidy about dying. A will never made sense to him, and even if it had his distrust of lawyers put paid to that option.
He continually assured me, though, that my name was on everything—house, car, accounts, and CD’s. Except as I started digging into things I found that wasn’t the case at all. I had to talk him into signing a “transfer on death” deed. He found that distasteful because he never expected to die, I think. Transferring the house proved easiest. It took the recorder of deeds all of twenty minutes to file it and I left the courthouse with a distinctly melancholic bump in net worth.
Filing their last joint 1040 return was a different thing. I properly marked “deceased,” and indicated by signature I prepared the return. It was sent back because, the notice reported, they had not signed it themselves. I puzzled this through a bit and finally just signed my name where they would have and sent it off again. I haven’t seen it since. The state revenue folks proved troublesome too. My parents qualified for a homestead exemption with a check payable to them. They are dead, I told the office. Sorry, the check cannot be made out any other way.
I had my children go through the house claiming whatever they might like in remembrance. We all felt like vandals, stripping the dead. We filled eight library boxes of photographs and albums, some dating to the early 1900’s. We donated all the clothing and after sorting heirlooms, I sold everything else to an auctioneer, just to be rid of it. Walking through that empty house after everything was gone isn’t anything I care to repeat.
My father built that house himself and my parents lived in it sixty-six years of their seventy-year marriage. I lived in it but eighteen years, yet it always remained home. I have placed it with a rental agent and gave him the only key I possess. I haven’t been in there since.
My father, in a final burst of rebellion against death, would not assign the car title to me, nor even agree to place my name on it. He had dreams of driving again.
Some few months before he was compelled to come live with us he was going to buy a new car, until I put my foot down. For twenty years after his first retirement until age ninety, he delivered automobiles between Kansas City Ford dealerships. He was made to retire when the commercial insurance carrier refused to provide further coverage. He took unemployment (which aroused some consternation at the unemployment office) and looked for another job. A little thing like being ninety-one with progressive kidney failure wasn’t going to stop him from driving. So I had to, and, in retaliation, he refused to assign the title to me.
I will not admit to signing his name myself, nor back-dating the transfer following his death. But I did discuss this highly hypothetical scenario with the DMV clerk when I applied for a new title. I explained why a situation of that sort might arise. “I didn’t hear any of that,” she answered, “and even if I did, you didn’t say it.” She’s the only DMV clerk I have ever wanted to hug.
Russell E. Saltzman is a Lutheran pastor, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.