The Detritus of Death

Photo by s w on Unsplash

I was thinking about a title for this article for some time and “The Detritus of Death” was the best I could come up with – even if it does sound like a Doctor Who story.

In my more emotional moments, my mind sometimes dwells on odd things and this submission deals with those personal items following the death of a loved one.

My uncle passed away in 1992 and it was the first occasion as an adult I had to deal with the death of a close relative or friend.  He lived in a modest terraced home in Nottingham (an ex-coal miners’ house – one of several he owned and rented out until he sold them all but one in the 1980s).  A good two-hour drive from Bristol, we rarely saw each other more than once a year, but I made the effort to call and write to him regularly and he was one of those incredibly inspirational characters in my life.

He joined the army just as WWII was coming to an end and saw service in several foreign countries.  He never took a driving test – the government said “If you can drive a tank, you can drive a car”.  A Bachelor to his dying day, he was a no nonsense but ultimately kind individual, who never watched TV as there were always far more productive ways of filing his time.  After leaving the army he worked down the mines until a roof fall injured his back.  I believe he was paid a large sum of money from British Coal as he was no longer able to work in that industry.  He kept bees, was an accomplished woodworker, bricklayer and general builder.  I have fond memories of spending a couple of weeks in the summer helping him to renovate a cottage.  He taught me a lot and I still miss him.

Following his death my parents and I drove to Nottingham to meet my sister (who lived in Chesterfield) and we started the process of clearing his home.

What do you do with false teeth?  They are of absolutely no use to anyone except the owner and now he had gone there was no point in keeping them.  But it felt wrong to just throw them away (although that’s what we ultimately did).  Until only recently they had provided a useful function and then all of a sudden, they were no longer needed.  It was easier with his ring and watch as they had an intrinsic value and could be worn by someone else (although I can’t recall what happened to them – I think my sister ended up with them).

To a large extent, my uncle lived the life of a Victorian.  He had a chamber pot under the bed – guess who had to empty that!.  His bed was partially made (on the day of his death he called for an ambulance and they rushed him into hospital but were unable to save him – an aneurism) and the sheets, pillows and blanket were all thrown away.  It seems so brutal to dispose of those every day household items but one has to emotionally detach when dealing with the effects of the deceased.  Things like coats, wallets, combs and hairbrushes and a favourite belt and shoes.  All thrown away or given to charity.  You also get an insight into things which were previously unknown – medicines he was taking daily for various heart and blood related problems.  It felt somehow wrong to be going through his personal stuff – but he wasn’t there do it himself and it was a task that needed to be done.

One of items I wanted to keep was a device used to separate honey from hive combs by centrifugal force, but there was no room in the car and the prospect of me learning how to look after bees was slim, so I relented.  One item I had always been fascinated by was a small safe my uncle had owned for decades.  To me it was a grand thing, with the name of the safe company embossed on the front and ornate designs created in brass and iron.  It had a wonderful key – again of an ornate design.  Sadly for me, the contents of the house were now the property of a cousin, who inherited half of my uncle’s estate and all the contents of the house.  I was lucky enough to inherit the other half of his estate, so I can’t really gripe at not getting the safe.

It was 2010 when my father passed away.  He had been living in a residential home for about a year before his death.  Suffering from dementia and age-related Macular Degeneration, he was a shadow of his former self and I hated seeing him this way.  I used to visit every week or so and take him over the road for a quick pint.  Following his death there were only a handful of personal items to deal with.  False teeth (again!), his favourite jacket and a cap he used to wear plus a few shirts, ties and pairs of trousers and shoes and a walking stick.  Thankfully there was no chamber pot to deal with this time.  This was very different from dealing with my uncle’s death.  Aside from the fact he was my father, there was practically nothing to dispose of.  A whole life condensed into a wardrobe and a chest of drawers.

My mother passed away in 2015.  She too ended her days in a residential home, having been admitted there following a severe heart attack that nearly killed her.  The hospital did what they could (and to be fair they did a brilliant job) but she was not half the woman she was before.  Still as intelligent to the day she died, her body ultimately failed her and she hated being in a state where she couldn’t do things for herself any more.  The residential home must have dealt with the false teeth as I don’t remember them being in the box of personal effects we picked up.  I do remember the week-old hearing aids which she had paid £2,000 for and she got to wear only a few times.  The clothes and shoes were either thrown away or donated to charity, along with some books and CDs we didn’t want.  A few years before her death she downsized and disposed of many of her personal items so the flat didn’t take much effort to sort through either.

Mrs Reggie has had to deal with a few deaths too.  We still have a box of effects from an uncle with his war medals (you can’t throw them away can you) and various books (a family bible) and other assorted bits and bobs.  In truth she would like to get shot of them (as I would) but that sentimental part of her finds it hard to do so and I understand that.  In years to come when it’s our time to shuffle off this mortal coil, that box will mean nothing to anyone so it will get disposed of then (if it hasn’t already been dealt with).  I’m thinking why wait…..

Mrs Reggie and I will no doubt thin out our personal effect over the coming years.  Downsizing home is a great way of forcing you to confront the task of sorting through ‘stuff’.  It can be quite a cathartic process.  One promise I’ve made is not to leave any false teeth for family members to deal with on my death (thankfully I still have a full set of my own gnashers and long may that be the case) but I might be tempted to get a chamber pot….

I’m not sure what prompted me to write this article but I hope you found it thought provoking and amusing in parts.

© Reggie 2021