The loss of a parent or elderly relative brings a familiar set of rituals to accompany the pain of grief: reading the will, dealing with probate, paying death taxes. Now a new rite has been added to the list – testing your heirlooms against prevailing ethical standards. The list of formerly cherished things that now dismay us is a long one. What are we to make of the guns and knives that many members of the generation now passing accumulated? How about fur coats and hunting trophies? Not content with festooning walls with antlers, some people embraced a fashion for cutting off elephants’ feet to make umbrella stands. Who has a use for hand-carved pipes these days, silver cigarette and match boxes or other smoking paraphernalia?
Books can be disconcerting too. Karl Ove Knausgaard found a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” among his dead grandmother’s possessions, propelling him to write his own six-volume autobiography, which he also called “My Struggle”. I worry about this one myself: for purely scholarly purposes I have accumulated many books on eugenics, including Madison Grant’s “The Passing of the Great Race”. I shudder to think what my children will make of this Wooldridge library when my time comes.
There are some easy get-outs. Items can be re-purposed: silver cigarette cases make excellent business-card holders, thus transforming the life-shortening habit of smoking into the career-enhancing one of networking. Exotic finds may be given to museums. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford owes its magnificent collection of shrunken heads to donations.
But since our values have changed, and our belongings are many, we often have to make hard choices. I suggest some rules to negotiate the moment. If the offensive item has been in your family for generations, you are obliged to keep it (perhaps future generations will one day re-embrace taxidermy and tobacco). Consider how important the heirloom was to your loved one: if Aunt Agatha and her fox-fur jacket were inseparable then it deserves its place at the back of the cupboard (the animal, after all, will not rise from the dead). Distasteful objects that were merely part of the bric-à-brac of daily life, however, may be abandoned without thought.
But disposing of heirlooms isn’t easy. It is frowned upon to throw stuffed animals and mink coats on the pyre after a funeral. And what of the really unpalatable stuff? I once interviewed an African-American in Los Angeles who had an extensive collection of derogatory representations of black people. He told me that there’s a thriving market in the stuff but you have to be willing to mix with outright white supremacists. If you do sell such items what do you do with the profit?
The offspring of the age of woke may confront yet trickier items after their carbon-neutral funerals. What will tomorrow’s mourners make of Yoni eggs, DIY coffee-enema machines or posters of historical cranks like Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders? Perhaps that is the true legacy: the embarrassment is passed to each new generation, a flame that burns on, fuelled in perpetuity by the peccadilloes of our forbears.•