The Legacy of Our Stuff

Ethical wills are about values, not valuables. But what about the category of "stuff" you can't take with you -- of value or not?
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The power of everyday things carry both ideas and passions... emotional and intellectual companions that anchor memory [and] sustain relationship.
-- Sherry Turkle

Ethical wills are about values, not valuables. But what about the category of "stuff" -- of value or not? You know "you can't take it with you," but it's too simple to see stuff either as necessities to function in the material world, or merely useless acquisitions.

What about the stuff you inherited, saved, collected, received as gifts from a beloved? What about those objects infused with meaning, symbols of your identity, your relationships, your work?

My mother's Wedgewood dishes, bought on her 1937 Canadian honeymoon; my daughter's first shoes (red patent with tiny straps), in a family that has loved shoes for four generations; the pair of handmade 19th century brass candlesticks my grandmother brought when she immigrated from Kiev; the Santorini blue bowl, a memento of my first trip to Greece; my frog collection , a source of fun and humor for my grandchildren. These are some of my precious things, stuff that I love and want to pass on to friends and my children and grandchildren.

Your stuff and their stories provide a window into your identity, illuminate what you value and why, and connect you to future generations. Yes, even stuff is a significant component of your legacy. For more about legacy and your precious objects, see chapter eight in "Women's Lives, Women's Legacies."

To ensure that future generations receive your valued objects and inherit their history and stories, you need to document what those objects represent to you. If you don't preserve the meaning and value attached to your stuff, one day both the objects and their significance will be lost at the inevitable garage sale.

Gerontologists suggest that the stuff elders choose to take with them when they leave their own homes, to move into communal housing, are powerful aids to maintain coherence and continuity of identity in this complex transition. These objects are "emblems" of belonging, kinship, and relationship. They are reminders of life history, achievements, and life roles. Precious objects support security. Even when memory has diminished, these special things can provide comfort.

...Even though you're far away from home,
you start to feel okay,
because after all, you do have some of your stuff with you.
- George Carlin

We need to take care that our elders choose which objects accompany them should such a transition become necessary. Even the most compassionate professional caregivers or movers don't have the history or know the meaning of personal objects of a lifetime. We should strive to diminish our elders' vulnerability and enhance their sense of dignity and being empowered as they confront the inevitable transitions of aging.

Some Suggestions for Action:

  1. Take a trip around your home to inventory your "stuff."

  • Make a list of those objects that have value for you beyond their material worth.
  • Invite your beloveds (children, grandchildren, friends) to name objects of yours that have special meaning to them. (Don't be surprised if their lists are quite different from yours.) Use their lists to decide to whom you want to gift your things. You may decide to give away some things sooner rather than later.
  • Choose one object (from your list or the lists of friends and family) to write about.
  • Here are some prompts to stir your memory about why an object is special to you:
  • Where did this object come from?
  • What is its history, its biography?
  • What is its story?
  • How did it come to you?
  • What makes it meaningful (valuable) to you?
  • To whom will you give this object and what do you want that person to know about it?
  • Once you have written, be sure that someone knows where your writing is archived. You may want to tag the object inconspicuously, linking it with its story and the name of its future owner.
    Follow these guidelines to preserve the meaning of other precious stuff.

    May your precious stuff clarify your identity and values, and deepen your relationships with those you love.
    -- Rachael Freed

    You can find out more about communicating and preserving your legacy (ethical will) at or e-mail:

    Rachael Freed has published several works including "Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations" and "Heartmates: A Guide for the Spouse and Family of the Heart Patient." She is currently working on "Harvesting the Wisdom of Our Lives: An Intergenerational Legacy Guide for Seniors and Their Families." Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, Rachael is a clinical social worker, adult educator, and legacy consultant. Her home is Minneapolis, Minnesota. For more information, visit and