Life and Death as a Minimalist

Mark Albert was one of my best friends when we taught together at the International Community School (I.C.S.) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia twenty-two years ago. A University of Pennsylvania grad, Mark was super smart, quirky/funny, outgoing, sports crazed, and overflowing with energy for middle schoolers and math. After watching most of his classmates go to Wall Street, he decided to teach math in West Africa as a Peace Corp volunteer. After three years in Gabon, he started his international teaching career at I.C.S. He arrived with a treasure chest filled with all of his worldly possessions which consisted mostly of math textbooks, some beautiful West African shirts, and an acoustic guitar. A model of minimalism. Maybe one can’t help but be a minimalist when living on a Peace Corp stipend.

Today, like me, Mark is 50 and a part of the Sandwich Generation (SG). The SG consists of people mostly in their 40s and 50s who are “sandwiched” between aging parents who need care and their own children. According to the Pew Research Center, just over 1 of every 8 Americans aged 40 to 60 is both raising a child and caring for a parent, in addition to between 7 to 10 million adults caring for their aging parents from a long distance. US Census Bureau statistics indicate that the number of older Americans aged 65 or older will double by the year 2030, to over 70 million. SGers face many challenges including saving for their own retirement while trying to save for their children’s education.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about common challenges SGers face after elderly parents die:

As older parents approach death, they often leave lengthy to-do lists for their children. The tasks can be both physical and financial. Some children must deal with a tangle of arrangements—everything from heating-oil contracts to trusts—along with jumbled stock certificates, car titles or life-insurance policies for which there may be no backup copies. Others must sift through boxes or rooms full of belongings. Sometimes siblings get involved, complicating matters further. When the chores become overwhelming, it can be difficult for family members to recover sentimental treasures or tie up financial loose ends. At the extreme, the sheer volume of stuff can clutter a house and weigh down its value—a problem if the home must be sold quickly.

Often the heir(s) get so overwhelmed they procrastinate indefinitely. I didn’t realize how many estate sale and related companies exist to help heir(s) tie up every imaginable loose end. Probably a growth industry given the aging population.

While reading the article I reflected on how extremely lucky I am that my mom and in-laws have wills; have made arrangements for and already paid to be cremated; and have provided detailed, organized info on their finances. Their end-of-life planning is a natural extension of their lifelong love.

Another blessing, they’ve begun giving away things, but all that means is they have a tad bit less than a lot. Which got me thinking about my own death and how radically simplifying my life could be a powerful final act of loving kindness for my wife and/or daughters.

The mindless cliche, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” is exactly backwards because the larger your material footprint upon death, the more onerous the task for your heirs to divide up, toss, sell, and just plain deal with everything.

What if, as I age, I gradually shift from run-of-the-mill decluttering to radical minimalism. And how cool if I could time my death to give away everything except a token or two for memory sake—say my iPad 56 with pictures and video of our life together. So after the funeral, my heirs return to a near empty house, relax in a peaceful unhurried manner, open a bottle of wine, and say nice things about the guy who left so few loose ends.