Interested in something a bit morbid in keeping with this time of plague? How much do we owe to the dead? I don’t mean as in debts owing to an estate, or how we should go about honouring those who are no longer with us… Or maybe I do. It’s just a question of how we remember them, I guess -what rights we accord them, despite them not being… uhmm, here and everything?
Of course, we owe them a debt of gratitude for doing what they did for us -or didn’t- and maybe what they left behind for us to inherit; but how far should that debt extend? It’s one thing for them to endow a university, or library or whatever, and another for them to expect to have a post mortem say in what it does years later. I mean, how long does money talk? And what does it say? Should it be able to vote, for example?
Apart from whether I would prefer cremation or burial -and perhaps how I should convey this to my children- I can’t say I have been particularly preoccupied with the matter over the years. Anyway, my legacy will not extend much beyond the memory of those who survive me, and unless I win a lottery, there is unlikely to be a fight over the disposition of my estate.
Still, given what we seem to be doing in lockdown with the economy and the devastating effect we’re otherwise having on our global climate, the issue of bequeathal is probably worth pursuing. And yet, thinking back to the choices we used to take for granted of whether to go to MacDonald’s, Starbucks, or Tim Hortons for the morning gossip- even in those old days, most of us would shy away from the ‘D’ word unless one of us didn’t show up for a couple of days… But more on that in a moment.
What got me started on the topic was an essay in Aeon by Barry Lam, an associate professor of Philosophy at Vassar College, New York state, and a fellow at Duke University, N. Carolina: aeon.co/ideas/is-it-moral-to-respect-the-wishes-of-the-dead-above-the-living
Its very first sentence was a sort of of click-bait, perhaps, but it intrigued me: ‘Imagine what a country would be like if every person could secure a vote in elections that happened after their death.’ Actually, I couldn’t imagine it, so I read on. ‘Imagine that a legal structure were erected to execute the wishes of the dead, and that the law would side with the dead even when their wishes conflicted with the needs of the living, or with the wellbeing of future generations.’
That worried me, I have to admit, especially since ‘We believe that with death comes the loss of the right to influence the political institutions of the living. Yet this kind of moral clarity disappears as soon as we move from politics to wealth… many legal institutions at all levels are tied up in executing the wishes of wealthy people who died long ago… The practice is so deeply ingrained in the culture of elite institutions, and such a ubiquitous feature of life, that only in obscure journals in law and philanthropy does anyone express concern about the justice of the practice.’
Of course, Lam is referring primarily to the legal system in the U.S.A., but emptor caveat, eh? ‘In the US, the wealthy continue to own and grow wealth after their death, and the state can enforce the spending wishes of the dead in many ways. For instance, you may require, as a condition of inheritance, that your grandchildren marry within a religious faith, or that a school be named after you, forbidding a change in name even if the school would otherwise go bankrupt. Alternatively, an individual may secure current and future wealth in a tax-sheltered trust only for descendants, where the money can both grow and be shielded from creditors in perpetuity.’ Anyway, maybe Canada differs from its southern neighbours by more than the colour of its mailboxes.
Lam offers us a ray of hope though: the dead only have legal rights, not moral ones. ‘The state does not enforce your desire that your spouse not remarry. Even if your spouse promises this to you on your deathbed, it would not be illegal for her to break this promise.’ Your fiduciary legacy may still be protected, but not the contents of your bed.
A wistful memory from the old days captured me as I sat on my porch feeling sorry for myself. I had gone out for coffee one morning when that was still possible, and none of my friends at the Tim Hortons I talked to about Barry Lam’s article thought that either the bedroom or the ballot box was in their wills. They all shook their heads slowly as they tried to remember.
“Anyway, the missus snores,” Jeremy offered in an attempt to lead the conversation away from that of Final Testaments. “She’d need someone who’d be willing to put his hearing aid beside the bowl he puts his teeth in at night.”
“That’s awfully sexist, J,” Arthur chided, eating his donut as he talked.
“Whadya mean, Art,” Jeremy replied, picking up the half of his cinnamon Bagel he had so carefully dipped in his coffee. “She’s 83 and the pickings aren’t great at that age -even on Facebook.”
Burt looked up, still chewing, and slurped some coffee into his mouth to soften the work. “I’d like to will that my two boys vote Liberal in order to get my inheritance,” he mumbled, barely intelligibly, “They’re getting entirely too Green for my liking…”
Arthur smiled indulgently. “How would you or the lawyers find out who they voted for?” He helped himself to a sip of his tepid coffee. “And why would it matter, anyway? You’d be dead.”
“But remembered,” Jeremy added hopefully. “Isn’t that what Wills are for, when you think about it?”
“Good point,” said Arthur, nodding his head as he searched his empty plate for crumbs.
Burt was still chewing when another thought occurred to him. “Still, you can lead a dog to water,” he managed to garble through his still full mouth. “But it’s complicated to make it…”
“Horse,” Arthur interrupted.
“It’s horses that you can’t make drink…” He sighed and sat back in his chair, still staring at Burt. “Anyway, what do horses -or dogs, for that matter- have to do with Wills, Burt?”
Burt finished chewing, picked at something in his teeth, then sat back in his chair as well. “It’s what we’re remembered for that really matters, isn’t it?”
Arthur nodded grudgingly.
“So you have to make the Will complicated… Unexpected.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, and decided to try the coffee again.
But suddenly Jeremy perked up. “I think maybe Burt means that a Will is sort of like a bunch of presents under a Christmas tree. “When they’re still wrapped, you try to guess what’s in them.” He glanced at the rest of us at the table, but since we all looked as puzzled as we had with Burt’s example, he decided to elaborate. “Well, anyway, when they were all unwrapped, I always used to remember the surprises more than the ones I expected…”
It occurred to me that there is an untapped wisdom in age that doesn’t require a PhD in philosophy to expound.