Death Be Not Proud–A Chapter from a Professional Organizer’s Notebook

March 19, 2011

John Donne’s sonnet “Death Be Not Proud” speaks to me these days. Written around 1618 and one of the many sonnets that became a collection called “The Holy Sonnets,” it rails against death (“And death shall be no more; death, thou shall die.”) Undergirding this vociferous declaration is Donne’s Christian belief in eternal life—the ultimate escape from death.

Photo by UGArdener

Accepting that one day death will knock on our door is not an easy task. Even though I am focused on living and want to live a happy, healthy life as long as possible, a recent work project has taught me the importance of keeping my affairs in order. It may sound mundane, but the more unnecessary stuff I can clear from my life, the easier it will be for my family and loved ones to deal with the aftermath.

A client of mine died three months ago. He had been ill on and off last year. Even though I knew the end was near, it still shocked me. As a professional organizer I had been keeping his papers in order, records straight and bills paid throughout the months he was infirm.

Photo by ConspiracyofHappiness

Shortly after his death I was charged to dismantle his office. The project has been a massive one from inventorying the contents of the office to recycling electronics, donating furniture, and boxing books and files. All this got me thinking that my client feels very much alive. He has just stepped into another room.

What now remains in his office are 20 boxes of books and 35 boxes of files—a sharp contrast to his impressive career of being a lawyer, scholar and professor. The stuff that filled his office—furniture, file cabinets, electronic equipment, and framed prints—has been distributed, donated or recycled. Once the contents of the boxes are reviewed by his family, they will be either destroyed or parceled out to a few people who might find whatever is given to them meaningful.

Resisting Death

Photo by jam343

My client had been diagnosed with cancer years ago. Early last year he fell seriously ill and by all accounts appeared close to death. A few months later and with the help of chemotherapy, he rallied, regained his strength and reinserted himself into life, albeit thinner and subdued.

I suspect death taunted him more than once after his initial diagnosis. When death beckoned, he ignored it and he did it successfully. A year before he started feeling poor, he and his wife initiated a number of celebratory gatherings, one of which was hosting his 79th birthday party. It seemed noteworthy to me when most wait until their 80th to party. In retrospect, I am pretty sure he knew the end was near.

If that were the case—that he knew his time was short—did he make a conscious choice to forego going through office papers and files? Or did he think he could beat cancer’s lethal touch one more time? No one will ever know and it doesn’t matter. In the end he left it for someone else to do.

A Treasure Hunt

That someone else has largely been me. At times I’ve had to act as a part-time investigator. Tracking down the garage where his car is parked, deciphering his computer password, and rifling through drawers to find his safe deposit box key made me wonder if this hide-and-seek process couldn’t have been made easier.

Photo by bogenfreund

I’ve also been called upon to gather information for tax purposes. Helping to locate papers that may be in someone else’s hands and answering attorney and accountant questions I may not have the answer to has kept me alert and awake. Participating in these estate matters has at times felt overwhelming. If I feel that way, imagine how the family feels. My tale is probably not uncommon for estate executors and grieving families. Is there anything we can do about it? I believe there is.

Our Responsibility

Asking ourselves certain questions seems imperative. For example, do I want others to go through my papers and personal effects? To some extent they will have to, but I can cut down on the amount of stuff they have to go through just by culling my files, cleaning my closets, and pruning my library on a regular basis.

Other questions might include: Do I have all my important papers in one place? Are they up to date? Can my beneficiaries be easily identified? We will all leave this physical plane one day, but our papers, possessions and will (legal and spiritual) will remain for awhile. If you wish to ask yourself a more complete set of questions, go to  Another great resource in the Washington, DC, area is Norm Zalfa of Organize Your Estate,Inc.

In time my client’s physical matters will be handled and put to rest, but his death be not proud. He lives on, just in another way—in those who knew him and those who read his books. One day I will join him in that other room. Will I have made it easy for my family and loved ones to handle the legal affairs and physical matters of my estate? I want to say “Yes!” but only time will tell.

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