09/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Legacy: What About the Value of "Your Stuff"?

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 as 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 honeymoon in Canada; 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 - memento of my first trip to Greece; my frog collection - a source of fun and humor for my grandchildren. These are only some of my precious stuff - stuff that I love and that I want to pass on to my children and grandchildren.

The power of everyday things carry both ideas and passions....emotional and intellectual companions that anchor memory [and] sustain relationships.... - Sherry Turkle

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 8 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 homes to move into communal living 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 old roles. Precious objects support security and even when memory is diminished, they 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

With this knowledge, it is our responsibility to take care that our elders choose which objects accompany them should such a transition become necessary. Even compassionate professional caregivers or movers don't have the history or know the meaning of personal objects over a lifetime. We clearly want to diminish elders' vulnerability, strengthen coherence and continuity of identity, and enhance their sense of empowerment and dignity as they face the transitions of aging.

No ideas but in things. - William Carlos Williams

Some suggestions/action steps:
1. Take a trip around your home to observe your stuff.
2. Make a list of those objects that have value for you beyond their material worth.
3. Invite your beloveds (children, grandchildren, friends) to name any of your objects that have special meaning to them. (Don't be surprised if their lists are quite different from yours.) You may 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.
4. Choose one object (from your list or the lists of friends and family) to write about.
5. Here are some prompts to stir your memory about why an object is special to you:
- Where did this object come from?
- How did it come to you?
- What is its history, its biography?
- What is its story?
- What makes it meaningful/valuable to you?
- To whom will you give this object and what do you want that person to know?
6. Once you have written, be sure that someone knows where your writing is. You may want to tag the object in an inconspicuous place linking it with its story and the name of its future owner.
7. Follow these guidelines to preserve the meaning of your other precious stuff.

May your precious objects, with their histories and stories,
clarify your identity and values, and deepen your relationships with those you love. - Rachael Freed

Please share the stuff you value and why in the comment section below.

You can find out more about documenting your legacy and ethical wills at

The author of Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations, Rachael is a Clinical Social Worker, adult educator and legacy consultant, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.