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#Parentaldeath: An inconvenient truth

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The majority of people who have children make an assumption that upon their death the children will take care of everything. For the most part, parental death is a family affair that comes with emotional baggage that more often than not outweighs common sense. In this article I will be opening up this topic to investigate the reality of the death-aftermath that children are faced with upon parental death.

“Having children” is a loaded topic that is predominately equated with the joy of procreation but the package has many more dimensions and many of them are not openly discussed. Consider that having children represented an old-age insurance. Once an individual could not work anymore,  there were younger bodies that could step up to the situation and support the ageing parent. For many in the world this is still a viable approach because there is no other option of survival, ensuring that a person’s basic needs are met when they are too old to work. In Western countries, this picture changed due to the changes that were brought on by the industrial revolution.

Robin Blackburn who reviews UK pension history writes: “The ability of offspring to take care of their parents in old age was limited by their own earning power and the family’s access to property. In the countryside owning land was the best insurance for old age but in the growing towns and cities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries only a small minority had family businesses which could offer a similar cushion.”

So pension funds developed out of this necessity where workers would start paying into a fund at a younger age to guarantee a minimal coverage of their living expenses by the time they were too old to work. Early pensioners, as today, were skirting the poverty line, especially when there was no supplementary income available.

In a similar vein, it is understood by most parents that when they are gone their personal effects, property, finances and so forth are passed onto the children and the children will deal with it. Society sees this as an honorable act, it is part of the family lineage that creates history and preserves tradition – whether children like or not. Though the truth is that in our contemporary life children face a huge responsibility that engulfs time, money, and effort. Many of us are not prepared or equipped to deal with so many belongings, the financial burden and administrative aspects of bringing closure to a person’s  life time.

The topic of death is hardly ever discussed, let alone looked at in common sense or addressed in a practical manner that eschews all emotions and focuses on the facts. However, fact is that when the death of a parent comes around and that parent has made no preparations, the situation turns into a dramatic period in every child’s life. And there is no law to protect the child from an irresponsible parent.

It is entirely left up to the parent how much work, money and time a child will have to devote to a parent’s afterlife. If the parent was oblivious to inheritance laws, the child could face heavy financial burdens.  Obviously this will reveal the character and nature of the parent though at this stage it’s too late to make any changes.

There are many dimensions that could be laid out in respect to a parent’s death and what a child may be facing, but as an overall approach I would like to look at how we can conceptualise the death aftermath. Here I would like to suggest we make it part of the of the sustainable development agenda. The reason for this is that death/birth are a human development goal that needs to be attended to because birth as well as death converge into the greater system of resources of human consumption.

In the first instance this would require each person receiving education about death procedures and the laws surrounding inheritance, which would create awareness in two ways. For example, the child would be aware of the fact that taxation and debt is something they might have to be responsible for if the parent leaves behind property and unpaid bills. At the same time, a parent would have the same awareness and could pro-actively make arrangements that help ease the financial burden on the child (for example gifting the property to the child while still alive etc).

Secondly, in today’s contemporary society, values shift rapidly. Mom’s Sunday tableware does not captivate us nor do we have the space to house her extensive collection. Old world values seem to have longer shelf life and durability when compared to our electronic life style, where gadgets become obsolete in just a couple of years. (eBay’s collectible and antique market is fading). However, those objects – whether it’s mom’s Sunday tableware or dad’s antique bureau – are made up of valuable resources which could be easily recycled or upcycled. The options to dispose of large quantities of household articles and personal belongings are few with poor monetary compensation. A tax break for responsible household dissolution could be another way to kickstart this point in the sustainable dying agenda.

Thirdly, states could issue basic guidelines about personal belongings, property, finances etc where each person maps out a dissemination agenda, which could be updated at each stage of their life, to eliminate situations where a person dies without will or a inheritor receives something unwanted. Online testaments are already implemented but not enforced by the state – this could easily be done just like taxation has been enforced.

Fourthly, children should have a way to say what they are willing to take responsibility for while the parent is still alive so that the parent, if the child is not willing to take over a specific responsibility, finds an alternative solution. This could be done in a way that the parent is legally obliged to disclose their death preparations when the child has reached a certain age, say 16 years.  For example, imagine the child has a low functioning autistic sibling, who requires a lot of care and is a high financial commitment. Upon the parent’s death, there is an assumption that this responsibility now becomes the responsibility of the other sibling. The situation might be more than inconvenient – it may even be impossible. If this situation was already cleared in an official manner, for example via an online responsibility document visible to the parent and the child alike, the parent would have to take precautionary steps that would ensure that the autistic child is cared for upon the parent’s death.

These four steps serve to inspire ways in how we can improve an area in our lives that is overlooked and overvalued (in terms of how much we actually value what is being passed on to us). There is much room for expansion, where we can create a platform of equality when it comes to the responsibility that each of us has to take the consequences of our death seriously. One way of providing this platform is to make the communication between parents and children about the death aftermath much more transparent. Transparency about the death aftermath eliminates assumptions and stops passivity because many are hiding behind their fear of death.

Banking on Death, Or, Investing in Life: The History and Future of Pensions (2002), Robin Blackburn


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