Sunday, June 04, 2023

How much privacy are we owed in death?

I was 34 when my mother died the year the Soviet Union was unraveling. I was 63 when my father died as the world entered a pre-vaccine pandemic. My parents met in Yonkers, New York, in 1943, as teenagers, and married in 1952. My sister and I were born roughly four years later, she in January and me in December of the same year.

We weren’t a family that shared a great deal emotionally — not a lot of hugging. Any sense of “I love you” went unspoken. My memory of my parents was in my role as their son. I rarely if ever thought of them as the teenagers they once were, or as people who had lived lives of their own before I or my sister came along.

All that changed a few days ago after a box arrived from my brother-in-law full of files and papers that had been in my sister’s desk when she died three years ago, shortly after my father had died.

Most of the papers were inconsequential: old checkbooks, random receipts my father had kept for items that must have been important to him.

Some items were more meaningful: the crumbling wedding ketubah for my mother’s parents, my father’s transcript from a technical high school he had been sent to as a foster child.

But perhaps most meaningful was a shoe box of handwritten letters neatly folded in envelopes that my father had written to my mother after he went off to college. Another collection of letters composed after I was born, when my father worked abroad while we remained in the United States, were written on lightweight airmail stationery.

Those two periods — when my father went off to college and later when he went abroad to work — were the only time my parents were separated for extended periods. Each time, he wrote faithfully.

I had no knowledge of the letters until a few days ago. When I saw them and read through the first one, the pangs of separation and a few lines of poetry made clear what they were.

I was reminded of a recent article and then book based on found letters and documents of someone’s relative who had regularly given anonymous gifts of money to those in need in his community. That the man wanted his gifts to be anonymous was clear. It always sat uneasy with me that the man’s desire for anonymity was not honored. That the relative in receipt of the anonymous benefactor’s documents chose to tell his story and identify him was clearly the relative’s choice.

I have not yet read beyond the first of my father’s letters to my mother. If my father were still alive, I would ask him about some of the details. The inability to do so adds to the grief I still find myself with three years after his death.

But I have come around to believing that the relative who outed the generous relative’s largesse did the right thing. The documents had been left to him presumably with the judgment to trust him to do what he believed was best with them.

My father never destroyed his letters, and now it is up to me to decide, after I read more of them, how widely to share their contents. I am hopeful that I too will do the right thing.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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Follow him on Twitter @jseglin



1 comment:

Dad said...

As someone who had to go through my own parent's belongings after they passed, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your experience. Although I remember going through their effects with great sadness, I now only think about the great memories.