Twenty years of house cleanout experience has taught me that our things carry stories. When a loved one’s life ends, a family inheritance built around their belongings can serve as a reminder of who that person was, and what they did.
For example, a hammer or a skillet may not look like important items to keep from a house cleanout. But for someone, picking up Grandpa’s hammer will trigger memories of childhood summers spent helping him mend fences and rebuild horse stables at a long-gone farm. Someone searing scallops in Mom’s cast-iron skillet will remember warm, flavorful afternoons spent in the kitchen after school.
A Legacy List can help you identify what items are worth keeping for a family inheritance and preserve important memories for future generations.
You can create a Legacy List for yourself, or for a loved one whose house you are emptying out. Doing it for yourself is ideal, because it maximizes your ability to pair stories with items. However, with the proper strategy, you can build a pretty good list for a loved one.
Making Your Own Legacy List
I like to think of a Legacy List as being the list of stuff you’d want to save if you woke up in the middle of the night and realized your home was on fire, and you had about two minutes to escape.
The golf clubs and big-screen TV can be easily replaced. But family photos, heirloom jewelry, or the collection of postcards your daughter sent you from her semester in Italy? Losing those would be crushing.
The point is, a Legacy List should include the most emotionally significant items you own. Those are the items to pass along in a family inheritance.
Start with a single sheet of paper (remember, you only have about two minutes to save what’s most important), and fill it with a list of items that best tell the story of you and your family.
You’ll want to pick some beloved items to preserve your story for the next generation. That might include the tiny diamond engagement ring your husband proposed to you with, the diary you kept during your pregnancy, or even the first track medal you won in high school. The idea is to choose things that you feel best represent who you are.
Then, add other small items that belonged to someone who was or is important to you. Try to choose things that tell about your connection to that person. These could be pictures from your childhood, Grandpa’s letters from World War II, Mom’s wedding band, Dad’s coin collection, you name it. And here’s a tip: Be sure to save a couple of photos of that person as well.
When you finish making the list, gather the items in a single space to evaluate how many items you are preserving. If you’re filling up an entire room, that’s way too much to pass along as a family inheritance. We all have too much stuff already! Ideally, everything on your Legacy List will fit in one box (apart from any key pieces of furniture). You don’t actually have to store those items together, just make sure your heirs have access to your list and know where the items are.
Lastly, you’ll want to create a catalogue of stories. Take your time and work through the list entry by entry. Using pen and paper, a video camera, or audio recording device—whatever you feel most comfortable with—explain why you chose the item, and what makes it significant.
Building a Legacy List After a Death
When a family member dies, you’ll want to build a Legacy List for a house cleanout. Start by asking family members to think about their connection to the loved one, and make a list of items that had special significance for them.
For me, my Grandfather used to take me fishing and camping as a kid. Because my children didn’t get to meet him, I wanted to give them each one of his pocket knives as their family inheritance.
During the cleanout, combine the lists from all family members to create your loved one’s Legacy List. Then, post the list on a wall in a visible location. Commit to sifting through every single thing in the house. When a Legacy List item surfaces, get the family together to share and celebrate that memory.
Record the stories on your phone, or with another device. Try to be as detail-oriented as possible, even if it seems trivial.
For instance, say you find Grandpa’s hunting knife. You may remember him showing you how to hone that knife blade on his oiled sharpening stone in the garage. As you share the memory, explain what that said about Grandpa and who he was.
Part of the family inheritance is to share these stories along with the items. When you pass that hunting knife to your son, you want its emotional significance to outweigh the hunting store’s appraisal.
A Legacy List includes emotionally significant items that best tell you and your family’s story. By attaching stories to items, you give your loved ones a way to remember you, and a means of sharing family stories with future generations.