Do You Need a Shovel Buddy?

Amy Dickinson (who, along with Dan Savage, is my favorite advice columnist) in her Ask Amy column in today’s Chicago Tribune ran a series of letters about things in your possession you wouldn’t want your family to find after you die.

One person wrote in saying everyone needs a “shovel buddy.” This is the person you trust most in the world, to whom you give explicit instructions on what things you want them to clear from your home and bury somewhere before the family comes in to go through things.

Another person wrote of his 86-year old father-in-law’s death a few years ago. Among his belongings was a collection of Playboys. The man’s daughter was appalled, but her husband was delighted. After his death, like clockwork every month another issue would show up. The daughter’s reaction was to call Playboy and get a refund for the undelivered issues. Her husband’s comment was “Why bother?” on the assumption that surely a man that old would have only a one-year subscription, and so the deliveries were sure to stop soon enough.

As usual, the wife didn’t listen to her husband and called Playboy to cancel the subscription. She collected a check for eight year’s worth of the unexpired subscription! (I guess he wanted to make sure he never missed an issue. I re-up for my Mormon journals for three years at a time, because I don’t like to miss one, but eight years is something else!)

So is there anything lying around that you would just as soon the kids or whoever didn’t find upon your passing? I have some sex manuals and my mission journal is very frank, but I can’t really think of anything I would be too troubled for my loved ones to find after my passing. (I suppose for some that hidden collection of Sunstone might qualify…)


  1. All of those embarrassing journals… I can only hope they fall into the hands of the most benevolent of biographers that posterity has to offer.

  2. I think Kevin’s mission journals would be great fodder for a future LDS archivist.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Or Richard Dutcher’s next R-rated movie…

  4. I have thousands of pages of extremely poorly written fiction on my computer. It will never be published, I would never want it to be published, in fact I would never want it to see the light of day. It’s my form of release – when I’m stressed out, I write stuff.

    There’s nothing immoral in any of what I’ve written; in fact it would probably all qualify as young adult fiction. It’s just embarrassingly bad, and I wouldn’t want anyone to see it. I don’t even know who I would tell in order to ask them to come destroy the evidence – even that would be embarrassing. It’s all password protected. Hopefully that will keep my non-hacker family out of it if I kick the bucket. Let us pray.

  5. I would be mostly concerned about my middle school journals. Even though it is common knowledge that all 13 year-old girls are over-dramatic and the like, I was particularly bad. I think I should probably burn them before I die. And all the poetry I have ever written.

  6. I am not sure what my family or the church is going to make of all the secret societies and fraternal orders I am a member of most of which are of a sort of mystical bent. Which as a lds I have kept to myself as a choice. I am quiet young so I figure I have got quiet a lot of time to plan my funeral arrangements and things. So far at this point of course I plan to have a lds funeral in temple robes that goes without saying, however I would also like contributions and additions from the orders I am in to play a part in my funeral service.

    There is little doubt in my mind that my stake will be in for the ultimate shock surprise at my funeral, as I come off as a very conservative member of the church. However I figure its better than causing the confusion of having a pyramid grave capstone with the different symbols and insignia of orders I was a member of in life, with no explanation. Anyhow I am guessing I have plenty of time to plan all the details, still I hope I get to hang around in the spirit to see how it all goes down, lol.

  7. My journals are a little rough in spots, both in terms of my feelings about people and things and the description of various hijinks I got up to. I have some experiments in fiction and poetry to match, especially from my last year at BYU where I worked on Isherwood-esque tales of debauchery on BYU’s fringes. Oh dear.

    I’ve also got some photos an artsy-fartsy girlfriend took at one point that make my candidacy for president impossible. I can only imagine what posterity will think.

    They are locked away. The wife has seen all, but otherwise there they stay.

  8. My posts on BCC?

  9. I second Sue’s comment. I’ve got a lot of embarrassingly bad fiction on my hard drive as well, and I hope it never sees the light of day. I also don’t want anyone to get ahold of my journals, although it’s not that bad. I tend to censor myself in my journals because of the fear of it being preserved for posterity.

  10. Old calendars, check registers, photographs, screenplay drafts, phone, medical records, tax returns, paranoidal (is that a word?) evacuation supplies, lists, etc. I would have to just get rid of everything in my possession, especially my hard drives (are they “hard” to destroy? and where are my hard drives of old?)

    What about the brain? (Yes, brain–am sure in our lifetime they will be able to autopsy the brain and print a history like a hard drive stores.) Oh my, I am going to need to recruit a very strong, ambitious shovel buddy, who has no interest in real-life soap operas and who comes with a very large shredder. Hello, Ebay?

  11. For years I’ve self-censored my journals of the fact that I’m gay. Naturally, I’ve wanted to record my thoughts, challenges, and feelings on the matter somewhere, but I don’t want my family to learn of this private challenge after I’m gone for the same reason I don’t want them to know about now–I fear it will redefine me in their eyes in a way that I don’t care to be defined.

    Perhaps I’m similar to previous commenters in that I’m not really ashamed of the shovel-fodder. But I think it’s just a part of human dignity that we get to keep certain aspects of ourselves hidden. Keeping that privacy up after death will be a tall order, I think, and I hope it won’t matter the way I suspect it might.

  12. Sure, a shovel buddy would be nice for the temporal stashes, but what about the movie of your life that will play on heaven just prior to being sentenced?

  13. One person wrote in saying everyone needs a “shovel buddy.” This is the person you trust most in the world, to whom you give explicit instructions on what things you want them to clear from your home and bury somewhere before the family comes in to go through things.

    This concept is foreign to me. I had never heard of it nor contemplated it before reading this post. It makes me sad to think that it could be considered appropriate in our society for people to possess things in their homes that they would not want their spouse or children to see after their death and to make provision for someone to “intercept” such paraphernalia between the time of death and the time of children sorting through earthly possessions. One idea might be to live our lives so that such a need simply does not exist, so that nothing found in our possession after death could call our dedication to God or his laws into question for those we love, or call our love for our families into question.

  14. Peter LLC, If I believed in that concept, I’d be worried – even with an edited, “forgiven” version.

    I just hope when the kids finally leave the house, my wife and I will be able to go through the house and get rid of everything that I don’t want to keep. Once that’s accomplished, I’ll worry about the afterlife.

    (My missionary journal is drier than the Sahara; not proud of it; wouldn’t mind seeing it destroyed. All of the pictures from when I was the heaviest; will hold a bonfire party someday. Some of my ties from the 80’s need to find an appropriate grave.)

  15. StillConfused says:

    Let’s expand this a bit. Having just bought a house from an estate… full of:
    Food storage items that expired in the 1970’s;
    several cubic yards of coal in the back yard (I am NOT kidding);
    old no-good bottles of whatever;
    junk under the back porch;
    shag lime green carpet

    I suggest that we routinely get rid of all of our junk. Think of the great tax deduction to the Salvation Army / DI

  16. I know an Army officer who has been assigned to go through deceased soldiers’ belongings to purge certain items such as p0rn, drug paraphanelia, letters from mistresses, etc. I guess the idea is to leave the family with nothing but good memories.

  17. I sort of think this is a sad concept too. I can’t think of anything I have that I’d be ashamed to have people find. I did destroy earlier versions of journals full of teenage angst and soul-searching. We continually redefine ourselves as we grow up, I guess, and don’t like evidence of our former selves to still exist, reminding us that we weren’t always thus.

  18. My collection of old love letters from people my family never knew about and the shelf of Star Trek books.

  19. Kevin,

    When I first read the post, my first reaction was “I hope the sex manuals and his frank mission journal aren’t the same thing.”

    I have a weakness for self-help books. People are bound to ask “If he was reading all these books, why was he still so messed up?”

  20. I did destroy earlier versions of journals full of teenage angst and soul-searching.

    I think that’s a bad idea. We should allow the evidence of the previous versions of ourselves to live. It’s the road map of how we got here.

    Having gone through some piles of stuff from those who have departed, however, I do have two words concerning things that should be thrown away: sex toys.

  21. I have a friend who experienced an interesting twist on this idea. His father is a blue collar, hard-working kind of guy with probably $20,000.00 worth of very cool tools and equipment in the garage. His mother is college educated and doesn’t appreciate the need to have the garage cluttered with all sorts of mechanical objects she doesn’t understand.

    My friend’s father made him promise that when he (the father) dies, my friend would come over to the house and clear out all his tools and equipment before “she goes and remarries some bozo who doesn’t appreciate them, and she’ll just sell them at a garage sale.”

  22. This conversation also reminds me of what some have called the Nelson Rockefeller Rule:

    Never do anything you wouldn’t want to be caught dead doing.

  23. There is such a culture of conformity, not airing one’s mistakes, and striving for “perfection” in the LDS culture, that I really doubt people will be very forthcoming on this post. Which I am really sad about.

    Our Bishops are incredibly busy with all the mistakes and problems that are rampant in wards. Ever seen a Bishop who wasn’t busy?

    There is real growth in the church’s Addiction Recovery Program (ARP), filled with members recovering from alcoholism, drug addiction, but mostly sex addiction (porn & masturbation, and so on).

    As a recovering addict (Sex & Love Addiction), I am saddened by the lack of openness in the church, since it heightens a sense of personal shame (being a “bad person”) since no one else seems to struggle with any serious problems, while presenting the perfect or nearly perfect family each Sunday.

    Even in many of the church’s ARP meetings I’ve been to, many members show much more constraint in being able to talk about their struggles than you see in non-LDS 12 step meetings.

  24. Will Schryver says:

    I dug out my mission journals recently and began to read them for the first time in about twenty years. I quickly, and without much internal debate, came to the conclusion that I will make an electronic transcript of the 10% that is worth saving, and then promptly burn the originals.

    Yes, I went through the whole process of asking myself how I would look at it if I were the son, grandson, etc. And, in the end, I decided it didn’t really matter. Under no circumstances could I permit myself to be so humiliated, even posthumously, by the drivel that makes up the majority of my mission-era journals.

    As I read page after painful page, I wondered how I ever managed to escape from that dark prison of self-focused, faux-dramatic adolescence. Of course, the wonder only lasted until I reflected long enough to recognize that all I’ve really done is paint up the walls a bit, grow some ivy over the bars, and refine my manner of expression such that adolescent angst has simply come to mask itself in the carefully-measured language of middle-aged resignation.

    Even so, in the final analysis, I would rather my posterity be influenced more by my myth than by my reality.

  25. Nothing much here — most of my embarrassing fiction was posted on the internet anyway, as was the worst of my teenage poetry. And I read my stupid late-elementary era journals to my younger sisters — they think it’s really funny, and there are some good lessons (both in terms of how not to view things, and how not to write.)

    However, I would absolutely want someone professional to come through and organize and clean all my stuff, as I’m a) a pack rat and b) not terribly good about cleaning, and I wouldn’t want my family to deal with the mess.

  26. It seems that we are blithely contemplating the same thing that liberal-minded folks have accused the institutional church of doing: covering up the less savory details of the past.

    Many of the bloggers have worked hard to research the historical context behind the actions and decisions of past church leaders. We wish that past lives and events were more transparent, yet we want to make our own lives more whitewashed and opaque.

  27. In fact, this current sidebar link is apropos.

  28. My wife would say my Hawaiian shirts, but I hope that I have completely worn them out by the time someone else has to deal with them.

    Other than that, my posterity is welcome to my great poetry from college, the unfinished fiction not on my hard drive, and cardboard boxes full of guitar transcriptions, magazines, and sheet music.

  29. Will Schryver says:

    In response to CE (#26):

    As I crafted my comment above, I was anticipating such a reply. In fact, I asked myself the same question as I pondered whether or not it was “right” for me to “sanitize” my own history for the benefit of my posterity.

    My conclusion, as expressed above (albeit with a patina of humor brushed on) is that, all things considered, it is better for my posterity to not be placed in the position of having to interpret, sans context, what Dad/Grandpa/Etc. was talking about, or why he did some of the things he did. Indeed, the more I pondered the question in terms of my own history, the more I began to understand the wisdom behind Elder Packer’s often-derided statement that “some truth is not very useful.”

  30. I don’t think that our kids or our posterity have to know EVERYTHING about us, nor is that even possible. What may seem like proper context for some is really out of context because they don’t know the desires of our hearts. I think there is some wisdom in the statment that “some truth is not very useful.” I don’t feel a need to pry into everything about my Dad and I wonder if sometimes we pry if we feel we have a right to know everything about someone.

  31. Marjorie Conder says:

    I recently retired and one of my declared intentions is to work on my “orderly exit” (not that I necessarily plan on going anywhere anytime soon.) This term comes from my mother who recently, at 101 moved to an assisted living situation. For over 35 years she has worked on her “orderly exit.” It has been a real blessing. There was very little left besides what she took with her. All the heirlooms had been distributed by herself–so there can be no arguments there. We sent a bunch of stuff to DI (with her permission) and that was mostly that. This was in sharp contrast to my in-law’s stuff that my husband was in charge of disposing of. My greated fear was that we would have to take a sixth of it. In the end, he handled a difficult situation very well and we ended up taking the least of any of his siblings.

    However, my mom also has a long track record of getting rid of (even some heirhoom type) stuff and rippping up journals which probably should not have happened. My journals, etc. stand as they are–the record of a particular moment in time and part of the journey, for better or worse to now. (Everything there isn’t pretty, I’ve even included some harsh statements made by others about me–it only seemed honest.)

    As to all the other stuff–I have let it be known to my kids and grandkids that if they have their eye on something, ask me about it. I might be ready to part with it even now, especially if it is going to a good home. (I have already disposed of a few items that way. I am also making an (ever growing)stack/display of stuff that is on its way out,in the toy room . It includes the “goods, the bads and the uglys”. For example there are duplicate casserole dishes and pitchers, quilts, etc., etc. Anyone can have anything. After Thanksgiving anything left will go to DI or the dumps.

    I can’t think of anything I would be embarrassed to have posterity find, but if I do come across something I have forgotten like that, I will deal with it now. But mostly I don’t want them to have to deal with “yonder is matter unorganized.”

  32. Although I can’t recommend the show for all its ribaldry, the BBC’s Coupling deals with this exact issue in its first season in 2000. I believe that instead of calling them “shovel buddies,” they refer to them as “p0rn buddies.” I’m wondering if Dickinson borrowed her advice from there.

  33. Will Schryver (# 29):

    If I understand you correctly, you are essentially saying that there is a lot of context behind certain decisions and actions, and later generations may not be able to judge accurately based on the limited information they have available.

    I find this perspective compelling because it really makes me think twice about judging others. How can I ever fully understand the context behind their actions and decisions?

  34. Its funny that this came up, because my uncle (Mom’s brother) just died about two weeks ago. My wife and I discovered only about a month ago that this uncle had successfully hidden the fact of his smoking from my grandmother for probably 30 years now (he picked up the habit in ‘Nam). How this was possible was quite astonishing , since no one could enter his house without leaving smelling like an ashtray. She also had no idea about his drinking or porn. So it fell to my father to be the “shovel buddy” before my grandmother arrived in town after the funeral.

  35. My wife and I keep a small locked box in our bedroom and have instructed a close friend to take the box out and destroy it. Now if its just me who kicks the bucket, my wife already knows what’s in the box — so I’m not worried.

    And unlike all you strange people, no, its not journals.

  36. When my grandmother died, my father and uncles found a box with several pictures, dozens of programs from dances and a record. It turns out my grandmother had been the drummer in an all-girl jazz band (The Riverside Girls) in the twin cities in the early 1930s. The pictures show four very carefree, sexually provocative young women (by 1930s midwest standards). It was a complete surprise. I’m glad nobody destroyed that, and I hope nobody destroys my box either.

  37. When I first saw the title, I thought it said: “Do you need a shovel, buddy?”

    Just made me wonder which series of posts Kevin was thinking of when he thought of that question.

  38. We have th sex stuff in our closet, but it’s there mostly to keep the kids out of it. I wouldn’t be at all embarrassed if someone found it after I died. My wife and I enjoy sex, what’s the big deal?

    The mission journals full or self-righteousness and pretension? That’s another story, they at least need to be edited.

  39. Will Schryver says:

    (jjohnsen, #38)
    It’s funny. I don’t really get too bothered by the fact that my kids know I smoked pot or did LDS (sic) a few times. My wife and I might blush a little, but otherwise not be ashamed about the “marital aids” in the closet. But there is something about the faux angst and pretentiousness of my late-teen, early-twenties journals that I just can’t deal with. I don’t mind if my posterity learns that I had my “thorns in the flesh” or that grandma and grandpa knew how to romp with the best of them, or anything along those lines. But I’d rather not have my children and grandchildren know that I was once a self-centered, whiny-ass adolescent. To me, that’s far more reprehensible than sharing a cigar-sized joint with my buddies at a late-70’s Styx concert. Go figure …

  40. Yeah…this “shovel buddy” thing isn’t new; It was actually started by a radio host of a local morning show in Philadelphia, Preston and Steve (June 21 07 podcast, download if you want). Not sure if this is the TRUE origin of “shovel buddy”, but he first mentioned it back in June.

    Anyway, I really don’t have anything embarrassing, but I’m not in college yet. I think I should go into searching for the perfect shovel buddy. Hopefully their siren will never sound, but if it does, I need to be prepared.

  41. I understand both sides of this — wanting to hide the “warts,” and thinking that is simply sugar-coating our lives. However, I can’t help but wonder how many self-centered, whiny teenaged grandchildren or great-grandchildren would benefit from knowing they aren’t alone in their angst — to realize that their grandparents had struggled with similar feelings and recorded how they handled it, what worked for them or what didn’t. I just don’t see how that is a complete negative, no matter how big or shocking the warts are.

    Having said that, I have my share of ridiculous teen journal entries. Hopefully, my family already knows about my weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, and is willing to love me despite them. (And hopefully they will pass on in oral/written tradition, so future generations can also understand that part of me.)

    Beyond that, I am a packrat, and I’m sure my husband and kids are already dreading having to wade through all my stuff. (I’m willing to bet most of it will go in the trash without being looked at. Not sure if I like that idea totally, since it implies my “life” being thrown out as rather inconsequential, but I can totally understand it…) I really like Marjorie’s “orderly exit” idea in #31. I’m filing that idea away, and hopefully will start now to begin that initial process. It would make the entire process easier for me and for my family in the long run.

    I do hope after my passing that there is a lot of love, laughter, gratitude, and memories as my posterity goes through my stuff. (“Remember when our family did ___? Remember how Grandma always said ___? Remember how she thought ___ was important? Did you know Mi used to do ___?” That would make me happy.)

  42. Will:
    Dude, it’s the fact that you were at a Styx concert that is the most embarassing thing in that paragraph. I hope you didn’t buy any merch while you were there, cause otherwise, call in the shovel buddy now. (If you framed the “Mr. Roboto” poster and it’s hanging in you living room, just forget it; it’s too late).

  43. Will Schryver says:


    Dude, it’s the fact that you were at a Styx concert that is the most embarassing thing in that paragraph. I hope you didn’t buy any merch while you were there, cause otherwise, call in the shovel buddy now. (If you framed the “Mr. Roboto” poster and it’s hanging in you living room, just forget it; it’s too late).

    Actually, “Mr. Roboto” was after my mission. That signaled the end of my listening to Styx, as you can well imagine. (It was also the last album the band did.) I could forgive them the transgression of “Babe”, but “Mr. Roboto” was an unpardonable sin.

    Right after I was married, I took my wife to see Styx for what turned out to be their last concert ever. It was horrible.

    But everything before then was great. At least for me, my buddies, and 15,000 other Wasatch Front teens who filled the Salt Palace every time Styx came to town back in the seventies. Either that, or we were simply in the frame of mind to like anything — if you know what I mean. ;-)

  44. Ahhhh yes, I know what you mean. God bless the old Salt Palace!

  45. Arrgghhh! This thread has given a name and a shape to a long-standing nightmare figure: THE DREADED SHOVEL BUDDY. Now every night can be Halloween, with the image of the conspiring Shoveler dragging his giant Disposer behind him as he shuffles forth to inter valuable records of individual lives.

    For many years I taught classes on journal-keeping, everything from full-semester courses at BYU to workshops at women’s conferences around the Mountain West. This was a popular topic among Women’s Studies academics across the country, impelled by the awakened sense that much of women’s personal history was simply being lost because not valued or judged trivial. We knew that every day of the year, old journals, diaries, logs, personal histories and letters were just being tossed out, trashed, burned–“shoveled” we didn’t know about–as people died, moved, or just didn’t know what else to do with Grandma’s stacks of “stuff.”

    One Iowa farm woman, for example, had kept a personal journal for 30 years. When she died, her daughter (a personal acquaintance of mine) went through the journals quickly, writing down significant birth and death dates, then burned the whole lot. Knowing she was planning to do this, I came close to hiring a hit man to steal the journals before the match could be lit.

    There are many sides to this question, of course. And I am a great champion of privacy. (In my family, even a simple question like, “How are you?” might get a sharp response: “Who wants to know?”) I am trying hard at this moment to keep off my soapbox (obviously failing)–there are so many wonderful stories to tell–but I’ll make do with just one, for those who would destroy the “whiney adolescent” records. True story: told to me by the younger woman involved.

    Picture it: Price, Utah, late 1970’s. An active Mormon family has a 16-year-old daughter who has fallen in love with a boy of another faith and another culture. Great uproar, ongoing shouts and tears, slammed doors, pleading, threats on both sides. Daughter feels alienated, misunderstood, bullied: no one has an idea in the world what it means to be young and in love. She’s in danger of running away from home or doing herself harm.

    One day she is in a far closet looking for something when she comes upon a yellowed diary written by–of all people–her mother, when mother was sixteen. The daughter can’t resist peeking. And discovers–of course–that her mother had had, at sixteen, a horrific clash with her parents because of a romance with a local non-member boy. The diary is full of the earlier girl’s anguish and desperation.

    Daughter walks downstairs, stunned, with the old diary in her hand. Finds mother. The two spend several hours together, time that begins with red faces and embarassment and moves on to giggles and guffaws, confessions and shared memories, and a new chapter in the old book of life.

    I love the concept of the “orderly exit,” surely one of the most thoughtful gifts imaginable.
    But perhaps where the written word is concerned, we could sing a chorus of “Shoveler, spare that treatise!”