What Do We Take With Us When We Die?

There was nothing like sitting in my father-in-law’s office the week he passed away to remind me that when we come to death we leave behind all our material possessions. I sat in his chair and thumbed through the books on his desk, taking home one that interested me. A few weeks later Paul traveled back to to Salt Lake City to settle some of his father’s financial affairs and returned with a suitcase full of odds and ends of his father’s life and mementos. Today, many of those things are still scattered across our dresser without a new home. The one item I continue to cart around is the book I took from his desk.

Since I discovered it amongst his own writings, not tucked into an over-flowing bookcase, I imagine that it may have been a book he was reading at the time he passed away. I like to imagine, too, that some of the thoughts contained within it are thoughts he himself was pondering as he left his life and all his material possessions behind. At funerals we reflect on the meaning of the life of someone else. When the funeral is over and our own mortality looks fragile, we naturally ask if we have meaning in our own life.

That self-assessment is the one that LDS author Dean Hughes explores in the book I brought home. The Cost of Winning: Coming in First Across the Wrong Finish Line is written to an LDS audience, but Hughes’ conclusions are broader—the spirit of competition rather than cooperation seeps into our hearts and distracts us from becoming a disciple of Christ. The author presents examples of our competitive societal behaviors and attitudes—ones that we are probably sure that we ourselves don’t hold—and then with a simple question or two he provokes the reader to reconsider.

Here are some of his questions I’m using to evaluate myself:

Are we trying to gather in all the money, or attention, or prestige, or love, as though we are fighting for a limited resource that might run out at any time?

How do we deal with the noise of others telling us that we aren’t doing well?

What does it look like to follow Christ in a modern-day practical world? Rather than asking yourself, what would Jesus do, ask yourself, “How would I want to be treated?”

If we commit ourselves to some worldly pursuit that consumes all our energy and attention, don’t we stand in danger of losing focus on what really matters?

What are your passions and where did they come from? Are some of your personality traits actually the product of insecurity, a need to please, a fear of failure?

Could you actually make your life simpler and happier by letting go of the need to appear “successful” to the world?

How can we be humble and willing to listen to the Spirit when we are not compelled to do so by a major worry?

Do we put more emphasis on looking good than becoming good?

Wouldn’t you like to think that God watches what you do, sees your imperfections, but still thinks the best of you? How can we do less for others?

Does someone else’s joy take joy away from me?

Joy. Yes, I’m seeking that to be a part of me, even though it’s not easy to hold onto. And love, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, meekness, faith, temperance.  I want to take those qualities with me in the end. The hope will be that in the meantime, I can be content in leaving the other pursuits on a lower shelf.



  1. Trent
    Feb 16, 2010

    I believe that this is the reason we must endure the deaths of our loved ones, so that we will reflect not just on the life that has passed but on our own life and on life as a whole. In those moments of reflection we are reminded that this life will suredly come to an end and we ponder on what our life will mean then. The questions you quote here are fantastic becasue at the end it really will be about how we treated others. Not how we were treated. So thank you for sharing little parts of you with me and in adding to my willingness to reflect, change and find joy.

  2. David
    Feb 16, 2010

    I don’t ever want to die as long as I can be healthy. I don’t want to miss out on all of the time with my family and future grand children not to mention all of the things to see and do in this world and all of the time to continue to work on becoming a better person in this continual pursuit of perfection. Sometimes I am inclined to say, “OK”
    or “it’s good enough” instead of the constant pressure to be more and do better…

    I remember vividly how I felt when my own father died and the perspective I gained on life. As the time has passed so has my grip on that newly gained perspective.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Anna
    Feb 18, 2010

    I gave that book to Dad about a year ago because the writer, Dean Hughes reminded me a lot of Dad and I loved his simple insights. I’m glad you took the book and am grateful for the thoughts and feelings you’ve had because you did.

  4. Terresa Wellborn
    Feb 18, 2010

    You know my gram passed away last month. She couldn’t not take anything with her, of course. Except the attitudes and beliefs she fostered in this life.

    I like the focus on cooperation rather than competition.

  5. Stephanie Snidarich
    Feb 19, 2010

    I’ve been pondering this long and hard over the past year, following the death of my own father. The question: “what will I leave behind?” has not been far from my mind. Recently I read a funeral notice that included the following: “he loved spending time with his grandchildren, trying his luck at Powerball, and doing scratch-off games”. My heart ached for what seemed to be missed opportunities in this person’s life. When I die, if I leave much behind in the way of “things”, I want them to symbolize a life well lived–token small objects that trigger memories of shared laughter, of a helping hand… symbols of love and joy shared freely. There already does not seem to be enough time in this life to GIVE as much as we ought. Surely, there is not enough time to focus on gathering things to ourselves.

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