It seems that most every day in my office is Memorial Day. Not the one where you dust off deck chairs, fill propane tanks and enjoy a hard earned day off, but the one for remembering the dead. As a probate lawyer in Massachusetts I commit my time to working with the families of recently deceased loved ones. Often it is uneventful as the death was anticipated or the decedent was quite elderly and there is no sadness, only necessity of clearing up probate and real estate matters as required by Massachusetts law.
But other times our clients’ needs are far more spiritual and intangible than ethereal. Will contests where family is torn apart by perceived (and real) injustices in a parent’s estate planning; abusive behavior toward and elder – such that there has been a complete breach of trust and of the very fiduciary duty to which the presumably honest family member had been entrusted. Premature death of a young parent or even a child are always the hardest cases. Many a time I will speak with the grieving spouse or parent and each time I have a lump in my throat just to bring up some mundane subject like estate taxes or probate or how to handle a real estate matter. I am embarrassed by my efficiency, but it is a necessary part of our probate practice.
To assuage this anxiety and trepidation in serving our probate clients, I teach my staff to remember compassion as an honorable attribute of even the most technically proficient lawyer. No initial client consultation begins until I have humbly expressed my sympathy at the loss of the decedent and a gesture that I will do all that is within my power to make the probate process and all of the ensuing consequences of estate administration in Massachusetts as simple and efficient as possible. I often ask my probate clients to show me photographs of a decedent that I don’t know, to tell me stories of their lives – and stories from the ‘greatest generation’ can be fascinating. I have had survivors of the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, decorated war veterans, a 43 year veteran of the postal service, a prima ballerina in a Russian ballet, a long forgotten Red Sox player, a mother of 6 and grandmother of 23.
Every other year I bring my children to my family’s cemetery plot in Mattapan, near one of Boston’s most historically impoverished areas. I remind my children that their ancestors arrived in Boston over 150 years ago with nothing by strong muscles and a faith that God would see them through. They worked hard, suffered horrible tragedies from tuberculosis to influenza to death in child birth to the deadly trenches of France – one great uncle was crushed by a granite block while working day labor in a quarry; but above all the persevered and keep their goals in front of them. Hard work, education, family, faith – a proven formula for a good life lived.
I’d ask you to take a little time and remember those that came before us, go visit their graves with your children, remind them where you came from. If you don’t, they won’t remind their children and the chain to you family’s unique story will be broken. If you are from a far away place and have no family graves to visit, go and visit our forgotten war veterans for whom Memorial Day is reserved.