“I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart”  – e.e. cummings

Death may be inevitable, but are taxes?

I believe in the quantum uncertainty principle in accounting.  Round up every bill to the nearest dollar when reconciling the books, and you may not end up with much, but you’ll always have more that you think.  It’s a cold kind of comfort, but it introduces a healthy amount of randomness and unpredictability into financing, which in and of itself is a rather arid and unengaging occupation for the living.  Dying, on the other hand, presents its own set of fiduciary problems, from funerals to estate taxes.  Generally speaking, the mere fact that you are now a revenant or other unsavory manifestation of life after death, does not necessarily preclude paying your bills.  In most cases, if you die in debt and have any property to speak of, the executor of your estate is obligated to sell off your remaining stuff and pay the outstanding amount to your creditors.  If you didn’t collect enough doodads during your short tenure here on earth to cover your debts, the good news is that your obligations die with you, and those who loaned you the money just have to suck it up and write it off on their taxes.  This would seem to be a strong argument for putting money in a separate trust for the spouse and kids, and dying broke, but debtless, should you not wish to inconvenience anyone.

Sadly, death is relatively unpredictable and while you may have been a scrupulously responsible user of credit in life, unexpected lack of corporeality, or frankly, a functioning nervous system makes it hard for you to personally settle up once you’ve expired.  It’s surprising nobody in the financial mega-corporations that own everything has considered the business opportunities that present themselves among the undead set, or as Journalist Milton Mayer observed, “The art of dying graciously is nowhere advertised, in spite of the fact that its market potential is great”.  Maybe we should put together a business plan.  While I’m relatively light on the business acumen, I know it behooves the intrepid entrepreneur to do a little market research on whether the average undead debtor has any interest in paying their bills, discovering an object 19th Century case in the instance of one Ms. Webb, a phantom of Darby, Northampton.  It’s totally going in the PowerPoint presentation.

Ms. Webb, a native of the little 700 person village of Darby, lived in a modest house some five miles from the market town of Daventry, England.  Ms. Webb was reputedly a remarkably tall and comely woman, marrying a man of respectable means who predeceased her and bequeathed all his property to her.  Her life continued in an orderly and reasonable fashion, with the worst criticism levelled against her by gossipy neighbors amounting to her exhibiting a certain penuriousness, but it would ultimately emerge that following Aesop, Ms. Webb prudently regarded that it “is thrifty today to prepare for the wants of tomorrow”.  Sadly, on March 3, 1851, at the age of sixty-seven, and following an extended illness where she was bedridden and cared for by two neighbor women named Griffin and Holding, as well as her nephew Mr. Hart (to whom she willed all her possessions), Ms. Webb died.  Indications that Ms. Webb had shuffled off this mortal coil with unfinished business quickly became apparent, as “About a month after the funeral, Mrs. Holding, who with her uncle lived next door to the house of the deceased (which had been entirely shut up since the funeral), was alarmed and astonished at hearing loud and heavy thumps against the partition wall, and especially against the door of a cupboard in the room wall, while other strange noises, like the dragging of furniture about the rooms, though all the furniture had been removed, and the house was empty. These were chiefly heard about two o’clock in the morning” (Ingram, 1886, p6).

Obviously, the spectral Ms. Webb wanted to get someone’s attention, but the dead are notably poor communicators, and are equally bereft of decent legal representation in most cases.  By April,  a local family by the name of Accleton had moved into the former residence of Ms. Webb, decent, vacant housing being rather spare in Darby.  Mr. Accleton was frequently away on business, but Mrs. Accleton and her daughters  immediately began noting the same mysterious thumps and crashed recurring routinely at two in the morning, just as reported by neighbor Ms. Holding.  None of these spectral shenanigans thus far seemed to encourage any action, thus the ghostly Ms. Webb opted to up the ante.  The case was investigated by noted horticulturalist Sir Charles Edmund Isham, 10th Baronet of Northampton (oddly, credited with the introduction of garden gnomes), and his interviews with the witnesses detailed subsequent events.

At length, one night (or morning, for it was about two), the elder Accletons were awakened by loud shrieks from the child :—“Mother! Mother! There’s a woman standing by my bed and shaking her head at me!”  The parents could see nothing, but, the child persisting, Accleton got up and approached the bed, saying, “Nonsense, nonsense, girl; it‘s only your mother’s cap and gown that I hung on your bed.” (This, Mrs. Accleton explained to me, was not the case, being only said to pacify the child). The girl, however, insisted that she had seen a woman standing close beside her, and shaking her head at her. She had on a white cap and a mottled gown, and was very tall. The deceased, Mrs. Webb, was five feet eleven inches in height. All then remained quiet until four o’clock, when the child, who had been lying with her face to the wall, shrieked out a second time in an agony of terror, “Mother! Mother! Here’s that woman come again!” Nor could the poor little creature be tranquilized, until the parents placed her in their own bed, after which no further alarm occurred. The child declared that the woman had awakened her, on this second occasion, by turning the corner of the sheet over her face; or (as the mother told me) by “waving something lightly over her.”  The apparition appeared, on subsequent nights, to the little girl—in all, seven times; but though her terror seems to have decreased, after the first alarm, the mother assured me that she had been seriously injured by the nervous shock, both in her mental and bodily health; still, by “the blessing of God, and with youth on her side,” she would now get over it. She is a pretty, blue-eyed, intelligent child, with a frank, infantine manner, the reverse of cunning. I questioned her as to the appearance and manner of the supposed spectre. She said it came, with a sort of low laughing, or singing voice—(perhaps as though striving to speak)— was surrounded by a “brown light,”—stood erect, sometimes with hands apparently folded, and gazed at her in a bold, firm manner. Hitherto, though many had heard the noises, none but the child had seen the apparition, and some degree of incredulity existed among the neighbours as to the truth of her statement (Tracts, 1870, p46-48).

Clearly, Ms. Webb had something to say, which is no doubt deeply frustrating when one is dead and voiceless.  Ms. Accleton was evidently an eminently rational woman, and had the makings of a nascent paranormal investigator, determining that it might be worth everybody’s time to figure out what the ghost was trying to communicate.

The subject was, of course, discussed; and Mrs. Accleton suggested that its appearance might not impossibly be connected with the existence of money hoarded up in the roof, an idea which may have arisen from the miserly habits of the dead woman. This hint having been given to and taken by her nephew, Mr. Hart, the farmer, he proceeded to the house, and with Mrs. Accleton’s personal help made a search. The loft above was totally dark, but by the aid of a candle there was discovered, firstly, a bundle of writings, old deeds, as they turned out to be, and afterwards a large bag of gold and bank-notes, out of which the nephew took a handful of sovereigns, and exhibited them to Mrs. Accleton. But the knockings, moanings, strange noises, and other disturbances did not cease upon this discovery (Lee, 1875, p111-112).

It is evident that Ms. Webb did not merely intend for her living relatives to secure her hidden wealth for their own purposes, rather recognized that her death had resulted in a number of bills going unpaid, about which nobody was aware.  She returned from the grave with the intention of balancing the books, as she was finally able to rest in peace when her nephew Mr. Hart, “having found that certain debts were owed by her, carefully and scrupulously paid them” (Bloxam, 1889, p148).  Evidently, a Webb always pays her debts.

The lengths to which the eternally responsible Ms. Webb was willing to go to in order to make sure she duly paid the money she owed suggest there is a segment of the spectral population that fully intends to honor its debts, regardless of the pesky inconvenience of death.  An absence of psychic mediums with training in estate law certainly complicates matters.  The financial wizards of our economy have no problem betting our lives and livelihoods on phantasmagoric speculations, so why not capitalize on the truly dead?  I’ll let you know how the pitch meeting goes.

Bloxam, Matthew Holbeche, 1805-1888. Rugby: the School And the Neighbourhood. London: Whittaker & co.; [etc., etc.], 1889.
Ingram, John Henry, 1842-1916. The Haunted Homes And Family Traditions of Great Britain. 3d ed. London: W.H. Allen & Co., 1886.
Lee, Frederick George, 1832-1902. Glimpses of the Supernatural: Being Facts, Record And Traditions Relating to Dreams, Omens, Miraculous Occurrences, Apparitions, Wraiths, Warnings, Second-sight, Witchcraft, Necromancy, Etc. London: H.S. King and co., 1875.
Tracts.  “The Darbry Apparition”. (Chiefly Rare & Curious Reprints) Relating to Northamptonshire. [1st ser.]. Northampton [Eng.]: Taylor, 1870.