Guillard V. (2017), Understanding the process of the disposition of a loved one’s possessions using a theoretical framework of grief

Consumption Markets & Culture, 20 (5), 477-496.


This paper aims to understand how people manage the mass of objects accumulated by a deceased relative. We argue that the practices in respect of the deceased’s possessions depend on the evolution of the relationship of the bereaved to the deceased. To understand this relationship, we draw on the concept of grief. Sixteen interviews with bereaved individuals show that management of the deceased’s accumulated belongings follows a process punctuated by four periods depending on the relationship between the bereaved and the deceased: numbness (confronting the absence of the deceased and paralysis with regard to his objects); yearning (looking for the lost person through his possessions by trying to maintain a link to them); personal disorganization (experiencing negative emotions towards the deceased, which may lead the bereaved to transgress personal values and throw things out); and finally reorganization/reconstruction (making the deceased “live” by forging another relationship to his possessions and revisiting the meaning of the consumption of products). These results allow us to enrich the understanding of the process of dispossession of non-transmitted items. They also show that clearing the house of a deceased relative leads the bereaved to consume less and/or in a different way (collaborative consumption).

Key words: disposition behavior, object relationships, death, grief, consumption


Death is a topic that has been extensively addressed in sociology and anthropology (Gorer 1965; Louis-Vincent 1975; Lofland 1985; Déchaux 2001; Clavandier 2009). Marketing researchers are increasingly focusing on death (Dobscha 2016) variously by examining the treatment of death in advertising (Henley and Donovan 1999); the encounter between funeral services companies and the bereaved (O’Donohoe and Turley 2005); death and disposal (Gabel, Mansfield and Westbrook 1996; Canning and Szmigin 2010) and consumption behavior following the death of a relative (Gentry et al. 1995b; Bonsu and Belk 2003). The death of a loved one is followed by a period of grief for the family. During this time of high vulnerability (Gentry et al. 1995a), individuals may often have to manage the goods and possessions of the deceased (Bradford 2009; Lovatt 2015). The aim of this paper is to understand how the emotional response to death, namely grief, may explain people’s practices regarding the deceased’s possessions.

Grief is a painful personal emotional state caused by the loss of a “love object”, in the form of a person or pet, but also an idea, a job, a material object one is strongly attached to, organization, and so forth. Bereavement refers to the period following the loss and the state which people are then in. Various theoretical approaches provide an understanding of this emotional experience related to loss (Plaud and Urien 2016): the psychoanalytic model of “grief work” (Freud 1917), cognitive theories of adaptation to stressful bereavement (Billings and Moos 1981), attachment theory (Bowlby 1960), and different models explaining the stages of grief (Kubler-Ross 1969; Worden 1982; Walsh and McGoldrick 1991; Régnier 1991; Rando 1993; Hétu 1994; Monbourquette 1994).

These latter models explain that grief has both a psychological and social dimension: psychological, since when someone is attached to the deceased, he/she enters a period of loss and feelings of sadness often accompanied by depression (Freud 1917; Kübler-Ross 1969; Bennett, Gibbons and Mackenzie-Smith 2010). Grief is also a social concept: individual feelings and the bereaved’s mental state affect his capacity to maintain or enter into a relationship with an object (material or a person, Gentry et al. 1995b).

The marketing literature on grief has shown its influence on the purchase of products/services following the death of a celebrity (Radford and Bloch 2012) or related to the funeral of a loved one (Bonsu and Belk 2003), as well as its disruptive impact on family decision-making (Gentry et al. 1995a, 1995b). In the period of private and personal grief, people have to take a number of decisions as to what they are going to do with the deceased’s possessions. The management of possessions of a family member and/or elderly relative has been studied though i) the objects passed on by the elderly (Wallendorf and Arnould 1988; Price, Arnould and Curasi 2000; Marcoux 2001; Curasi, Price and Arnould 2004); ii) consumer practices regarding the management of the mass of objects accumulated by a person who, for health reasons, must move to a smaller home or to a nursing home (Ekerdt, Luborsky and Lysack 2012; Marcoux 2001); iii) consumer practices with regard to the possessions of a deceased person (Kates 2001; Lovatt 2015).

While research has reported on the variety of individual practices for managing the objects of a usually still living relative (keeping, selling, donating, discarding), the psychological and social mechanisms that lead the bereaved to choose one option rather than another are not clearly understood. The reason is that these practices have been studied statically (Marcoux 2001; Eckerdt and Sergeant 2006; Ekerdt, Luborsky and Lysack 2012), whereas separation from something is in fact processual (Roster 2001, 2014). Thus, we argue that decisions with regard to the deceased’s mass of objects evolve in accordance with the development of the bereaved’s “different” relationship to the deceased.

This paper reports findings from a qualitative study conducted in France. Mourning varies significantly across cultures: death has a different meaning from one society to another (Dobscha 2016). In traditional societies (unlike Western societies), death is seen as a process in which the deceased passes from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. This process is characterized by the practice of three types of rituals: rituals marking biological death, mourning rituals, and rituals marking the social death of the deceased (Bonsu and Belk 2003). Beliefs about and perceptions of the process of death, grief and rituals are strongly determined by the ethnicity of the individual. Race, religion, place of birth, language, socio-economic background and the nature of the family unit act as a filter on the perception of life and death (Yick and Gupta 2002; Rubin and Yasien-Esmael 2004).