The Post Office used to have something called the “Dead Letter Office,” where mail for people who could not be located was put. It’s now euphemistically called the “mail recovery center,” as if the dead are not to be spoken of.
My mother died unexpectedly in May 2009. While visiting my wife and me in Westchester, she fell ill and was hospitalized near us. I had her home phone and mail forwarded to me, believing that she would return to her co-op on Long Island and resume her active life. She never did.
When I turned off her home phone, Verizon put a message on it for several months, saying the number had been discontinued and advising that “calls were being taken” by my home number. But the Postal Service said all I could do was update the original forwarding order to a “change of address,” as if my mother had simply moved, not died. There was no provision for declaring the former addressee deceased.
Buried on the U.S.P.S. Web site is the advice to contact the Direct Marketing Association, which has a Web page with instructions for adding names to their “Deceased Do Not Contact” list. An updated file is distributed to members at least once every three months, the D.M.A site says, and they are required to honor the list, which is also made available to other companies and nonprofits.
I called or wrote to organizations my mom belonged to and their mailings ended quickly, but for several months my wife and I endured almost daily reminders of my mother’s death: advertising letters welcoming her to her “new home,” solicitations for charities, and readdressed mail order catalogs.
It slowed, but never stopped. In fact, we’ve received catalogs and solicitations as recently as this past month, more than two and a half years after her death. (And we sometimes even get mail addressed to the late husband of the widow we bought our house from, in 1995.)
I took to tossing the catalogs and sending back solicitations, first with a polite note in the return envelope, then, when they continued from the same organizations, with the word DECEASED written in heavy marker on their forms, and eventually: SHE’S DEAD! STOP MAILING!
The absolute worst was from a women’s clothing store where my mother shopped frequently. Printed in large letters on the envelope was “WE’VE MISSED YOU,” and “…we haven’t heard from you in a while.” There was even a form letter from the company president asking my dead mother to “revisit” and “enjoy!” I wrote a letter to their president, explaining how insensitive and hurtful the mailing was, which came 16 months after my mother’s death, especially since we buried her in an ensemble she had just bought from that store, but never wore in life.
There was no apology, but they never mailed her anything again.
In this era of instant information, why is it that there’s no way to quickly stop these mailings, which I am sure plague many thousands of families every day? Why doesn’t the Postal Service have a way for families to inform mass mailers that people have died, not just “moved.”
According to U.S.P.S. regulations, these mailers are required to have up-to-date address information to qualify for discounted rates. If the Postal Service needs proof of death, they can do what financial institutions and other government agencies do: ask for a certified copy of the death certificate.
My mother rests in peace. Is it too much to ask that her family have some too?
Bill Stoller is a former ABC Radio news correspondent living in Pleasantville, N.Y.
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