A bright spot in dark sea of defaults, according to last week’s New York Times, is that collection agencies specializing in the debts of the dead are being surprisingly successful. (To read the report, click here) Death does not erase indebtedness, of course, as the estates of the deceased continue to be burdened with the obligation to make good on what is owed. But it appears that there is a exceptional willingness of family members and other inheritors to settle before it reaches that point — even when they have no legal obligation to do so. Why should that be?

Very likely most people do not grasp the legalities of the situation, and part of their willingness to pay up comes from a false belief that they must. That may also be reinforced by a general sense that the possessions of the dead need to be disposed of more or less promptly — and debt is clearly a possession of sorts, even if a negative one. Moreover, the agencies that specialize in this business train their agents to be sympathetic and “appropriate.” In this case, of course, that means refraining from telling the surviving family members that they actually have no legal obligation to pay.

Still, I suspect, there has to be more of a reason.

It must be fear, a portion of the fear of the worsening future that now drives us all to stem our losses, to watch out for hidden risks, to stay out of debt. Death adds a superstitious element, of course. I do not believe the dead really care about their debts, if they think about them at all. But we are still identified with those who have recently died, attached to memories of them, and we continue to be guilty about what we did and did not do for them while they were alive.

It puts our souls at rest to believe that theirs are at rest as well. Those who pay the debts of the dead might be able to believe they have a bit more control over themselves, over death, and maybe even over the economy as well. But I also suspect that this phenomena suggests how much guilt surrounds the dire economic situation we find ourselves in. We spent too much, borrowed too much, and we went too steeply into debt — and we know that is true without fully knowing it.

The debts of the dead focus our attention on that guilt and give us fledging opportunities to atone.