After a Loss, Prayers, Cards and . . . Junk Mail?

By John Kelly
Friday, March 17, 2006

Printed on the outside of the envelope were these instructions:

"POSTMASTER: DELIVER TO ADDRESSEE ONLY ."

Oh, would that that were possible. You see, the addressee was my mother-in-law, and she's buried in a tiny churchyard in Canada. She passed away in October, but the letter -- a request for a donation from Mothers Against Drunk Driving -- came to our house just last month.

MADD isn't the only outfit that thinks my late mother-in-law lives with us. There's the Alzheimer's Association, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, AARP, the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- all of them (and many more) have changed their mailing lists, replacing my mother-in-law's Bethesda address with our Silver Spring one.

Forget rain, snow or dark of night -- death doesn't seem quite so permanent when you keep getting free address labels and Lillian Vernon catalogues six months after you died.

My wife is handling her mother's estate, so after Kathy died, Ruth went to the post office, presented a death certificate and filled out a form directing that Kathy's mail come to us. Soon we were receiving mail for Kathy that had those yellow forwarding stickers stuck on the outside. Most of these Ruth plastered with a brightly colored sticker of her own: "Deceased, Return to Sender, Remove From Mailing List."

But invariably the next missive we received would have Kathy's name and our address.

It looked to us that rather than delete Kathy, these charities were hoping we might share her charitable impulses. Instead, it just made us angry. We're the ones who should be having trouble dealing with Kathy's absence, not someone at the American Kidney Fund.

What I discovered was this: Even before we'd had a chance to notify these junk-mailers about Kathy's change in status, the U.S. Postal Service had beaten us to the punch. Change of address information is entered into something called the National Change of Address database, or NCOA. Marketers can access the list.

"We do, for a fee, provide the forwarding address to the mailer," said Postal Service spokeswoman Deborah Yackley . "They're paying us to find out where the person is mailing to."

The information isn't cheap -- it's 75 cents per address, 21 cents if the info is provided electronically -- but mailers and marketers obviously think it's worth it.

What I find ironic is that it seems to take forever to get magazines to follow you to your new home. Yet charities have no trouble updating their records.


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