Meet the Fellows: 2020 Newcombe Fellow Sofia Pinedo-Padoch
Sofia Pinedo-Padoch • Princeton University, anthropology
Life After Death in New York City: An Ethnography of Public Administration
Each year, Citizens & Scholars invites new Fellows to submit a brief story introducing themselves and/or their work. Here, 2020 Newcombe Fellow Sofia Pinedo-Padoch—a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Princeton University—describes her dissertation on how the state cares for individuals in New York City who die without a will and without apparent family.
When someone dies without a will and with no one qualified to administer their estate in New York City, the Public Administrator, a small state agency, steps in to take care of the body and the decedent’s assets. It is the Public Administrator’s responsibility to lay the decedent’s body to rest, to look for family, to take their place in pending legal matters, and to collect, liquidate, and distribute their assets.
The PA’s office sits in the basement of a drab court building in New York City. It is open to the public via a long plexiglass window in the front. Confused people sometimes walk in asking to file for divorce.
Over my time as the Public Administrator’s “anthropologist/intern,” I worked many different jobs. I sorted through and organized the contents of the vault—decedents’ jewelry, art, and tchotchkes waiting to be appraised and auctioned off. I spent many frustrating hours on the phone trying to close the million-dollar investment accounts of wealthy decedents. I filed case folders that contained intimate things like high school diplomas, wedding photos, and Christmas cards. Finally, I frequently accompanied investigators to decedents’ homes.
These excursions could be exciting, dull, nauseating, puzzling, fun, and exhausting. They took me and my colleagues to sparsely decorated apartments, Single Resident Occupancy buildings, spectacular Victorian-style mansions, and homes so overloaded with stuff you could not even walk inside.
Throughout all these excursions and the office work, I saw my colleagues, representatives of the State, handle the most intimate details of deceased New Yorkers’ lives with care. It this striking combination of the bureaucratic and the intimate that I choose to explore in my dissertation.