Every company that sends out bills and is serious about collecting payments due, ought to have at least one staff member who knows what to do in case of the death of a regularly paying customer and can clearly and courteously explain the procedures on the phone. And every other staff member should know who that person is and have their extension readily available. Sadly, frustratingly, in my experience over the past three months, this is almost never the case. Especially with phone companies.
Apparently, the proper procedure with phone companies is supposed to be that one presents a copy of the death certificate to cancel all existing contracts and make a new contract, if the services are still needed by someone else (e.g. our sons). Obtaining this information has involved endless Kafkaesque encounters with an endless number of phone company employees both on the phone and in their gaudy shops in town – because phone companies obviously don’t provide services, they sell products. One company still continued to send stern reprimands to Peter threatening to cut off his phone connection, if he did not immediately pay the last bill along with all the mounting and exorbitant late fees, even after Seth brought them a copy of Peter’s death certificate and wisely insisted on being given confirmation that it had been faxed to the appropriate office. When yet another angry reminder arrived, this time addressed to “Hütmannsberger family”, threatening to turn the matter over to a collection agency, I snapped. When the woman who answered the service desk number told me that I needed to send them a copy of Peter’s death certificate, I started yelling at her, venting all my anger and frustration and threatening on my part to turn the matter over to my lawyer, if this company didn’t stop sending collection letters to the “Hütmannsberger family”, which does not even exist at this address. Seth took the death certificate in again and insisted again on receiving confirmation of receipt. Finally, a letter arrived from this company a few days ago, which started: “Dear Mr. Hütmannsberger, we received your message and offer our sincere condolences for your loss…” Of course, the letter went on from there to list various possibilities for Mr. Hütmannsberger to still use the company’s services (and hence pay them yet more money), even though the contract was canceled due to his death. Despite his lifelong love of telephones, I seriously doubt that Mr. Hütmannsberger will be taking advantage of any of these offers. And I seriously hope that someone somewhere is feeling extremely foolish now, realizing that in all these exchanges, no one ever even bothered to ask my name. I tend to doubt that, however.
Then there was the credit card company that sent a bill for the yearly card fee, even though I had been convinced that they had received notice of Peter’s death from the bank. Apparently not. And although I am aware of the cliche of irate wives accidentally discovering dodgy charges on their husbands’ credit card bills, I don’t think credit card company employees should immediately presume that to be the case. When the first person I got on the phone coldly and brusquely asked, “And who are you?”, I responded with what I hoped was the same callousness, “I’m his widow”. There was a brief moment of silence, then he decided to put me through to someone else. Who listened to the reason for my inquiry and decided to put me through to someone else. Who listened to the reason for my inquiry and decided to put me through to someone else. Who listened to the reason for my inquiry and decided to put me through to someone else … Does anyone actually believe it is easy to have to explain over and over and over: “I’m calling about the bill you sent to my husband. The reason he hasn’t paid it is that he is dead …”?
Sometimes the people I get on the phone (once I get past the machine-voice instructions and push the right combination of buttons to get through to an actual human being) are courteous, and a few are even capable of speaking in coherent, grammatically correct full sentences. The outcome of all these phone calls is almost invariably the same, however: “Send us an email with the information x, y, z and the documents a, b, c.” Sometimes I can do that, but very often I can’t. Sometimes the reason I can’t is that the requisite information at home when I’m in the office or vice versa. Sometimes it’s because I now have a frustratingly limited, temporary Internet connection in my office, which only works on my laptop, because another telephone company erroneously assured me that I had an Internet connection with my telephone, before I had Peter’s office phone turned off – and my Internet connection with it.
Sometimes the problem is simply that I still haven’t got one of the most frequently requested documents: official legal confirmation that I am authorized to take care of Peter’s business and access his assets as his widow. The reason for this is that now, over three months later, negotiations are still continuing about how much money is owed to the tax office for Peter’s income last year. Are living, thinking, actual human beings to be found in the tax office? In light of the frequent news items about the former Austrian Minister of Finance who “forgot” to pay taxes on part of his income, I’m sure it must be very confusing to work in a tax office, but how hard can it really be? Peter ceased to generate any income at all on 13 November last year, and his “assets” include down-payments for instruments that Peter will no longer be making, which now have to be returned to the people who paid a down-payment for instruments they will not be getting. Having to ask all these lovely people again to be patient sometimes feels harder than having to argue with all the ludicrous phone companies, and it seems so terribly unfair.
As these negotiations drag on and on, too many loose ends are left over, too many things left open. For one thing, we need to re-register the car in Paddy’s name, so that the city administration of Vienna stops sending parking tickets to Peter. For some reason, one was sent last week as a registered letter, which the woman at the post office told me had to be signed for in person. When I explained that that would not be possible, she said she would have to send it back with a note to that effect. Unless there is a Tom Waits fan hiding in the traffic violations department of the city of Vienna, I’m concerned that someone there may take the advice to “never drive a car when you’re dead” more seriously, so I asked Paddy to find the number and call them to see what the problem is. He will probably have to go there to show them the legal document stating that he and Christopher are allowed to drive the car, but at least he has that document.
Next week, however, I’m going to take a break from explaining to strangers on the phone and random office workers that Peter is dead. I’ve been invited to go to the Eclectic Tech Carnival being held in conjunction with the Red Dawns Festival, so I’m going to take a short holiday from being Peter’s widow and go to Ljubljana to just be me for a week. Maybe the tax office and the phone companies and all the other offices will be able to sort themselves out in the meantime. That would be helpful, because I need to be able to stop repeating over and over that my husband is dead, so that I have a chance to come to terms with what that actually means.