IT IS THE ULTIMATE silence. The dead surround us, outnumber us, but remain unreachable. They've passed beyond this veil of tears; we who still wander through the heart of it have lost any hope of speaking with them. Contact with the dead remains a primal concern for many, from the touching and tender offerings of perishable things--flowers, food, handwritten letters--left daily at memorial altars, to the desperate embrace of "communicators" like James Van Praagh and Washington's own J. Z. "Ramtha" Knight. But whatever temporary comfort the bereaved take from such diviners, the dead remain as mute as stones.

For the most part, Seattleites don't mind this. We are too young and prideful of our current worldly successes, all our splendid new buildings and beginnings, to think much about endings. We prefer that the dead stay quiet, rather than speaking up and unpleasantly reminding us of the way of all things. Except, that is, when they owe us money. The prophet Muhammad put the issue most pungently: Reputable Hadith (the legends that have arisen around the Prophet) report that he would respond to the news of a death by first asking, "Does he owe anything to anyone?"

After all, past obligations should still hold even if present circumstances have removed the debtor from the pages of the living. But what rituals are required, what tortured labyrinths of legal and moral arcana must be maneuvered, if a creditor hopes to make a claim against one who has fled this mortal coil? What manner of language can speak to the dead?

According to the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 11.42.051), after the executor of the decedent's estate has made an acceptable "Notice to Creditors" (by publishing the information in any newspaper incorporated by the state of Washington), the creditor has four months to submit a claim for restitution. If it turns out that the executor did not make a sufficient effort to locate creditors, the period for filing extends to two years. Pursuant to the National Bankruptcy Act of 1898 (rev. 1903), the debt will be paid after taxes, filing and administration fees, and wages owed by the decedent are paid; dwellings that have been willed to a survivor may not have liens placed against them, though of course, any outstanding mortgages remain attachable.

Muhammad again: "A believer's soul remains in suspense until all his debts are paid off."