The foreword in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter Margareta Magnusson says it all.
“The only thing we know for sure is that we will die one day. Let me help you make your loved ones’ memories of you nice – instead of awful.”
I heard about this book on NPR then was surprised to see my mother had a copy on her nightstand. Anything to do with paring down and decluttering gets my attention so I consumed the whole book in one sitting.
Death cleaning or Dostadnig in Swedish is assessing your possessions and downsizing before you die so you’re not leaving your decades of accumulated material to your children and grandchildren to deal with. It can be difficult to accept, but every last one of us alive today is going to die at some point. What do you want to happen to your things?
My sisters and I have taken on the project of dostadnig’ing my parents’ house which holds not only their things from 56 years of marriage but all of the five kids’ childhood clothes, toys, school papers and art plus my grandfather’s 80+ years of stuff too! It is an overwhelming project to say the least. A project my parents’ should’ve been doing at a leisurely pace the last twenty years. They have a three car garage, two gigantic attics and a basement chock full of stuff. This stuff is burying them and it has gotten out of control.
Death cleaning is not sad. It’s a liberating process that can be started at any age. I certainly have. I live in a tiny home with some storage under the house in a makeshift basement and a small storage shed in the yard. I know every single thing we own. I’ve already done all of this work from the KonMari method down to sentimental items so the main things we store are art supplies and canvases as well as seasonal decorations and gear. For now I’ve kept my wedding dress, a box of journals, three photo albums and one more small box of letters, little knick knacks and clothes that have sentimental value to me. When I’m older in my 70’s and 80’s I will reduce this further.
Similar to the KonMari method, Magnusson recommends starting with clothes because they are a relatively easy category to move through quickly. If you begin with old love letters or scrap books days will go by and you’ll be on the same box! Better to start with a category you can quickly decide what stays and what goes. If you are death cleaning for someone who has already passed away give all of their clothes away unless there is a particular item you plan to wear or display.
When you have more days behind you then ahead downsizing will make your remaining days easier and more pleasant. A well organized, sparser home is easier to clean. If everything has a place you’re less likely to misplace your keys, glasses, etc. When your home is tidy and orderly you can get down to more important things like enjoying your life! This book is Tarrylife 101! Pare down to the important things in your home so you can actually enjoy your home and your life.
Helping my parents do their death cleaning has been the challenge of my life. Both of my parents place so much sentimental value on inanimate objects. Like if they let my grandfather’s old papers go, they’re throwing him away. But he’s already gone. Cluttering your home with relics won’t bring the person back. Cherish the memories you have but living with their clutter doesn’t make sense to me. We must move on. They both can’t seem to let go of these objects from their parents, their youth, our childhoods. But why? Why do we save so much? The senior prom is over. I don’t need to save the dress. I have a picture! This is why I will probably let my wedding dress go eventually.
I’ve written before about papers and how brutal I am with discarding them. I found dozens of boxes in the attic containing ALL of my school work from 1st grade on – all the senseless worksheets and homework assignments and quizzes times five children. My two kids will have a slim notebook with examples of their work K-5 all in one book so they can peruse one day. Every day after school I look through Shepard’s backpack. He comes home with 5-10 papers a day almost all of which will go into the bin after we look at it together.
It’s best to do your own death cleaning long before you die so it’s an enjoyable pursuit and you are in charge. You make the decisions of who gets what. Maybe your granddaughter is setting up her first apartment and you’d like to give her a special lamp or cast iron pot. Or a neighbor love books. You can slowly give away your treasured things to people who will really enjoy them. How great.
My own grandmother, who died in 1990, did her own death cleaning. It seemed a natural progression. She downsized, dispersing her best furniture amongst her four children and lived with us – all of her possessions in one bedroom. When she traveled on an airplane she brought only her purse as a carry on containing her “pocketbook” and a paperback to read on the flight. It’s amazing that her daughter could be so different. I’m more like Mammy – not overly sentimental about things. Travel light!
You can spend a few days or weeks going down memory lane with old letters and photographs. I did this when I was KonMari’d my house and got to the sentimental section. I took my time and went through all my old letters and photos. I relived a lot of forgotten times then let most of them go. I fit my whole life’s photographs in three albums. If you don’t remember who’s in the photo or who wrote the letter, let the shredder have it!
This book is a must read for everyone. You don’t have to be close to death to get it. In fact, the younger you are, the better so you don’t accumulate too many things to begin with. None of are are immortal!