If there’s any reason to look forward to death, it could be the fact that we no longer have to clean—the endless cycle of dirty dishes and laundry will finally cease once we’re deceased. In Swedish, “dostädning” literally translates to “death cleaning”. “But, I don’t have to vacuum once I’m six feet under!” you protest. Don’t worry, death cleaning does not involve a Dirt Devil.
Death cleaning is the Swedish concept of decluttering before you die. Margareta Magnusson brought this notion across the pond when the Swedish author penned her 2018 New York Times Bestseller, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant.
Even if you don’t plan on knocking on death’s door anytime in the near future, it can’t hurt to clear some clutter. What better time to get organized than when we’re all bound to our houses? Learn more about this technique, why you should consider it, and how to apply it to your own home below.
Reality of Mortality
Unfortunately, our innate fear of death does not make us immortal. Since we never know when our time’s up on this planet, there’s no time the present. (I don’t want to get all existential on you, but this applies to everything, not just organizing your shit.) Magnusson’s book suggests starting when you’re 65 or older, but since you could get hit by a bus tomorrow, you might as well start purging your posessions right away.
Do it for the Kids
Mustering the motivation to clear out your crap can be harder than summoning a spirit from Hades. This approach to organization tricks your mind into thinking you’re doing it for others, which is a helpful motive for many women, as it is for Swedes. “Part of Swedish culture is living independently and never being a burden to anyone” according to Karin Olofsdotter, the Swedish ambassador to the US.
A direct relationship exists between time and the size of your collection. If you simply consume stuff with no regard for discarding, your possessions keep mounting. Taking the opportunity to get rid of the things you no longer want or need on a regular basis ensures that your family won’t be pissed at you posthumously for leaving behind years and years of paraphernalia. As Magnusson quips, “A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.”
It’s Not Minimalism
Although we could all probably learn to live with less, Swedish death cleaning is not anti-materialist or even part of the minimalist movement that was most recently popularized by Mari Kondo. It’s a thoughtful process that is meant as a way to celebrate and reflect on your life. Being unhindered by things you no longer need is just a blissful byproduct. “One’s own pleasure, and the chance to find meaning and memory, is the most important thing,” writes Magnusson.
Not unlike Mari Kondo’s method of holding an item to feel whether it “sparks joy” and thank it for it’s “service,” Swedish death cleaning invites your thoughts to dwell on each belonging. Take a moment to reflect on the memories associated with each object. What it means to you/your life, where and when you got it, or how you came to own it.
Death Cleaning Doesn’t Have to Be Done All At Once
Wouldn’t it be nice if you only had to clean the toilet once and it would stay that way forever? In the same vein, sorting through your things is not a one and done prospect. Instead, Swedish death cleaning is meant to be a “permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly” Magnusson explains. It’s about being mindful of one’s hoarding tendencies. In an effort to be responsible, relieve your loved ones from having to decide what to do with everything left in your wake after your wake.
Give It Away, Give It Away, Give It Away Now
Going through your things while you’re still kicking gives you the chance to ask who wants what and maybe even go ahead and donate it to them. It also keeps you from hanging on to stuff that you’re convinced “someone will want someday”. Magnusson recommends letting your loved ones know what you’re up to so they can come to claim what would otherwise be donated. As the author so keenly observes, “If your family doesn’t want your stuff when you’re alive, they sure won’t want it when you’re dead.”
China, table linens, or books can be given away as a meaningful gift. Not only does this make you feel better about something going to “a good home” but it also saves you time and money shopping for a present! It sounds cheap, but I always shop my house first. Don’t tell my sister-in-law, but the notebook and pen she and my niece just gave me are going to be recycled as a bday present for my friend’s daughter later this month! I’m not callous, just conscientious 😉
Labeling Prevents Squabbling
Divvying up the deceased’s valuables is no easy task. One way to ensure that your loved ones don’t end up quarreling over your diamonds is by making your intentions clear by labeling or listing who gets what. This also helps clue them into what’s actually worth something as your friends and relatives probably aren’t employed as appraisers. I once asked my dad if I could take his Hermes ashtrays since he stopped smoking and he replied that they were worth $2,000 each!
My mother, like the author’s, took time to go through her family photos before she passed. She sorted them in bags labeled with the person’s name that they should be given to. Everyone enjoyed thumbing through old memories—it was as if she made a gift bag to give away at her funeral.
Another thing you can label is your box of “special stuff” (that’s what I call mine anyway). Magnusson says you can put a “throwaway” note on a box of mementos that are only important in your eyes. However, I would come up with another way to let your family know they can throw out the box as “throwaway” may get your goods tossed out prematurely.
How to Death Clean
“Just look around you. Several of your things have probably been there for so long that you do not even see or value them anymore.” Preach Margareta! Magnusson says a common mistake people make when beginning this cleanse is starting with pictures. That’s a walk down memory lane that can wait until you’ve taken care of some bigger space-suckers. She recommends starting with storage space such as attics and garages.
Ask yourself, “Will anyone be happier if I save this?”. Sort what you don’t want/need into three piles: trash, donate, or auction. Don’t forget to go through paperwork and shred anything that you wouldn’t want anyone to snoop through.
She also notes to keep your passwords handy for your heirs to ensure they can access important accounts, etc. Speaking of which, go ahead and set up a legacy contact to maintain your Facebook page after it’s memorialized.
BRB—off to death clean!