I came across a book on the “leave one, take one” shelf at a neighborhood cafe titled The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. I started reading it and while I sipped my chai latte, I wrote a little ronka poem on the subject.
It’s not dusting, vacuuming, or straightening up.
It’s permanent organization for your everyday life.
It’s the cleaning your family would do
after your death, being done by you.
Clear conscience and shelves in the afterlife.
It sounds at first like a pretty depressing topic. The book’s subtitle gives you a bit more about it: “How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.” It is not cleaning out your stuff because you are going to die – though you are going to die – but rather doing the sorting and sifting of a lifetime of stuff so that your family or someone doesn’t have to do it when you do die.
I’m a bit of a collector (some might say a pack rat). I have comics from childhood, shelves, and shelves of books, file cabinets of paper I saved from my teaching days, boxes of old magazines, a wall of vinyl record albums, tools and screws, nuts, bolts, and nails (some of which were my father’s 50 years ago. These things have some value beyond sentimental. My wife has warned me that if they are still around when I’m not around, my sons will probably throw most of it in a dumpster.
I am quite willing to sell all the albums and comics and things of value. The problem is finding someone who wants to buy them. I tried the eBay route about ten years ago. It’s a lot of time/work and rather frustrating. You have to list, package, ship, and then deal with people who think your 40-year-old “mint” condition comic stored in plastic is only “very good” because the paper has yellowed.
But there is more to death cleaning than cleaning. It is a time to consider your mortality and maybe do a life review. Every year, I remind myself and my wife that we need to update our will. We made it when our two sons were toddlers. They are now married and with their own families. Why haven’t we done it? Laziness is one of the reasons, but more so is probably not wanting to confront death.
The last time I went to the hospital for a small surgery, I had to update my living will. To me, that was like going to a funeral. Death staring you in the face.
I recently went through two big boxes of papers that we had saved for our sons containing schoolwork, drawings, awards greeting cards and other things from their twenty years at home. They had each looked through their box before and pulled out a few items but said I should go through and see if there was anything I wanted to save. They were not concerned with the process.
I wanted to save a lot of it, but my wife said all of the saved stuff needed to fit in one plastic tub that fits perfectly on a closet shelf. It took me days to go through their two boxes. I knew I’d save anything creative – poems, stories, some drawings, journals started and abandoned, and a few award certificates. I tried to save something from each of their school years. I still imagine that someday they will want to look at it, but I may be wrong. Maybe the next time they take possession of their box, they will dump it into the recycle bin.
I actually enjoy cleaning in almost all its forms and I found sifting through my son’s boxes an enjoyable nostalgia trip. I’m good at cleaning and organizing. I’m not good at letting things go. When I clean my home office, I often just move piles of things into drawers and files and neater piles.
Am I just a sentimental, nostalgic old man? Are they just a new generation that puts less value in “things?” They don’t own albums, CDs, DVDs or many books. They stream things and use screens to read. A tablet can hold a library and take up less space than a hardcover copy of Moby-Dick.
This Swedish idea of döstädning, (dö=death and städning= cleaning) is not exclusive to that country. It is done all over the world in some form. Doing this decluttering, sorting, and getting rid of things (selling them, giving them away, donating, or just trashing) now rather than at the end or having your survivors have to do it is a good idea.
The book I picked up has a companion volume in The Swedish Art of Living & Dying Series. The other book is
The Swedish Art of Aging Well with a subtitle of “Life Advice from Someone Who Will (Probably) Die Before You by the same author, Margareta Magnusson. She wrote the second book after she had unburdened herself from the emotional and actual baggage, she could focus on what makes each day worth living, and her discoveries about growing older.
I’m pretty good already at my own discoveries about aging and appreciating each day. But Magnusson really is saying that we should all be less afraid of the idea of death.