Death Cleaning

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash


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.

Death Cleaning
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, (=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.


The Christopher Marlowe Murder Mystery

Two things I learned about the playwright Christopher Marlowe in school that I remember was that he might have written some (or all?) of Shakespeare’s plays and that he was killed in a tavern brawl.
He died on May 30, 1593. There was a fight in a London tavern and Marlowe was stabbed in the eye after a dispute over the bill. That I will never forget. He was 29 years old. He is best known for the plays Hero and Leander, Tamburlaine the Great, Edward the Second and especially The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.
There are plenty of mysteries about authors of that time, especially Mr. Shakespeare. The records just don’t exist. tab, no less. I don’t think it is really a mystery about the authorship of Will’s plays, though much has been written and conjectured about their authorship. I am of the belief that he wrote them but that he may have collaborated with other writers on some, but his name on them guaranteed an audience. If Will was alive in this or the last century, I’m sure he would have gotten into writing for movies and TV and attached his name to projects or adaptations.
It turns out that there is some mystery about the circumstances of Marlowe’s death. One theory is that he was assassinated under orders from Queen Elizabeth I because he was a very public atheist. Marlowe was out on bail when he was killed and if he had gone through an inquisition there was a good chance he would have been executed. You may have learned that Shakespeare was careful about writing or saying if he was a Protestant or Catholic in order to not offend, to get his plays approved by the court, and to protect his life.  The Queen gave orders to silence Marlowe and “prosecute it to the full,” and she pardoned Marlowe’s murderer, Ingram Frizer, a month later.
Young, handsome Christopher “Kit” Marlowe had his enemies. Friend of Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, was supposedly worried about being implicated if there was an inquisition of Marlowe, so he would have liked to have him out of way before that time.
Marlowe’s former roommate was Thomas Kyd. Kyd was also a playwright, the author of The Spanish Tragedy, and an important name in Elizabethan drama. Like Marlowe, Kyd’s plays were overshadowed by Shakespeare’s works. Kyd is sometimes credited with a play titled Hamlet that was written and performed before Shakespeare’s version. About a month before Marlowe’s death, Kyd had been arrested and tortured for his connection with Marlowe. Kyd died a year later at the age of 35 unknown and in debt.
But if I ever write my Marlowe murder mystery for the page or screen, I might use that theory, but the more interesting plot is that Marlowe actually faked his own death.
There are some who believe(d) that Kit faked his death and fled the country to avoid his impending inquisition. Once he was safe outside London or out of England, Marlowe would have continued writing and sending his works back to England to be performed. They would need to be attributed to someone else.
Two weeks after Marlowe’s inquest, the first piece of writing to appear under the name William Shakespeare was published. Shakespeare was very likely influenced by Marlowe’s plays as he was the popular writer of the time and Will’s early plays seem more like Marlowe’s writing. Was Will the name on the script while he was learning to write on his own?
I once pitched my story idea to a Shakespeare professor and he said there was a book out there that also followed that idea. I did some digging and found The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber. She points out that Shakespeare was rather fascinated with characters who were thought to be dead.
There are 33 characters who appear in 18 of his plays that are mistakenly believed to be dead for some part of the story, including some deliberately staged deaths and three faked deaths done to avoid real death.
I guess I’ll have to collaborate with Ros… or I might just work on my other literary murder mystery about the death of Edgar Allen Poe. We are still not certain what happened to him on those final days – and Poe had such an interesting life before that. I’m surprised no one has made a bio film on him already.

This post originally appeared on my Poets Online blog

Endless Summer


Just a few minutes ago, at 9:30 a.m. here in Paradelle, summer ended. I didn’t see or feel anything unusual, nor should I have expected to see or feel anything with this astronomical event.

It didn’t feel like summer when I woke up. The temperature outside was 45 degrees.

Things do happen in nature as we approach and pass the autumn equinox. I read that the black-capped chickadee starts to frantically collect seeds and hide them in hundreds of places. I knew that squirrels and the chipmunks in my yard have been gathering acorns and other things too. I also read that researchers have found that those little chickadees’ hippocampus in their tiny brains swell in size by 30 percent as new nerve cells pop up there. The hippocampus is the part of the brain which is responsible for spatial organization and memory which they need to hide and later find those seeds.

I don’t know that anything changes physically in humans but I know in myself there always seem to be changes as the seasons change.

Some people celebrated Rosh Hashanah last weekend – a new year. That calendar is not connected to the equinox. The exact date of Rosh Hashanah varies every year, since it is based on the Hebrew Calendar, where it begins on the first day of the seventh month.

2020 has been a bad year. The pandemic has been a global problem but many personal problems have also occurred because of it or unrelated to it. I’m not Jewish but I would like a new year to start now.

But the problems of yesterday are not going to disappear because of a “new year” or the equinox.

My friend of 51 years, Bob, died a week ago after a long, slow battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was home with hospice for the month and he passed gently from this world with his wife and children there.

Five decades ago his wife loaned me her copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I was 16 and it was my introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. I have been exploring ever since. One thing that has stayed with me from that book is the idea of bardo which is the state of existence after death and before one’s next birth. Your consciousness is not connected with a physical body and experiences a variety of phenomena.

I don’t know that I believe in a next birth but Buddhists believe the bardo lasts for 7 – 49 days (7 X 7) during which time that consciousness can wander the Earth.  I have been lighting a candle every night at sunset just in case Bobby needs some light to find his way. I’m looking for a sign from him that I don’t really expect to appear.

Bobby was, among many other things, a surfer – a better surfer than I ever was back then. We bonded like brothers through surfing, music, playing guitar, cars and a crazy connection to the humor of Jean Shepherd. On the surf side, we both liked a surfing film from 1966 called The Endless Summer.

The film follows two surfers around the world in search of the perfect wave.  The film’s title comes from the idea that if you had enough time (and money),you could follow summer up and down the world (northern to southern hemisphere and back), and it would be endless.

Summer is not endless, nor is a life. The Earth makes its way around the Sun and tilts along the way in a manner that can be measured and predicted in a way that we can never do with our lives.  That celestial journey will also have an end. It’s the way of this universe.

We think of this day as the autumn equinox but it is really just a moment. A good life always seems to end too soon. Though there is no endless season, I think it’s still worth searching for that perfect wave. I think Bobby might have found it while he was here.

The plan is to have a “paddle out” -a traditional Hawaiian tribute to the life and legacy of people who passed away – on LOng Beach Island where he surfed most often. Bobby’s ashes will be set upon the waves and maybe the tides will carry them north and south and, at least symbolically, he will be in that endless summer.

Endless Summer poster public domain

The Snow on Kilamanjaro

Tonight on Mount Kilamanjaro, Tanzania, it is mostly cloudy and about 22 degrees F. (-6 C). Though there is less of it now, but there is still ice and snow year-round on the mountain’s upper reaches. There are massive glaciers, ice fields, and towering walls of ice that blaze in the equatorial sun and beckon.

This past week I reread Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilamanjaro.” It’s a long story about Harry, a writer, who is dying of gangrene from a wound, and Helen, who is with him on safari in Africa.

You can read it online at the Esquire magazine site where it was originally published in 1936.

The story begins with the epigraph: “Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called by the Masai “Ngàje Ngài,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”

Hemingway used symbols but didn’t like people interpreting symbolism in his writing. The leopard is sometimes seen as just foreshadowing of the ending.  At the end of the story, Harry falls asleep and dreams he is on the plane that was supposed to come and fly him out for medical treatment.

“…looking down he saw a pink sifting cloud, moving over the ground, and in the air, like the first snow in a blizzard, that comes from nowhere, and he knew the locusts were coming up from the South. Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.”

Kilamanjaroo from a plane
Kilimanjaro from a plane   – by MAS pilotOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The western summit of the mountain is called by the Masai people “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God and that is where Harry knows he is going.

The leopard also seems to have been on a quest to reach the top. I doubt that the leopard was seeking God. Perhaps, as with human mountain climbers, it climbed because it was there and is a challenge. One idea is that Harry is like the leopard. In college, I wrote a paper on this story and argued that Harry is not the leopard, but the hyena. The hyena is not noble or a true hunter. It is a scavenger.  He didn’t climb the mountain to the top. There’s no mention that of him ever seeking God. If he thinks that he is headed for Heaven, he’s dreaming.

Harry talks about how he has wasted much of his life and his talent by taking the easy path and marrying and being with rich women.

“The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how someone had said to Scott, Yes they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.”

They made a film adaptation of the story in 1952 starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. But that’s Hollywood, so they threw in Ava Gardner as a character not in the story at all and changed the story almost completely. It’s not a spoiler 84 years later to say that in Hemingway’s story Harry dies in that tent in Africa with the hyenas sniffing outside. The film added a lot of “back story” about Harry’s life before the safari. For the film’s conclusion, Helen is able to clear the infection by following instructions in a first aid manual and the calvary medical party arrives by airplane in time. The vultures and hyena who have been awaiting Harry’s death leave. Ah, Hollywood. Of course, the film version was a critical and commercial success and was nominated for two Oscars. Maybe more people have seen it than have read the story. The film is in the public domain, so if you want to give it a viewing go to  I recommend you read the story,

The Mystery of Nancy Drew’s Death

nancy drew dead cover
Nancy DrewNancy Drew is dead. We won’t see her peering at clues with her magnifying glass any more. And she just might have been killed to benefit the detectives now trying to solve the case – Frank and Joe Hardy.

Nancy was getting up there. She’s turning 90 in people years, though she’s still a teenager in the comic book world.

Of course, in the world of comic books and comic book movies (big bu$iness), heroes who die often miraculously come back. How many times has Superman and Batman died?

This news comes to me via a new monthly comic series, called Nancy Drew & the Hardy Boys: The Death of Nancy Drew. The publisher, Dynamite, had put out in 2017 another series, Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys: The Big Lie. That series started with the teenage Hardy Boys being accused of the murder of their detective father. They team up with Nancy Drew to prove their innocence.

They have teamed up before. In ABC TV’s The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977-79) and in a joint novel series, Super Mystery, they spent a decade working to solve crimes and attract both male and female readers.

The Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys: The Big Lie writer returns for the new Hardy Boys minus Nancy series. Anthony Del Col was someone I came across when a friend lent me another series he wrote called Kill Shakespeare. (The Death of Nancy Drew is drawn by Riverdale artist Joe Eisma.)

My friend assumed as an English teacher and Shakespeare fan I would be interested. In that very dark series, some of Will’s characters (Hamlet, Juliet, Othello Falstaff) battle his villains (Richard III, Lady Macbeth, Iago) and try to kill a wizard named William Shakespeare.

Green Lantern fridged
Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) comes home to find that his girlfriend, Alexandra had been killed and stuffed into a refrigerator. (Green Lantern #54, 1994, written by Ron Marz)

Nancy Drew has been fridged.  That term (short for “Women in Refrigerators” or WiR) comes from a website that was created by a group of feminist comic-book fans that listed examples of female characters being injured, raped, killed, or depowered as a plot device – often to push a male superhero’s story forward. The term alludes to the scene in a 1994 Green Lantern comic shown above.

Nancy Drew was originally meant to be a feminine (feminist?) counterpart to the Hardy Boys. Nancy may have outdone the brothers because she has had so many incarnations in novels, comics and on the screen.

Sill, killing Nancy Drew seems to be a lousy way to mark her 90th birthday/anniversary story.

I have written before about Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. and their “authors,” Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon, because the books were ones I really devoured in my youth.

There are Nancy Drew adventures for computers.

Simon & Schuster is still printing both Nancy Drew novels and Hardy Boys adventures, including ones for younger readers, all with ever-changing cover art to make them more contemporary.

There are still TV tie-ins and Nancy has a CW Network show (you can currently stream it) that followed the lead of the popular Archie comics TV version, Riverdale, and much darker The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (which started at the CW and moved to Netflix) that also came from a much lighter comic series.

 I still have some of my original Hardy Boys books and the ones my sister bought but that I read. I hate to see Nancy get fridged, and I hope that she gets unfrozen in that magical comic book manner and returns in her perky eternally-teenaged form. Hopefully, she won’t return in some dark “Nancy Drew and the Undead” format.

Nancy Drew cover

Weighing the Soul

astral soul
Astral projection (or astral travel) is a term used to describe an out-of-body experience (OBE). It assumes the existence of a soul or consciousness called an “astral body” that is separate from the physical body and capable of traveling outside it throughout the universe.

In the film 21 Grams (2003), there is a reference to the weight of a soul that runs through the three non-linear stories of characters in a past, present and future.  The film’s title is an allusion to actual research done by physician Dr. Duncan MacDougall in 1901.

His plan was to attempt to measure the mass lost by a human when the soul departs the body at death. He built a bed that had balanced platform beam scales sensitive to two-tenths of an ounce. He weighed the initial six patients before, during, and after the process of death, measuring any change in weight. Once all the weights were taken, he then eliminated all of the reasons that could explain a weight loss. He started with six patients who were near death.  The first subject lost three-quarters of an ounce at death – 21 grams.

In 1907, The New York Times wrote about MacDougall’s research in a story titled “Soul has Weight, Physician Thinks” and his results were published that year in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research and in the medical journal American Medicine.

He said he performed four successful measurements and obtained an average weight loss at the moment of death of 15 grams.

MacDougall wanted scientific proof of the existence of the immortal human soul and believed that by recording a loss of body weight at death, he would have shown the departure of the soul immediately following death.

Though he followed the scientific method and his s results were published in at least one peer-reviewed journal, his conclusion was not widely accepted as scientific fact.

He later measured the weight of dogs under the same conditions and the results were that he found no perceived change in mass. He took this to mean that the soul had weight and that dogs did not have souls.

You might think that MacDougall was a religious man, but his interpretation of the “soul” was not religious. He would define it as more of a “life force.”

Albert Einstein used the word soul at times but he also did not mean it in religious terms. He was not an atheist, but he did not believe in any part of us being immortal.

In most religious, philosophical, psychological, and mythological traditions a “soul” is defined as an incorporeal (not composed of matter; having no material existence), immortal essence of a living being. In Abrahamic religions, immortal souls belong only to human beings.

St. Thomas Aquinas called the soul anima defined as a current of air, or breath, or life or the soul. Sometimes it is connected to animus, meaning “mind.”  Aquinas wrote that all organisms have a soul, but only human souls are immortal.

In Hinduism, all biological organisms have souls. Religions that profess animism teach that even non-biological entities, like rivers and mountains, have souls.  Anima mundi is the concept of a “world soul.”

Those who believed in MacDougall’s research and conclusion (and others since then have tried similar experiments) are really more concerned with the existence of a soul rather than its weight. The weight was the way to show that existence. This kind of research gives comfort to the idea that some part of us survives the death of the body.