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 Joy and Sadness of Throwing Things Away


I get a happy feeling when I have filled a garbage can full of stuff that I don’t need and no one else needs. This is stuff that I can’t sell, recycle or even give away. It is like losing weight. I feel lighter and happier.

Spring is often associated with cleaning out things (and losing winter weight)

There can also be sadness in getting rid of things.

kondo.jpgWhen I first wrote about the idea of decluttering, it was because I had read some of a book by Marie Kondo.

She is a Japanese organizing consultant and now has four books on organizing, and has sold more than two million copies altogether. That book was The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It was popular and generated many online conversations about minimalism. That term “tidying up” must be a translation of something similar in Japanese, but “tidying up” seems more Western.

The book is an eclectic mashup of autobiography, philosophy, and practical strategies from clothes-folding tips to ways to get yourself let go of sentimental things.

She has a second book in translation now called Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up. I checked it out at a bookstore/café (the new library of mostly used books) this past week. Kondo should approve since she wants you to get rid of most of those books you have around the house.

The new book has photos and illustrations. It has six unerotic pages about underwear. Stuffed toys get 3 pages. It is a manual on how to declutter and organize throughout the house.

The tough ones for me aren’t things in the kitchen and the basement. It is the personal and hobby collections that make me sad.  I’m good about getting rid of old clothing, except for t-shirts. For some reason, I keep buying t-shirts and I don’t get rid of them.

I have lots of books after years of college and grad school as an English major. For many years, I would say “I’m going to read them again.” But I haven’t. They are good books and I could never recycle them as pulp. So, I donate them to book sales and the library. I have even put some of the more collectible ones for sale on Amazon. I told you last month about setting books free via Bookcrossings.  I like to think my books will have another life with someone else.

There are some line drawings to illustrate Kondo’s book suggestions that will be great for undiagnosed OCD readers who want to learn her patented folding method as it applies to shirts, pants, socks, and jackets. You can sigh lovingly over perfectly organized drawers, closets, and cabinets.

She also has advice on moving. I have long believed that moving would be an unfortunate but effective way to get me to declutter and organize. My wife keeps saying that the time to do it is now, not the month before we really move.

How do you picture Kondo’s own home? Simplicity, uncluttered, lots of whiteness and a few pale colors. It would be fun to see an exposé that shows her with piles of laundry on the floor and a desk that looks like mine.

When I first heard a few decades ago that there were people who get paid and make a career by helping people organize their lives – life coaches – I was more amused than amazed.

But, there are people who organize closets, rooms and entire homes. There are TV shows and books and blogs about these topics.

Kondo’s method of organizing is known as the KonMari method, and part of that consists of gathering together everything you own and then keeping only those things which “spark joy” (tokimeku in Japanese, which literally means “flutter, throb, palpitate” and then finding a place for everything.

She really recommends getting rid of almost all of your books. (Not her books, of course.)

I think it’s significant that she is only 30 years old.  She is going to regret some of those things she has trashed one day.

Part of her philosophy, perhaps partially Japanese and Zen-like, is that most of the stuff we own is pointless, unnecessary and actually burdensome. It holds us back from growing into happy, satisfied people.

Extra stuff is not a sign of prosperity, but a sign of impoverishment. Chew on that for a bit.

I don’t know that there is any real Zen philosophy that formed her approach, but there is definitely ritual involved. I imagine something like a Japanese tea garden where the tea ceremony takes place.

She says that you should place all the items on the floor. Pick up and touch them one by one. The question to ask is not whether or not you need this item, but does it spark joy? I tried it. Even on items that I feel an attachment to, I felt no spark of joy.

I put my essays here in categories. This one is in Read It, Do It, and Think About It. Certainly you can read her books. I recommend my method: go to the library or a Barnes & Noble store. Buying her books just means that at some point you would just have to throw them away. She doesn’t seem to recommend a more tech approach, like having an eBook library. One slim volume on the shelf, even it contains hundreds of books.

Putting cynicism aside, I do agree that your stuff shouldn’t make you long for more stuff. Your stuff should remind you that you have everything you need.

In contrast to that philosophy, it’s not a big surprise that Amazon recommends that I purchase even more stuff when I look at Kondo’s books. How about The Gifts of Imperfection (subtitle: “Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are” and some transactional analysis I’m Ok, You’re Ok and other books with titles such as I’m Not OK. You’re Not OK. But It’s OK! and I’m Okay, You’re a Brat!: Setting the Priorities Straight and Freeing You From the Guilt and Mad Myths of Parenthood.

Here are some free reads I found online that you might enjoy and you will never have to decide to throw away. is Ms. Kondo’s website



Having just passed a birthday that allows me to seriously consider retirement, I have also looked around me here at home and realized once again that there is just too much stuff. What’s the connection? Thoughts about retirement lead me to thoughts about moving, downsizing and that third act of life when one leaves things behind.

Spring cleaning is more traditional than autumn cleaning.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing is by a Japanese “organizer,” Marie Kondo. This “International bestseller” has “2 Million Copies Sold” and that is bannered on the book’s website and the book seems to have caught the interest of many Americans.

I read an excerpt of the book  and rather than the oft-suggested approach of  “one room at a time” or “just discard ten items each week,” this book suggests the KonMari Method that seems to be a “category-by-category” system. Kondo recommends starting with clothes. Apparently, this is an easier category than books, pictures or heirlooms.

I think the Japanese connection here makes people think of the simplicity of a Zen garden or ikebana flower arrangements.

There is ritual involved, also very Japanese. Place all items on the floor. Pick up and touch them one by one. The question is not whether or not you need this item, but does it spark joy?

I do the entering and exiting winter clothing transfer each year, shifting long-sleeved shirts for more t-shirts, shorts and bathing suits. But my question (especially for my beloved t-shirts) is “Have I worn this in the past two years?”  I’m not sure that any of the shirts spark joy.

One article I read mentioned the science of the effect clutter has on your life and cites some UCLA study that looked at how mothers’ stress hormones spiked when they were dealing with their belongings.  It said that 75% of families in the U.S. can’t park their cars in the garage because they have too much stuff packed away there. My garage is a perfect example.

There is a program on TV about tiny homes and lots of articles about a new minimalism that is seen as a shift away from the materialistic mindset. This is far more than getting rid of those old books you will never reread and possibly never read.

I started selling some of my good old books back on Amazon. I gave boxes of them to the local library and to a church flea market. And there are still more. I have a room of vinyl record albums that I know must be worth something. And what about my comic books and 50 year-old issues of Rolling Stone magazine? My wife (not a collector) is quick to say that, “If they are worth something, sell them.” But no one seems eager to buy them – not that I’m trying very hard to get rid of them.

Can getting rid of stuff help you  stop worrying about things that hold you back and allow you to move forward?