Death cleaning

Scandinavia’s answer to KonMari

Melinda Bargreen
Everett, Wash.

We busy and overstressed Americans have increasingly turned to Scandinavia in recent years for advice on how to live a better and happier life. Books like Brontë Aurell’s tongue-in-cheek Nørth: How to Live Scandinavian teach us how to be more Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish; innumerable volumes on “hygge” advise readers to follow the Danes to a cozier way of life. There’s even a humorous reactionary book about this trend, Michael Booth’s witty The Almost Nearly Perfect People, warning readers that not everything in Scandinavia is idyllic.

Under more ominous titles, other authors are now informing us about the unhappily named concept of “death cleaning” (döstädning in Swedish): How to clear out loads of your accumulated stuff before you die, so that your heirs won’t have to. In many ways, this is a great idea, though I wish the “death cleaning” name didn’t give readers the feeling that the Grim Reaper is right behind them, waving his scythe and waggling his finger as they wrestle with a lifetime of accrued possessions and memorabilia.

Launching this phenomenon was last year’s book called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, written by Margareta Magnusson—a Swedish artist who describes her age as “between 80 and 100.” By the time you read the book, you may well feel 100.

You’re supposed to start the “death cleaning” process around age 65, by selling items that are saleable and giving away other items as gifts to friends and family. (Presumably they don’t have to worry about their own death cleaning.) Then you move on to asking yourself a key question about other items: “Will anyone be happier if I save this?”

Here’s one problem: that question is pretty much unanswerable. By the time you die, your heirs might have treasured an heirloom or a keepsake that you’ve already offloaded. Right now, they may have no interest in objects that you’ve saved from their infancy or childhood; later on, though, when they have children of their own, their feelings and values might be quite different. One of my children who had earlier smirked at my box of carefully saved baby clothes ended up proudly photographing our grandchild wearing some of those outfits.

Home furnishings are a tricky issue, because tastes change so much between generations. If your house is full of “brown furniture” (dining room tables, chairs, wooden cabinets), and if you have sets of formal china dishes, chances are pretty good that your heirs will not be fighting over the chance to acquire them.

An easier issue, Magnusson writes, is your own clothing: Go through your closet, and get rid of clothes that you don’t wear. Maybe they’re the wrong size, or have some defect (a missing button, a broken zipper), or are uncomfortable (too scratchy, too hot), or shoes that pinch so that you never wear them, or just one of those items you start to reach for and then always say, “No. Not this one.”

Tackle the keepsakes and memorabilia that probably have no meaning to anyone but you, Magnusson advises, and put them in a box; label it to be discarded after your death. But make sure your heirs have the information they need to deal with your assets: passwords for your various accounts, combinations (and locations!) for any safes.

Photos can be a tricky issue. We have a modest-sized box of family photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries—those beautiful studio photos (many of them from Norway and Denmark, in our case), printed on heavy stock with scrolled borders that make them works of art. What to do with those? In our case, I have scanned them with a high-resolution scanner; created a photo “key” in a Word document that identifies Photo No. 1 as my great-great-grandmother by name, date, and location; and put everything on those handy USB “memory sticks” to be dispensed to any family member who wants them. They can decide what to do with the beautiful originals.

A major motivation for the Death Cleaning book is Magnusson’s desire to spare her heirs the task of disposing of unwanted stuff after her death. And she is quite right: this can be a tremendous burden. My parents died in their 90s, and my mother-in-law was 106 upon her demise. Both their houses, where they lived for six or seven decades, contained valuables, but were also full of a lifetime of accumulated and useless possessions: Christmas ornaments from the 1950s with all the glitter worn off, and strings of lights that probably would have shut down the city’s power grid if connected. Boxes of stuff that had attracted admiring attention from rodents in the attic. Condolence cards from a family death in the 1940s. Boxes upon boxes of received Christmas cards with no special message; boxes upon boxes of newspaper clippings featuring recipes for Mystery Salad or advice for defrosting your refrigerator. Closets full of damaged clothing that was unwearable but “too good” to recycle, according to Depression-era concepts of thrift. Piles of yellowed magazines and mouse-nibbled periodicals; boxes full of unidentified and overexposed snapshots from long-ago trips; once-beautiful but stained or damaged tablecloths; figurines and vases and ceramic objects of no particular use or distinction. And a closet full of cardboard dress boxes and old department-store boxes, too flimsy or worn-out to be useful for packaging up all the other unwanted items.

We’re still in the process of following Magnusson’s precepts in our own house, winnowing guiltily away at our own supplies of vases, souvenirs, keepsakes, and … stuff. Death cleaning is a “work in progress.” But we take heart in her short and sometimes hilarious YouTube video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXj3iy1Sgc4&list=LLXV2MKaCI_eHMa3tTU5hFIA), in which Magnusson declares: “You are never ready with your death cleaning, because you don”t know when you are going to die. So it goes on and on.”

This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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