THE LIB­ER­A­TION OF SWEDISH DEATH CLEAN­ING

Set­ting your af­fairs in order... so your fam­ily doesn’t have to

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Liesl Robert­son

‘Wsis­ter­shen my mom died in 2016, my two

and I flew up to Joburg to pack up her house,’ says Sarah* (48). ‘She was still liv­ing in the four-bed­room that we grew up in, and walk­ing into that house was like go­ing back in time – it still looked ex­actly the same, right down to our child­hood bed­rooms with the posters still on the walls. It took the three of us a solid two weeks to sort through ev­ery­thing.

‘At first, we were very care­ful, look­ing at ev­ery piece of pa­per and try­ing to find a good home for ev­ery or­na­ment. It’s very strange go­ing through some­one else’s per­sonal things: you can’t help but feel like you’re in­vad­ing their pri­vacy. But by day five, we were lit­er­ally just dump­ing things into black bags. My mom was very sen­ti­men­tal, and had kept ev­ery bank state­ment and birth­day card she’d ever re­ceived. Not to men­tion her col­lec­tion of ce­ramic fig­urines – she loved go­ing to flea mar­kets and vin­tage shops, and she al­ways came home with some­thing, so of course ev­ery sur­face and shelf was covered in knick-knacks (kaggelka­kkies, as my dad would say).

‘Of course we each kept some things that re­mind us of her – I took her pink and gold tea set that I’d al­ways loved, a few photo al­bums and some of her jew­ellery – but none of us had the space to keep any of the big­ger ‘heir­looms’. And, to be hon­est, no one re­ally wanted the dark bal­land-claw din­ing room ta­ble and chairs, the or­nately framed still-life paint­ings or the set of flo­ral couches – that all went to a sec­ond­hand shop. We poured bot­tles of wine down the drain; most of them had been saved for a spe­cial oc­ca­sion, but had sub­se­quently all gone off. We found boxes and boxes of un­touched crys­tal glasses, still in their orig­i­nal pack­ag­ing; three full sets of sil­ver cut­lery; hat boxes with ‘church hats’ and suit­cases full of cloth­ing that had be­longed to my grand­mother; my par­ents’ spe­cial wed­ding crock­ery, barely used… it all went to the near­est char­ity shop. I still feel bad when I think about it. My mom would have been hor­ri­fied about all her pre­cious things be­ing un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously thrown out, but we all have too much stuff al­ready. And trekking it all down to Cape Town would have cost a small for­tune.’

Sarah and her sis­ters are far from alone in this sit­u­a­tion. Hav­ing grown up hear­ing sto­ries about wartime scarcity and sac­ri­fice, the baby boomer gen­er­a­tion fer­vently col­lected ma­te­rial pos­ses­sions, see­ing them as hall­marks of suc­cess. But now, as they’re head­ing into re­tire­ment and start­ing to think about down­siz­ing, they’re dis­cov­er­ing, much to their hor­ror, that their chil­dren are of­ten not re­motely in­ter­ested in in­her­it­ing the fam­ily heir­looms they’re so proud of. As

Forbes mag­a­zine rather brusquely put it: ‘Sorry, no­body wants your stuff.’

Min­i­mal­ism is in, as are smaller liv­ing spa­ces; the next gen­er­a­tion sim­ply doesn’t have the room or the in­cli­na­tion to hang onto all the fam­ily an­tiques and col­lecta­bles. The Bos­ton Globe writes: ‘For gen­er­a­tions, adult chil­dren have agreed to take their age­ing par­ents’ pos­ses­sions – whether they wanted them or not. But now, the anti-clut­ter move­ment has met the anti-brown-fur­ni­ture move­ment, and the com­bi­na­tion is send­ing din­ing room sets, ster­ling-sil­ver flat­ware and knick-knacks straight to thrift stores, or the curb.’

Of course, it’s much more com­pli­cated in ex­e­cu­tion – chil­dren re­ject­ing their par­ents’ care­fully cu­rated trea­sures can cause a lot of hurt, even though it’s not in­tended that way.

It’s not re­motely per­sonal, says Apart­ment Ther­apy writer Melissa Mas­sello: ‘While my mom is a nat­u­ral-born in­te­rior de­signer with a tal­ented eye for tex­tiles and a knack for col­lect­ing beau­ti­ful pieces from her world trav­els, and my fa­ther’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion for lit­er­a­ture, art, his­tory and the clas­sics has shaped both my and my si­b­lings’ in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity, we want to start cu­rat­ing our own col­lec­tions — we want to be sur­rounded by pieces that are cu­rated to re­flect our trav­els, our mem­o­ries, our ways of en­ter­tain­ing, and our per­sonal styles.’

Had Sarah’s mom been liv­ing in Swe­den, she and her sis­ters may have been spared the guilt. Ac­cord-

Min­i­mal­ism is in, as are smaller liv­ing spa­ces; the next gen­er­a­tion sim­ply doesn’t have the room or the in­cli­na­tion to hang onto all the fam­ily an­tiques and col­lecta­bles.

ing to Karin Olofs­dot­ter (51) the Swedish am­bas­sador to the United States, the Scan­di­na­vian clean­ing rit­ual of döstäd­ning (roughly trans­lated as ‘death clean­ing’) is a way of life in Swe­den. As peo­ple hit their mid-six­ties, they start grad­u­ally sort­ing through their things and get­ting rid of the ex­cess so that their rel­a­tives aren’t left with a mam­moth task when they’re gone. Her own par­ents, now both in their eight­ies, are cur­rently in the process of par­ing down their pos­ses­sions.

‘My par­ents and their friends are death clean­ing, and we all kind of joke about it,’ she told The

Wash­ing­ton Post. ‘It’s al­most like a bi­o­log­i­cal thing to do.’

ITmight sound mor­bid, but Swedish artist Mar­gareta Magnusson, au­thor of the sur­prise best­seller The Gen­tle Art of Swedish Death Clean­ing: How to Free Your­self and Your Fam­ily From a Life­time of Clut­ter (it sounds ruth­less, but

The New York Times calls it a ‘fond and wise lit­tle book’), be­lieves that the process is lib­er­at­ing, and very nec­es­sary.

‘A loved one wishes to in­herit nice things from you,’ she writes. ‘Not all things from you.’

Mar­gareta should know how to win­now down be­long­ings – she’s moved house 17 times and has done death clean­ing for her mother, mother-in-law and hus­band.

‘Some peo­ple can’t wrap their heads around death, she writes. ‘And these peo­ple leave a mess af­ter them. I’ve death cleaned so many times for oth­ers, I’ll be damned if some­one has to death clean for me.’

She’s now ‘some­where be­tween 80 and a 100 years old’, and has started do­ing just that.

‘Gen­er­ally peo­ple have too many things in their homes,’ she says in a YouTube video. ‘I think it’s a good thing to get rid of things you don’t need.’

Your pos­ses­sions, says Mar­gareta, shouldn’t be­come some­one else’s bur­den. ‘One day when you’re not around any­more, your fam­ily will have to take care of all that stuff, and I don’t think that’s fair.’

Mar­gareta’s ap­proach is sim­i­lar to that of Ja­panese tidy­ing guru Marie Kondo: keep the things you love; get rid of the rest. But in­stead of do­nat­ing, re­cy­cling or bin­ning the things that didn’t make the cut, Mar­gareta sug­gests pass­ing down some of your ‘ in­her­i­ta­bles’ while you’re still alive so you can see friends or fam­ily en­joy­ing them. And if they don’t want your fine china or del­i­cate teacups, here’s a thought: take them out of their dusty bub­ble wrap and use them your­self.

‘I did a down­siz­ing talk re­cently and ev­ery­one asked, “What do I do with my crys­tal and china?”,’ says Anne Lu­cas, founder of or­gan­is­ing com­pany Ducks in a Row. ‘I said: “Drink your OJ out of it… The kids don’t want it.”’

Mar­gareta says there are three se­crets to do­ing death clean­ing cor­rectly.

Num­ber one: talk about what you’re do­ing so oth­ers can hold you ac­count­able.

Num­ber two: don’t fear the process. ‘Death clean­ing isn’t the story of death and its slow, un­gainly in­evitabil­ity,’ she says, ‘but rather the story of life, your life, the good mem­o­ries and the bad. The good ones you keep. The bad you ex­punge.’

Num­ber three: re­ward your hard work – but not by buy­ing more stuff! Cel­e­brate the process with sim­ple pleasures: pre­pare and en­joy a meal with friends, have a cup of cof­fee out in the gar­den or go see a movie.

Also, start with what­ever you find eas­i­est to let go of and leave the sen­ti­men­tal let­ters and pho­tographs for last; they will in­evitably spark a trip down mem­ory lane and you won’t make any head­way. Mar­gareta also sug­gests writ­ing down all your pass­words (telling some­one re­li­able where that in­for­ma­tion is) and putting all keep­sakes mean­ing­ful only to you in a ‘throw­away box’, with a note telling the reader that they can feel free to dis­card its con­tents.

Still not con­vinced? Fam­ily ther­a­pist and as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try Kate Gold­haber thinks death clean­ing can also be help­ful in other ways. ‘It seems like a nice, proac­tive ap­proach to fa­cil­i­tat­ing co­op­er­a­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion among fam­i­lies early on in the age­ing process, when you’re not too en­trenched in the dif­fi­cult parts later on,’ she says. ‘There can also be some­thing very em­pow­er­ing and healthy about tak­ing care of your own space and mak­ing it more or­gan­ised while you’re still around.’

Mar­gareta’s ap­proach is sim­i­lar to that of Ja­panese tidy­ing guru Marie Kondo: keep the things you love; get rid of the rest.

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