THE LIBERATION OF SWEDISH DEATH CLEANING
Setting your affairs in order... so your family doesn’t have to
‘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.