Death Cleaning – Why we should do it before we die

Death Cleaning – Why we should do it before we die

Take responsibility for your items today. Don’t leave them as a burden for family and friends. And enjoy the process of putting your things in order!

It’s nearly a year ago that Margareta Magnusson, the Swedish lady aged “between 80 and 100”, published her book ‘The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning:

How to make your loved ones’ lives easier and your own life more pleasant’.

I am interested in any book that has to do with tidying up. However, I remember that I was a bit hesitant to buy this one when I saw it in the book shop. ‘Death Cleaning‘?! The title sounds really weird, doesn’t it? But I bought it, – and very much enjoyed reading it.

And I learned a lot about decluttering again, this time from a new and refreshing perspective.

This book is not about someone who’s all her life struggled to keep the house organised, and now presents the perfect and the only solution.

Instead, it’s the story of someone approaching the end of life, sharing what she learned by clearing up after family members’ deaths, and why it’s useful to get our things in order before we die. “I’ve death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone has to death clean for me,” Margareta Magnusson writes.

‘Death cleaning’ is not only useful for older people.

Clearing out unnecessary belongings can be undertaken at any age or life stage but should be done sooner than later, before others have to do it for us. “It is not sad at all,” Margareta says. “I’ve discovered that it is rewarding to spend time with these objects one last time and then dispose of them.”

Some weeks after I’d read the book, my mother passed away, unexpectedly. Clearing out her home was a very sad and upsetting process for my sisters and me. Only many months later, I was able to think about that process in a less emotional way.

I realised that my mother in most regards had followed Margareta’s recommendations – without knowing her book!

Make the life of your loved ones easier by having your belongings sorted

My mother’s papers were orderly sorted and all kept in one place, so we easily could arrange any necessary paperwork before and after the funeral.

Yes, she had taken thousands of photographs during the course of her life and her travels, but they were all well sorted in albums and photo books.

She loved decorating her place and regularly rearranged the interior design of her house. However, she left only one cupboard with no-longer-used decorative items she had collected over the years and not managed to dispose of.

She was a great entertainer and often invited people to her place. But she had only kept the amount of crockery, cutlery, glasses and kitchenware that was necessary to prepare and organise the meals and parties for her family and friends.

She enjoyed reading in the evenings but had kept only those books she planned to read again and again.

Sorting through the belongings of a loved one is always tough and emotionally challenging.

However, my mother had successfully managed to make this unwanted task as easy as possible for us.

Prepare and keep easy-to-find instructions with your sentimental belongings and memorabilia

There was only one category of my mother’s belongings that we struggled to make decisions about. We found a  collection of the letters my mother and my father had exchanged before they got married. And my mother hadn’t left any instructions or hints how we should treat it. Had she kept the letters just for herself so that she could read them again whenever she felt like doing so? Or had she wanted to share the letters with us, expecting us to read them now?

We finally agreed on the assumption that she had kept the letters for herself, not for us, – and we burnt them. But even today, I still feel not completely comfortable about it, because we can’t be sure whether this really was what she’d have wanted.

My personal set of ‘Death Cleaning’ guidelines

Based on my theoretical (Margareta’s book) and practical (sorting my mother’s belongings) learning experiences, I now follow

Three personal organising rules:
  • I take my yearly decluttering sessions even more seriously because I don’t want to burden someone else with clearing unnecessary clutter after my death.
  • I keep a permanently updated folder containing all our (my husband’s and mine) important papers and documents.
  • I have reduced the amount of photos, sentimental items and memorabilia. And I keep all of it in two boxes. On top of these boxes, I placed a note: “Sentimental stuff, just important to me, you (whoever it is who has to sort out my stuff) can throw it away, without any feelings of regret or guilt”.

I think it is very human that most of us don’t like – and therefore try to avoid – considering the fact that our life will end at some point in time.

However, I do believe that we should feel responsible for the future and take care of our loved ones: We should make sure that they don’t have to ‘death clean’ for us.

I also believe, that we should feel responsible for the present and take care of ourselves: Regularly sorting through our stuff can be hard work but consider the benefits for your life:

Decluttering can be a very positive and productive experience:

  • It’s an opportunity to learn about yourself and your very personal values.
  • It helps you to re-focus your attention and energy towards your goals.
  • It clears your space and your mind.
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