A good time for death cleaning

Seventy years of accumulation of stuff—that’s what I have in addition to my husband’s “resource,” as he so fondly calls his stuff. Somehow the amount of stuff we collected over 47 years of living together seems to fill our living and outdoor space. We have a small two-bedroom house, plus a cabin, large workshop, sea can storage unit, a barn and 15.5 acres.

When my parents died my siblings and I had to go through their belongings. We rummaged through two garages full of carpentry tools, wood, fasteners and all the other items that might be needed by a cabinet maker and general handyman. Some of us took bits of memorabilia home. I chose an old-fashioned little wood stove with an internal water reservoir. It was installed in my greenhouse and used for a couple of seasons, but not within the last five years or more. I also have the dining room set, some Japanese dishes, art objects and a handmade Buddhist altar. All are reminders of my parents. There were many other material items that members of the family didn’t want or which had no meaning for them, but I couldn’t bear to throw them out.

When I reached my 70th birthday, I finally came to the realization that I needed to start clearing out some of my own stuff. I had visions of my poor son or husband having to deal with all of my treasures when I died. I didn’t dare to touch any of my husband’s things.

In Sweden, they call it döstädning or “deathcleaning.” Sounds kind of morbid doesn’t it? But in Margareta Magnusson’s book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning – How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, she approaches clearing out and downsizing in a humourous and uplifting way.

You don’t have to be old to be thinking about downsizing. There are many “gurus” who have written books, blogs and produced videos on the topic of downsizing. It seems to be the latest craze. However, I decided to take my own approach based on some of these resources.

Why “death clean?”

  1. I have the pleasure of giving away something I love or something that held meaning for me, to a person who will appreciate it. When I turned 70, I gave the directive of “no gifts” and I really meant it. In fact, every person was invited (coerced?) to take away at least one item from my collection of good-quality treasures. These included clothing, dishes, books, ornaments, jewelry, linens and other household items. It proved to be a wonderful opportunity to share stories about each item and how the person planned to use it. In fact a pasta-making machine resulted in a dinner invitation at a friend’s place a few weeks later! 
    I’ve also asked family members and others if they would like to have specific items. When they say “no thanks,” I feel free to either sell it, donate it to the local thrift store or give it away to a friend.
  2. Spending one last moment with the item I’m giving away. 
    Many of us have so many things around us that we often forget about them and fail to appreciate where they came from, who gave them to us, what events surround the item and all the memories associated with it. To me, giving thanks for the pleasure that I received, or perhaps in contrast, letting go of pain, is an important ritual. Saying good-bye or letting go of the past and moving on helps me through my life transitions. Clearing out unwanted items has a way of decluttering my mind. After I’ve cleaned out a file cabinet, bookshelf, kitchen cupboard or closet, I feel lighter and more energized. I also make a promise not to buy or accept more stuff.
  3. Creative outlet for me and others. 
    I used to be an avid sewer and loved to collect fabric for potential projects. In the last 10 years, my eyesight has been failing me for fine, detailed work. I gave a lot of the materials to a local fibre artist who has used it for her beautiful work. I made cloth napkins and runners from the remaining cottons. At birthday celebration, guests were invited to take them away after the party.
  4. Conversations about transitions 
    This is probably the most difficult part of death cleaning—facing my own mortality and helping loved ones to face my death in the future as well. For some of us this downsizing might be due to a transition in our life such as changes in health or moving out of the family home after the death of a partner. There’s often an uncomfortable silence when one begins to talk about death and dying. We have cultural differences and various attitudes and perspectives on death and dying. These conversations require sensitivity and respect.

Whether one is seven or 70 years old, taking time to sort, getting rid of unwanted items or simplifying one’s life is something we can do at any stage of life. Why not get to that spring cleaning now?

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