Aging · Death · possessions

A Matter of Life and Death Cleaning

Remember, Man, that thou art dustand unto dust thou shalt return.

Dear Susan,

While you have been busy wedding planning, I have been busy death cleaning. Yeah, you heard me. I was thrilled to start the New Year reading Margareta Magnusson’s book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, which I had been eagerly anticipating since last fall. This is the latest in a series of the “It’s A Small World of How-Tos”, guiding confused Americans into happier, more organized, more sensible living.  Think The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, and The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living. Now, from Sweden, the land of Ikea, Abba, lingonberries, meatballs, and Volvos we have death cleaning. It is an idea whose time has come. I was tickled to learn your friend, Avery, is doing death cleaning with her mother and daughter. Multi-generational death cleaning sounds at once awesomely efficient and like something out of Harry Potter! I was so impressed. Future generations will honor them.


In recent years, I have switched from Team Acquisition to Team Divest, in part because of the number of family estates I have had to manage. I also stalk the Catholic Minimalism Challenge Facebook site on a regular basis. I thought I had been doing a pretty good job. I was wrong.  Only half way through Magnusson’s book, I took on two cabinets and two closets and managed to fill up Miss Pearl, our Sequoia, for a Goodwill run.  What is it about Magnusson’s book that sets it apart? It is not long. The advice itself is not even revolutionary.  Some of the tips are very good, like the throw-away box and dealing with photographs last. It gave me a jolt to realize that we might be the last generation dealing with a significant amount of paper or photographs.  The book itself is hysterical, often unintentionally so, and it is full of typically bizarre Swedish syntax. Scandinavian languages never quite translate. For example,“It would have been incredibly nice to have had my husband’s company to help me get through emptying our home…. But it was impossible. He was dead.”

A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you not all things from you.

And right there is what sets Magnusson apart: her focus on death without being a downer. An artist who lived all over the world with her husband, she is full of life, and once won a prize for her hat at a tea party, which was actually a wok she attached to hear head with a ribbon (she later gives the wok way). She doesn’t talk a huge amount about death, and refers to herself only in an age range, between 80 and 100. However, the premise that the reader must accept before crossing the threshold into her process is: “We all must – one day or another -look death clearly in the face.” It makes a difference. This idea of facing mortality squarely on and dealing with it as we should, shifts priorities and helps cull through junk to find what matters. The idea is a popular one in our church, too, and was celebrated in the Renaissance especially, with the focus on momento mori.  As an excellent article on The Catholic Gentleman states: “the saints thought about death because it helped them live a better life.”

Even a popcorn machine does not work for eternity

Although not religious, Magnusson is in tune with this idea.  She says that after we death clean “Life will become more pleasant and comfortable if we get rid of some of the abundance.” As the title, states, the process is not harsh. Note everything is distilled into a sanitized, utilitarian box. One of the items Magnusson keeps is a giant polar bear given to her by her husband that she used to dance with to keep her company while he was away. Just go with it. It was with this in mind, I felt better about keeping one of our own ornaments out, our giant gold skeleton. We put him out for my daughter’s birthday party in October and he has been so popular that we left him out through the holidays. He has become a permanent fixture.  It is strange that no one finds him strange. I have named him Momento Morty. We give him a high 5 every time we walk by. He keeps us grounded.

Even a popcorn machine does not work for eternity (1)

One final realization I have gained through death cleaning. It has made me aware of what I am missing. Despite all I have, all the overabundance, the clutter, I actually found I needed another pair of jeans. That was it. I am sure I could extend the metaphor into all areas of my life. There are probably things I need that I cannot even determine until I clear out all the emotional and spiritual clutter in there. What grudges, hurts, or fears am I holding on to that need to be thrown away?  It is important for us to realize these things can be standing in the way, not just of our wants, but of our needs.

This is great food for thought as we head into Lent in a few weeks. As for now, my new jeans and I have a date to go dancing with a skeleton and a polar bear.

Have fun with those wedding plans!



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