Mar 26, 2018
Death Cleaning: Escaping the tyranny of accumulation
Death Cleaning, or dostadning in Swedish is a dreadful name, but an appealing concept. Death Cleaning is the process of organizing, cleaning and purging accumulated belongings before death. Margareta Magnusson’s book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, is built on the premise that after you are gone, “Someone will have to clean up after you. Whoever it may be will find it a burden.” She advises you to do this before you saddle a loved one (or more) with the unreasonable duty.
I can vouch for her assertion. My husband, siblings, siblings in-law and I have been through this process following the death of our four parents. Calling it a burden is an understatement. It is tedious, fraught with emotion, enormously demanding of time and deeply frustrating. Anyone who has been through this quickly realizes that no one wants all the stuff accumulated through a long American life. And getting items to those who claim to want it is costly, time-consuming and wildly inefficient. Imagine trying to get rid of rooms full of stuff in time for a home buyer to move in. Do you have eight weeks of time on your hands with nothing else to do? Do you have a semi and a warehouse handy?
These experiences taught me something. In the wake of this exhausting work, my husband and I promised ourselves that we would intentionally thin out our belongings before someone had to do it for us. We’d attack that task someday. And then, that day arrived. I was offered the opportunity to join NextFifty Initiative in Colorado. Within eight weeks I had to move 2,000 miles across the country. Suddenly, the thought of hauling tons of stuff from our New England farmhouse to a Colorado townhouse made absolutely no sense. We had to purge immediately.
We began the elimination process. We had gobs of stuff – furniture, household goods, antiques, knickknacks, pictures, our kids’ school memorabilia, sports equipment, garden equipment, craft supplies…. It didn’t end there.
We had lived in New England for 30 years – a place where the entire culture embraces the art of accumulation, as in “I might need this someday”. Educated, well-paid people hang out at the town dump on Saturdays (excuse me, transfer station) and wait for somebody to drop off good junk. I am not making this up. We did it too, and we acquired some good finds over the years – bed frames, tricycles, roller skates, rabbit cages. Ultimately, that stuff filled up our barn, shed, garage and farmhouse.
In the end, we were merciless. We brought only about 25% of what we owned to Colorado, and neither of us miss what we did not bring. It turns out that a few friends and coworkers back east wanted some of our stuff… things like useful furniture, craft items, garden tools, extra appliances. We hope it brings joy and saves them money. But no one wanted as much as we thought they would. People aren’t interested in your kids’ sports trophies, old framed prints, 1980s decor or broken tools. Some of that stuff made it back to the town transfer station. Goodwill made out like a bandit; lesson learned.
Here is what we experienced: purging actually feels good. It simplified our lives. Our world is much less cluttered. We learned we never really needed all that stuff and the house is a lot easier to clean, too. We got time back – a commodity I thoroughly enjoy. I think the title of the book should be changed to Life Cleaning because it actually gives you some of your life back.
Our work is not finished. We continue to give things away and it still feels gratifying. But my advice? Get rid of your stuff before someone has to do it for you. You don’t really need it, and they don’t really want it. It will free you from the tyranny of accumulation – trust me.
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