July 1, 2018

Death Cleaning

We want our families to remember our memories, not our junk.

Merle Poirier & Sharon Tennyson

Döstädning” is a Swedish word that in English means “death cleaning.” As morbid as that might sound, the idea isn’t related to dying as much as to cleaning one’s house of things before you die so no one has to do it when you’re gone.

To author Margareta Magnusson, death cleaning seems directly related to aging. Her book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, published in the United States in January 2018, quickly resonated with people. It would seem that many people, to put it plainly, have too much stuff, and more important, may be loath to part with it.

In the story that follows, two individuals share current life experiences related to “stuff.” Merle Poirier recently encountered more moving than she bargained for; while Sharon Tennyson, answering a call with her husband to England, is busy downsizing.—Editors

The Art of Moving

If anyone had told me a year ago that I (Merle) would be facing the move from one apartment and four different houses within less than a year’s time, I wouldn’t have believed them. It began with moving my mother to a much smaller assisted-living center apartment. A month later a home was purchased for my in-laws that bettered their situation. That led to moving them from one home to another and preparing the former house for sale. My younger daughter was engaged two months later, and, two months after that, purchased her first home. At the time of writing, my other daughter’s husband has accepted another position and purchased a house to which they will be moving, just a few miles from mine.

While all this moving was for reasons largely positive, the actual act of moving was not, particularly with our parents. The longer we live, the more stuff we accumulate. And in that our parents have lots of company.

The average American home has 300,000 items in it. The average size of the American home has nearly tripled in the past 50 years. And one out of every 10 Americans rents offsite storage.1 So having stuff appears to be an American pastime. What was interesting about moving our parents, however, was that we quickly recognized it wasn’t just their belongings, for our grandparents and great-grandparents were also well represented.

Moving my mom was probably the hardest. Because she was going to a smaller space, it wasn’t possible to take everything. She faced her job stoically, but it was difficult to part with things that had been with her for years. “Most of us are held captive by things,” she said. “When the time comes to lighten one’s load, breaking the bonds with favorite possessions is painful. With gritted teeth and firm resolve, many things were given away or disposed of. Looking back, I was sad, but I am no longer a captive. What I thought I needed I no longer do.”

My husband’s parents were fortunate in that the home they moved to had plenty of space for their things. They elected not to downsize because of the circumstances surrounding the move. That didn’t mean the move was any easier. Instead of spending time sorting, we spent the time arranging. Things that had a place in one home suddenly didn’t fit into the other. And while the large basement afforded storage, the random placement of things by movers made finding anything challenging. Fortunately, my father-in-law is a gifted organizer. After all, organization is the best step toward knowing what to keep and what to give away.

Magnusson recommends that death cleaning isn’t necessarily about throwing things away but offering them to family members now. She advocates starting with something easy, such as sorting clothing, and to save sentimental items such as photographs and old letters for last, or not at all. “It’s an ongoing process that is never truly finished,” says Magnusson. “You just have to get started.”

When Moving Makes It Happen

Our family (Sharon) recently accepted a position in England. Suddenly we began looking at our stuff and knew it was a good time to begin letting go.

Adding children to our home quickly increased our store as we accumulated books, toys, homemade items, “works of art,” twin sheet sets, blankets, towels, and linens—all things you squirrel away because you think you’ll need it all, maybe in the future, or it is just too precious to part with.

As I began to sort and pack, I found boxes in our basement that hadn’t been opened for decades. As the oldest daughter, I had inherited special items from both sides of my family. These boxes contained letters and papers from my parents and grandparents. I gave in to the temptation to dig deeper, to read each and every paper. I got caught up in my family’s stories. I found a journal my mom kept in college. I completely lost myself in the letters my dad wrote to me my first year in college. These long, handwritten letters conveyed such love and concern. I grew teary-eyed as I spent hours reading, knowing that my father had spent a good bit of time writing them to me. I felt his comforting words again.

A rush of emotion overcame me as I realized these people I knew and loved from my past are all dead and gone. Their memories came back to life as I read. I felt a reconnection with my past, and an affirmation of my identity now as, together with my family, I make this life transition. I had to move on with packing, so I reluctantly set them aside. But these items will stay with me—no death cleaning for them. I carefully packed them up to take to the UK.

Preparing to downsize gives pause for reflection. Someone told me he had no plans to clean out his house or downsize. “They can do all that after I’m gone!” he said.

I’m not sure I agree. My home is now completely cleaned, painted, and polished to sell, with the clutter removed and barely anything left to show of our life in that home. It has been painful and emotional letting go, but the process has also been liberating. Solomon seemed to understand: “There is a time for everything . . . a time to keep and a time to throw away.”2

  1. www.becomingminimalist.com/clutter-stats/
  2. Eccl. 3:1-6

Merle Poirier and Sharon Tennyson are indispensable members of the support staff of Adventist Review Ministries. They both live in Silver Spring, Maryland, for now.