Coronavirus = Time for Swedish Death Cleaning

Photo of author’s bookshelves filled with books, photos, and memorabilia taken by author (Joyce O’Day).

Relax! This is about organizing your stuff and not about funeral rites!

The concept of döstädning (death cleaning) was popularized in Margareta Magnusson’s 118-page book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to free yourself and your family from a lifetime of clutter, published in 2018.

For women and men “of a certain age,” our Coronavirus-mandated period of social distancing provides the perfect opportunity to finally get our possessions in order.

Unlike going full Marie Kondo and tossing anything and everything that no longer “sparks joy” in our soul, Magnusson’s method flips the script by having us reflect, “Will anyone be happier if I save this?” This makes it a situation of shame vs. joy. It is not so much about how YOU feel, but rather about how YOUR RELATIVES will feel when they have to go through your belongings after you die.

My parents were not hoarders by any means. When my father passed away, his clothes were donated and his unneeded tools and assorted work paraphernalia were sold at the swap meet. By the time of my mother’s death, eleven years later, there was little left. Not only had she given away all personal items she no longer needed or utilized (like her meat grinder), she purged many sentimental items I had wanted (like my grandmother’s rosary beads). I was able to dismantle her entire apartment in a weekend.

Comparatively, my husband and I are hoarders. As a historian and retired high school teacher, I have amassed a substantial library of books and educational materials. I have boxes of notebooks from my decades of university classes, Rubbermaids full of my children’s schoolwork, assorted travel souvenirs, and a large collection of sentimental keepsakes. Whereas my husband has saved every item of electronics that he has ever purchased, dating back to the 1960s, along with rock concert t-shirts and ticket stubs, a record collection exceeding 500 albums, and a mess of tools and construction materials from his career as a carpenter. Lest we make a concentrated effort to sort this stuff out, our six children (his, mine, and ours) will have their hands full when we inevitably die.

My two oldest children experienced this a few years back, after their father died suddenly of a broken heart 18 months after his wife (their stepmother) died of breast cancer. My kids were left with a 3,000+ square foot house full to the brim with items both trash and treasure. Their stepmom liked to shop! Realizing the value of the antiques and collectibles, my kids hired an appraiser and held an estate sale. Along with their three younger siblings, they attempted to separate out the sentimental items they each wanted to keep and donate the vast quantity of items they had no use for or interest in saving. It was a painful experience to observe, and it brought home the fact that our loved ones are ill-equipped to deal with the remnants of our lives when they are mourning our death.

My very real fear is that when I die, my loved ones will not be able to determine what is valuable from what is junk. I do not want my kids to discard those items that have deep personal meaning along with the mass of things that are emotionally or financially worthless.

This period of social distancing is the perfect time to begin the important process of decluttering our home by downsizing our belongings and labeling the true treasures we have accumulated over a well-lived life. So where do we start?

Sell, Gift, Donate, or Trash?

Get your loved ones involved immediately in this emotional journey. Call up your kids and grandkids to let them know your intentions. Your smartphone is your friend in this endeavor. Send photos of items that you think they may want, and for those items they are excited to have, pass them off now if they not currently on display or being used regularly. If you encounter items that your kids are not ready for, place them in a box labeled with their name to be discovered after your passing. This could include letters, cards, or other treasures you have saved from their childhood. I have containers filled with my kid’s baby teeth, clippings from their first hair cut, handmade holiday decorations, and art projects. Many of these things, my kids would probably trash immediately upon receipt, but they may bring a smile to their face 10–20 years from now.

Magnusson advises tackling large items first and saving sentimental items like photographs, letters, and memorabilia for last, because it is far too easy to get lost down that rabbit hole. Anything stashed in an attic, basement, or garage is an ideal place to start, because in most cases, this is the stuff you haven’t looked at or used in years. Hence, most likely anything stored in these areas could be quickly addressed.

Those items that hold no interest for your loved ones and are of no use to you should be placed in a to-go box. What cannot be sold can be donated. If you have no interest in attempting to sell these items online via Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, or eBay, maybe a relative or neighbor would appreciate the extra cash for assisting you with this task.

As you go through your life’s many collections, there are many items that are only meaningful to you. In some situations, a photograph is all you really need to preserve the memory. In other cases, it is wise to attach a note or Post-it to the item with an explanation of its history or meaning.

Magnusson advises dedicating a box as “just for me.” You can label this box as “Throw Away.” The contents are personal things that you alone may enjoy looking over from time to time, but you know that your loved ones will have no interest in keeping. The “Throw Away” designation allows them to toss this stuff without angst upon your passing. Anything and everything that could cause awkwardness or embarrassment when you are gone should also be dealt with. Do you want your kids to find your collection of sex toys or pornography after you pass? Probably not! Purge anything with potential “shock value.”

For most people, kitchen cabinets and bedroom closets are another good place to start. Most of us have utensils and glassware that is redundant or has outlived its usefulness. How many sets of dishes do you really need? Gift it or donate it! Likewise, discard clothing you will never wear and organize the remains KonMari style.

As noted above, I have a sizable book collection. Some are valuable — most are not. While I intend to start selling off sections of my collection, in the meantime I have inserted notes beneath of the cover of any book that is worth saving or selling. These include first editions, items signed by the author, and books that have had special meaning in my life.

When it comes to all things sentimental, if it is worth saving, it is worth labeling. This necklace was bought on our trip to Italy. This lacquered box was a gift from Aunt Kit. These prints were purchased on a trip to Maui. This afghan was knitted by Grandma Jenny. If you know the monetary value of an item, include it on the note.

Photos can be a major chore for everyone. Landscape photos without a human being can probably be tossed. Photos with people should be labeled and dated whenever possible. They can be scanned for posterity and shared immediately with family and friends.

Finally, it is imperative to get all financial and life documents organized. Do you have a will or living trust? If not, get this done immediately. My ex-husband died without a will, and it took 17 months and $75,000 to resolve his estate thanks to the probate process. Do NOT leave your kids in this situation. In addition to your will or living trust documents, birth certificates, wedding license, divorce records, etc., need to be organized. The location of investment account information, insurance policies, mortgage documents, and vehicle titles needs to be identified. Don’t neglect to include all passwords and login information for your various accounts. It is also a good idea to make someone POD (payable on death) for any bank accounts. Remember, the goal is make it as easy and painless for your loved ones to manage your belongings after you are gone.

In the end, this process will bring liberation from the clutter that dominates many of our lives and distracts us from enjoying the present because we are surrounded by the meaningless accumulations from our past. Our Corona-cation is the perfect time to begin this vital project. So, gather up some empty Amazon boxes, a notepad and some Post-its, and a Sharpie pen or two and designate an hour or two each day for this project. By the time our social distancing has come to an end, you will be ready for a yard sale or a pick-up call for your favorite charity. Best of all, you will have peace of mind from knowing that your treasures from this life have been accounted for and that your loved ones can mourn your passing without the burden of sorting through your junk.

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