Recently, the term Swedish Death Cleaning, or dostadning, has appeared in my social feeds. It comes from the Swedish words for ‘death’ and ‘cleaning’ and was made mainstream after the release of the book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” by Margareta Magnusson.
The idea of Swedish Death Cleaning is for elder folks to begin decluttering, minimizing, and cleaning, prior to death – often starting in their mid 60s (or just after retirement). The thought is that this cleaning will relieve their loved ones of the burden that would otherwise fall onto them.
But I have to wonder, why wait until retirement? There have been numerous comparisons made between Marie Kondo’s ageless “spark joy” theory of decluttering, (also known as KonMari), and Mangusson’s later-in-life Death Cleaning. That’s because at their core, the methods seek a similar goal: Feeling better with less clutter. But it’s the reason for seeking this goal that differs.
Death Cleaning is said to be motivated by the need to relieve loved ones of the burden of clutter. KonMari is motivated by the need to relieve oneself of the burden of clutter.
In her book, Magnusson writes: “I often ask myself, ‘Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?'” And if the answer is no, the item is pitched or given away. Kondo’s method is more personal, urging readers instead to ask, “Will I PERSONALLY be happier if I save this?”
At the end of the day, both methods even go through a similar process: Cataloging and assigning a “joy factor” (KonMari) or a “keep factor” (Death Cleaning) to items.
So Why Not Call It What It Is?
Minimalism, as it’s discussed today, is about changing the role of possessions in our lives. It gives people hope that they can start living a more meaningful life, and their future can be FULL of adventure, relationships, and memories – not just FULL of stuff.
But what does that mean for someone who feels his or her time is coming to a close? Maybe not tomorrow or next month, but in the next decade perhaps. Nobody can know exactly when, where, or how we’ll die – but statistically we’re lucky to live past 80.
For someone who is no longer concerned with what life’s next big adventure is, the term Death Cleaning may be more appealing. Where I’m at right now, I’m all focused on the future. So I declutter – and have been for almost a year– not because I worry about what my kids will have to deal with when I die, but because I desire to live many more years surrounded by simplicity and positivity. (not by stuff).
That being said, as I get older, I imagine myself being less concerned with living for the future as much as wanting to reflect on my past. Perhaps this is the real crux of Death Cleaning: a shift in our mindset that can only come when mortality is in question. When we have more good years behind us than in front of us, perhaps the way we think of minimalism changes.
One of the greatest last gifts you can give a son or daughter, is the ability for them to let go. I speak from experience when I say the pain of sorting stuff after death is real. And it’s not just about the time that goes into it, it’s the questions we loved ones must wrestle with. When my mother passed, it was clear she wasn’t prepared. Despite her many years of illness, none of us were, not really.
I remember the piles of paperwork on her desk. The unfinished projects around the house. The totes filled with partially used crafting supplies. The ungiven gifts she was saving for some special occasion. The photographs tucked in every miscellaneous nook and cranny. The jewelry. The letters. The lamps. The…Stuff.
I remember coming home from the hospital and opening her purse the day she died. I fingered through the pockets: a pair of earrings, checkbook and credit cards, scribbled notes with phone numbers, some cash tucked in the side pocket, wads of tissue, and a handful medications.
I zipped the purse and tossed it in a tote with some of her other stuff. And I didn’t open the purse again until almost 4 years later. (Just last week – pictured above).
That’s right, the emotional burden of everything else left me too paralyzed to clean out her purse – insignificant as the contents were – for 4 years. During that time, a lot of other sorting did happen, just very slowly. I questioned the value of every photograph or possession she owned. Did she even remember she had these things? Did she love them dearly? Or could she have cared less? Every SINGLE item left me wondering. Today, I still wonder if I made the right decisions with what to keep, pitch, donate, etc.
I don’t blame her, but I often wonder if some of the emotional toll could have been avoided if she’d held onto less stuff. If she practiced minimalism earlier in life – or Death Cleaning later in life – so many questions would have been answered.
Minimalism At The Heart.
Perhaps the Swedes are onto something with this new concept of Death Cleaning. Or perhaps we should all just lighten up about the nuances the minimalism and just be happy we’ve been enlightened to it. KonMari, Death Cleaning, or simply “decluttering”, call it what you wish, it’s just another way to think about the minimalism movement, and living only with the things that bring all those good feels.