Do Your Own Death Cleaning
"Do not ever imagine that anyone will wish -- or be able -- to schedule time off to take care of what you didn't bother to take care of yourself. No matter how much they love you, don't leave this burden to them."
Margareta Magnusson The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning
My mother passed away last February, and I'm glad for her sake that she suffered from dementia. She never knew how much care she needed during the last two years of her life, and especially during the last six months, when she could no longer do anything for herself. She would never have wanted to require that level of care; she would have felt that it made her a burden.
None of us wants to be a burden on our loved ones, either at the end of our life or afterward. And yet that is what we may be without even realizing it.
Don't believe me? Here's a simple question: What will happen to all of your stuff when you die? I don't mean your property or other assets that may be covered by your will. I'm talking about your stuff -- the stuff in your house right now. Your clothes and shoes and furniture and kitchenware and books and mementos.
Of course, some of that is stuff you need, because you use it every day, week, or month. Other stuff is just sitting in cupboards and closets and under the bed and in the basement. Once you die, all of that stuff has to go somewhere. And if you leave it, that means someone you love -- your surviving spouse, your sibling, or your child -- has to go through all of it and decide what to do with each item. Imagine it, or if you've had to do that chore for someone else, remember what it was like and how you felt about it.
Maybe you were lucky and there wasn't the clutter and accumulation of decades. Maybe your loved one left clear instructions, or at least suggestions, about what to do with everything. Maybe you had a lovely time reminiscing with other family members as you cleared out a house in a matter of a day or two.
Or maybe you walked into a typical home, a home with many thousands of items, most of them unused for a long time. Maybe you felt overwhelmed, frustrated, annoyed, burdened, even a bit angry as you were forced to spend weeks sorting through the detritus of a lifetime.
In Sweden there's a custom called death cleaning, described by Margareta Magnusson in her book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter. Magnusson writes that death cleaning is when you "remove unnecessary things and make your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave the planet."
When you declutter, you remove excess belongings in order to make room and time for the things that have value to you. You unburden yourself so that you're free to pursue the goals and activities that bring you joy and fulfillment. Death cleaning goes a step further, since it removes the burden from others of deciding what to do with your possessions.
Life becomes more pleasant and comfortable if we get rid of some of the abundance.
It's a little like staging your home for sale. When you stage a home, you keep only the essentials so that prospective buyers get a feel for the space and amenities your home has to offer. You're still living there, so the house isn't empty, but it's neat, clean, uncrowded, and inviting. It's suggested that you reduce your personal items to 1/2 or 1/3 of what you had in each room before you decided to list the house. Sometimes homeowners go through the staging process and decide they like their home better than they did before!
6 Death Cleaning Tasks
1. Declutter down to your essential needs and wants.
Create a home for each item you keep.
2. Decide which remaining items have special significance.
Leave details about your wishes for these heirlooms, whether furniture, musical instruments, art, wedding rings, photographs, or other mementos. Your loved ones will appreciate the story behind these items, so write it now!
Now is the time to have conversations about whether or not your loved ones want certain items at all. Their decision is not a reflection of their feelings for you, so do not make anyone feel an obligation. Remember you are trying to remove burdens, not create them.
3. Create an inventory to explain where you want everything else to go.
The majority of your belongings are not items you expect your loved ones to keep after your death, so make a list by category, explaining where you want things to be donated. Consider your:
- clothing and shoes
- jewelry and accessories
- artwork and decorative items
4. Get your financial affairs in order.
If you do not have a will, decide where you want your assets to go after you die, and invest a little money to have one made. Buy a small fireproof safe to store your important documents and a list of user names and passwords for access to banking, investments, life insurance, and other accounts. Make sure that one or two of your loved ones is authorized to deal with these if you become seriously ill or pass away.
5. Make a keepsake box of things to be thrown away after your death.
Magnusson writes that she kept a box with "things that have absolutely no value to anyone else, but enormous value for me." Only you know what might belong in this box.
6. Plan your funeral.
Create a document that describes your specific wishes for a memorial service and burial. Share this information with a loved one. List your preferences for:
Death is a reality, and we might as well prepare for it. Whether you are 40, 60, 80, or more, healthy or not, think about your legacy. Write your three sentence eulogy. You know how you want to be remembered, and it isn't for piles of unused and disorganized junk that has to be waded through and dealt with after you're gone.
Photo by Todd Cravens on Unsplash