Readers of this blog know that I have been cleaning out my in-laws’ house. It is a bittersweet experience. The “bitter” part is the reams of paper and items that haven’t been touched for thirty years but never thrown away. The “sweet” part is all the notes and cards from their children, grandchildren and loving friends that have been saved for more than 70 years. It is a daunting and sometimes rewarding task to sort through the accumulation of two lifetimes.
I recently learned that the Swedes have a practice called “Death Cleaning” (surely this sounds better in Swedish). It encourages older people to clean out their houses so that after their deaths, others will not have to sift through a lifetime of unnecessary accumulation. Yes, the culture that spawned Ikea has a similar no-nonsense approach to life: keep it simple, minimal and do not accumulate a lot of stuff. All of this is laid out in Margareta Magnusson’s new book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.
The idea of decluttering is increasingly popular—in theory, if not in practice. An unscientific sampling (my friends) revealed that most believe they have too much stuff and are planning to get rid of it. Note that they are “planning,” not “doing.” Only those who have had to clear out their parents’ homes are actively “death cleaning.” A couple of years ago Marie Kondo’s book on decluttering encouraged us to surround ourselves only with things that “spark joy.” I can get a few sparks from some books and clothing, but our vacuum cleaner doesn’t spark anything except gratitude that it picks up cat hair. Obviously, sparking joy is only a guideline.
Back at the house, we are getting closer to completion. While it would have been easier to reach this point if my in-laws had done some “death cleaning” beforehand, there is a sense of closure that, surprisingly, feels as if it comes from them. Not that I believe they know what we’re doing, just that in some ways it feels right to handle items that must have sparked their joy along the way.
Photo by Christian Fregnan, courtesy of Unsplash.