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A Swedish ritual can teach Americans how to better prepare for death

Those who have experienced the death of a loved one know that part of the grieving process can involve cleaning out the home of the deceased. Sometimes only sorting some belongings, such as clothing and personal items is necessary; other times, if no one else is living in the home, everything from furniture to cookware to books and knick knacks must be given away, sold, donated or thrown out. Such a task takes an emotional toll on survivors, either because of the sadness it invokes, or because of the burden from making decisions about the fate of possessions the loved one has left behind.  

Sweden offers a solution.

The Swedes have a ritual in their culture called “dostadning,” which translates to “death cleaning.” We first heard about the concept in a recent New York Post article, and The Washington Post published its own feature. The gist of it is this: do your family a favor by de-cluttering your home before you die.

That doesn’t mean you should spend a weekend or a week’s vacation tossing things out — although you could, to get the process started. According to Margareta Magnusson, who wrote a wise book on the subject, death cleaning is a gentle art. It’s on-going, and it can take years, because one usually never knows when one will pass. Therefore, dostadning will help you to to prepare over time.

Magnusson’s book provides simple and practical advice for where to start and how to pursue the process of death cleaning. Begin with tasks that are easier to tackle and get some momentum going. Maybe that’s your closet full of clothing that you can better organize. Or the small appliances and cookbooks in your kitchen that you never use. Or the trappings of hobbies you’re no longer interested in. Or old electronics.

If there are items you’d like people to have upon your death, consider giving those things away now. You don’t necessarily have to tell people they’re receiving an early inheritance, unless you want to, but instead turn the opportunity into a kind gesture or gift. As you inventory your belongings, give away the nicest things you don’t want anymore as gifts, such as china or collectibles.

Sorting boxes of mementoes and photos, understandably, can be a more difficult, and slower, part of the process. Magnusson says there are no rules for what to keep or get rid of; but try to focus on hanging onto only those things that you love and make you happy in the moment. She suggests keeping a separate box of things that matter only to you, and label it to be thrown away when you pass.

Not only will death cleaning save your loved ones from an overwhelming task, but you can ensure you are the decision-maker for all of your possessions.

What’s the best age to start dostadning? Beyond middle age seems to be the recommendation, perhaps when children are grown and a de-cluttering lifestyle is more realistic. Still, it couldn’t hurt to get in the death cleaning habit at any stage of life. There are local organizations and charities that would appreciate your donations whenever you’re ready to part with them.

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