A story that was shared with us got us pondering the concept of “death cleaning.” A young woman’s grandmother died a couple years ago and she shared this cautionary tale:
“Grandma passed away unexpectedly after complications from a surgery. Grandpa died several years before her, after they moved from their longtime house into a retirement community condo. While they downsized in that move, everything they owned remained in that packed condo when Grandma died.
Their son, who was the executor to their estate, visited the condo after the funeral to determine what to do next. Every closet, cabinet, nook and cranny were full of stuff: videos, photo albums, vinyl, dishes, clothing, artwork, mementos. The place was not dirty but it contained two lifetimes of belongings—or at least the things they did not part with when they moved from a three-bedroom house to a one-bedroom condo.
It was too much too soon for him to handle. He didn’t want to begin sifting through memories to decide what to keep, what to give to family and what to donate, so, he had it all packed and moved into storage. He never got around to going through it all before he suddenly passed away himself. The storage unit he kept was likely considered abandoned after he died, and what happened to the belongings within became an unsolved mystery.”
One of the great tragedies for the young woman is that she and her siblings were not proactive about what should happen to their grandmother’s possessions. Therefore, they missed out on receiving those precious items.
Swedish death cleaning
When someone dies, it generally falls to family members or close friends to go through their belongings—sometimes a big house full of them—to decide which items should be given to whom and what to donate or sell. It is often a huge undertaking.
The gist of Swedish death cleaning, aka dostadning, is you do your family a favor by decluttering your home before you die.
That doesn’t mean you should spend a weekend or a week’s vacation tossing things out. According to Margareta Magnusson, who wrote a wise book on the subject, death cleaning is a gentle art. It’s ongoing, and it can take years, because one usually never knows when one will pass. Therefore, dostadning will help you 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 to 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. You can also make a list of things that have value, so your loved ones don’t give them away just because they don’t like them.
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.
Take copious notes when Swedish death cleaning
The process can build momentum from there. Look at things to remove from your home that rarely or never get used anymore: kitchen gadgets and appliances, electronics, books, and ALL the stuff jamming those junk drawers.
It’s important to take note and write down which items you want left to specific people. This will avoid any in-fighting over the beloved china or everyone’s favorite lamp. If there are special items that would bring more happiness to loved ones today, why not pass them on now? For example, if you loved to crochet but your hands don’t cooperate like they used to, consider sharing your handiwork and supplies with a grandchild or niece or nephew who might take up the hobby.
Remember the grandmother who passed unexpectedly from earlier in this post? She made a photo album for each of her grandkids and made sure they all received them while she was well and could take joy in looking at photos together. While she didn’t perfect the Swedish act of death cleaning, it seems like she was beginning the journey of planning ahead.
What’s the best age to start dostadning? Beyond middle age seems to be the recommendation, perhaps when children are grown and a decluttering 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.
Remember, not only will dostadning help your family members avoid a challenging task, you also make sure you decide what happens to your precious belongings. Your loved ones will likely have a lengthy checklist to follow once you pass, but by performing the art of death cleaning, you are easing some of that burden.