Recipes for a Tidy and Tasty Death

Posted December 25, 2017 8:58 p.m. EST

Charles Lamb, the English essayist, hoped his last breath would be inhaled through a pipe and exhaled in a pun. We can’t all go out with such style. Two books are here to help us prepare.

In music terms, these books — Margareta Magnusson’s “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” and Perre Coleman Magness’ “The Southern Sympathy Cookbook” — will assist you not like roadies, but like end-of-the-roadies.

Magnusson’s book has a gripping title: terrifying yet cozy, like an avalanche as seen from a ski chalet. When I saw it I thought of Keith Richards, who snorted his father’s ashes after sifting them with cocaine. Who’s seen dad?

“The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” a surprise international best seller, is actually a fond and wise little book. It’s about how to sort through and dispose of many of your possessions before you die, thus sparing your family members an unpleasant task.

“A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you,” Magnusson writes. “Not all things from you.”

Magnusson is a painter who raised five children. Her age, she writes, is “somewhere between 80 and 100.” She’s had to death clean for three people, including her beloved husband. She has no wish to leave disarray for others when she’s gone.

She’s always been inclined to neatness, a crisp Ikea aesthetic, even if she isn’t as cheerfully ruthless as Marie Kondo (“Spark Joy”), the Japanese anti-clutter guru.

Magnusson writes: “I know many people who can sit in a messy home and look as if they are happy and in harmony. To me they seem almost comical. I don’t understand them.”

She would have lost her mind in Iris Murdoch and John Bayley’s kitchen. It was so chaotic near the end that a meat pie was said to have “disappeared” in it.

Don’t wait too long to begin, Magnusson advises. She thinks 65 is an appropriate age to start slowly downsizing, giving things away to friends and family members and charities.

A common mistake is to start with photographs. Leave those for last, she says. You will get lost in your memories and may never get off the couch.

Like nearly all self-help books, “The Swedish Art of Death Cleaning” is mostly common sense. Its advice could be condensed on the back of a postcard.

Magnusson is good company on the page, however. She quotes ABBA and Leonard Cohen. She teaches her readers useful Swedish words.

One of these is fulskap, or “cabinet for the ugly.” It’s where you store the hideous things relatives give you that you must display when they visit.

Another is mansdagis, Swedish for “man cave.” Its real meaning, she writes, is closer to “male kindergarten,” which is perfect.

The author is direct when she needs to be. “Save your favorite dildo — but throw away the other 15! There’s no sense in saving things that will shock or upset your family after you are gone.”

I jettison advice books after I’ve flipped through them. This one I will keep. I’m a sucker for a good title. Though I’m not old enough to begin my own death cleaning, I am glad to have the phrase. I plan to let my children know they’re in for a big day of cleaning the apartment when I summon them for a (cue the reverb) “death clean.”

“The Southern Sympathy Cookbook” is subtitled “Funeral Food With a Twist.” It’s really just a moderately good general Southern cookbook with a canny marketing strategy.

You can’t cook for your own funeral, unless you are good with freezers, time things well and have a morbid streak. But it would be nice if people brought the foods you loved to your wake. This book contains some of those things, for me at least — fried chicken and country ham and tomato aspic and cornbread salad and chess pie.

I will need friends to bring these things to my funeral. My wife finds traditional Southern food to be soft and starchy, and will not cook it, especially after I am no longer around to wheedle and cajole.

“There are times when your instinct, your heart’s reaction, is to prepare food,” Magness writes. She writes well about how Southerners react to the deaths of friends and loved ones.

“Small town communities, urban social circles and religious congregations can pull together a plan with a rapidity and precision world military leaders can envy,” she writes. “Phone trees, sign-up sheets, and now email blasts and text chains organize everything a grieving family could need.”

Throughout her book, like parsley, she sprinkles bits of small-town obituaries, such as this one from Galveston, Texas:

“She had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life. I speak for the majority of her family when I say her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing.”

This is perhaps a gentle reminder that, as you are death cleaning, you may want to write your own cleansing obit.


Publication Notes:

‘The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter’

By Margareta Magnusson

117 pages. Scribner. $18.99.

‘The Southern Sympathy Cookbook

Funeral Food With a Twist’

By Perre Coleman Magness

Illustrated. 174 pages. Countryman Press. $22.95.