Aging Well

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

In the Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, Swedish author Magnusson writes,"A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things."

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Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning
Liisa Ogburn
Not long ago, my dear Aunt Jessie sent me an article about the new book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, a Swede who lists her age as “80 to 100.” (I feel the need to credit this web of wise elder women—my mom, Aunt Jessie, Aunt Sarah, Cousin Kate, and former clients—who continue to provide useful fodder for this blog.)
In the Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, the author asks the reader to bear in mind that the stuff they leave behind after death will weigh down and burden their busy adult children. She states,“A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you,” Magnusson writes. “Not all things from you.”

The article caught my eye because just yesterday I was talking with a client whose declining mother, who really needs to move to Assisted Living for safety reasons, continues to resist by saying, “But first I need to clean out the house...”

The week before, I had another client, in her early nineties and still living independently, who broke her hip while trying to clean out her house. And now, in rehab and uncertain whether she will ever walk again, she regrets she had not done it earlier or, at least, asked for help.

My parents, in their mid-seventies, are doing it by filling their station wagon with large labeled boxes each time they come visit. They breathe a sigh of relief with each box deposited in the foyer of my or my brother Erik’s house. When I open my boxes, I find things like my first baby doll, my first writing samples, a funny hat from a Yugoslavian exchange student, and old postcards from camp. I used to just tape these boxes back up and carry them to the attic. But then, after my father-in-law died and we inherited much more than a few boxes, including almost all the furniture from the barbershop he ran on Castle Street in Wilmington for over forty years, I started to feel weighed down.

Maybe you can relate to this story? Yesterday, when taking winter clothes up to the attic, I noticed two boxes I packed over 20 years ago after graduate school. They were both heavy with little items that didn't fall into any clear category… they held things like girl scout badges, single earrings, early pennies, broken necklaces I intended to get fixed, elementary school love letters… My husband and I had paid to have them moved to San Francisco many years ago when we relocated there for his medical residency. We paid again to have them moved to a barn on my grandparent’s farm, when we moved from San Francisco to Japan. Then we paid to have them moved to our first home in Raleigh, NC several years after that. Surely the amount we’ve spent to carry these boxes has far exceeded the value of what is inside. These are not the items, necessarily with stories attached to them, as I discussed in a previous article. Honestly, now that I look at it, most of it is junk.

If I were to die today, I worry whoever eventually cleaned out my attic and basement would label me a “hoarder.”

According to an article on Psychology Today, hoarding relieves anxiety, but also produces it. The more hoarders accumulate, the more insulated they feel from the world and its dangers. Of course, the more they accumulate, the more isolated they also become from the world.

I felt compelled to do a “gentle Swedish death cleaning” myself.

How to begin? Author Magnusson asks, "Will anyone I know be happier if I save this? Before it goes into the shredder, I have had a moment to reflect on the event or feeling, good or bad, and to know that it has been a part of my story and of my life.”

The book is not only morose. It includes details from her life—such as what it was like to sew the clothing for her five children. (I can relate—my Finnish mother sewed almost all of my clothing until I reached babysitting age and could finally buy a few store-bought pieces. I've come to understand just how lucky I was to be outfitted by the same person who designed and sewed for many of Charlotte's elite). There are recipes for rose hip marmalade and red beet sherry, as well as quotes from favorite musicians, like Leonard Cohen. There are also useful Swedish words, like fulskap, or “cabinet for the ugly,” where you store distasteful gifts to display when the giver visits.

There are even instructions that one might not expect from someone between “80 and 100,” like, “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.”

The book is really about facing death with maturity and while I am hopefully a few years away from that, it has left me looking more critically in my closets and attic and yesterday, after dropping a minivan full of items I no longer need to be burdened with at Cause for Paws, some relief and even a bit more space to write columns like this one.


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