Have you seen the new popular show, "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning?" This concept – the idea that you should physically "clean up" your life before dying, was introduced to most of us through Marguerite Magnusson's 2018 book by the same name. Magnusson advocates for a proactive approach to possession estate planning as a gift to those we leave behind, writing, "I have death cleaned so many times for others, I'll be damned if someone else has to death clean for me.”
Indeed, if you've ever had to do this, you know that the process can be sad, emotionally overwhelming, and time-consuming. Doing this ourselves before we die undoubtedly makes it easier for those who survive us and must deal with settling our estate. But, as Magnusson articulates, there are advantages for us, too; death cleaning may feel less intimidating and more enjoyable if we view it from a self-care perspective.
Clutter Breeds Anxiety
Excess material possessions can cause heightened anxiety and stress. In his book Goodbye Things, Fumio Sasaki identifies that our possessions can function as what he calls a 'silent to-do list.' Each item we own may be sending us messages – dishes say "wash me," plants say "water me," clothes say "fold me and put me away," etc. These messages reach us unconsciously and can contribute to a feeling of overwhelm when in our own homes – a place meant to be a haven of calm for us. Living in a cluttered home can also affect our physical health by raising our cortisol levels, and cluttered spaces may increase our risk of physical harm, like falling or tripping. While this doesn't mean you must become an absolute minimalist, there is no reason to share your home with things you no longer like that could negatively impact your lived experience.
If you need help figuring out where to start, there are some simple steps. Every home, even the most tidy, will collect things that are actual garbage over time. Outdated magazines, empty cosmetic bottles, expired food, etc., can accumulate without us realizing it. As a first step, go through your home and collect all the garbage. Once the trash is cleared, you can begin to discern what things really matter to you. A simple exercise is to go into your bathroom with a large box. Put into the box any items you have not used in the past month, leaving only those you use daily or weekly with regularity. Seal the box and put it in your closet. In one month, ask yourself if you need anything in the box or even remember what is inside! You can also do this exercise in your kitchen and go through your living room and bedroom, asking yourself, "If I had to move right now, would I take this with me?" Anything that is a "no" to that question can go into a month-long quarantine. During this month, see how it feels to live with the things that truly matter. Once the month is over, you can donate or throw away the boxed items.
Engaging in a Life Review
Decluttering can trigger the process of life review, an activity known to have emotional benefits as we get in touch with our positive accomplishments and relationships. Good and bad memories will arise as you go through the possessions in your home. Rather than simply reminiscing, use this process to reflect on what is important to you and be open to calls to action. You may remember people you haven't been in touch with in a while and reach out to them to reconnect. Souvenirs can spark wonderful memories of vacations enjoyed with friends or family – why not call or email and let them know this made you think of them and smile? Sometimes, physical items can remind us of unresolved relationships that weigh heavily on our hearts. This might be a good time to reach a resolution or completeness with the individual(s) in question. If it is not emotionally safe enough for you to engage with them in person or on the telephone, you can write a letter (which you will not send) or create some other closure ritual that can help you to let go of bad feelings and move forward feeling lighter and more free.
What if You Still Can't Face It?
For some, thoughts about culling or going through possessions can trigger extreme anxiety. If this is the case and you can't bring yourself to engage in death cleaning, you can still make things easier for your loved ones. Leave written instructions – permission, essentially – on how to dispose of your things. Survivors frequently feel that donating or throwing away a loved one's possessions equates with throwing the person away, even if they know that thinking this way is not rational. You can make things much easier on them by leaving directions such as "After you and my other loved ones take whatever items you wish, please donate my clothes to (Goodwill, etc.), my books to (library/used book store, etc.). Feel free to throw out or shred any paperwork that is not necessary for settling my estate…", etc. Bonus points for calling and ensuring that libraries accept used books, etc. AND leaving funds earmarked for cleaning and moving help.
There are many different ways to death clean – the right way is whatever method resonates with you and feels realistic, manageable, and meaningful. Small daily steps might work, or a big, weekend-long purge might be more satisfying. Death cleaning is an individual process, and you can feel free to set aside strategies or guidelines that don't work for you – the purpose is really to reduce your possessions to the things that really matter to you in the now, things that will remind your loved ones of you and make them smile. But even if you can't bring yourself to physically death clean, you'll feel proud and peaceful if you write instructions for those dealing with your affairs. Whatever form this takes, it is a gift to yourself as well as to others.
Get started now, with more tips from Katarina Blom, co-host of "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning," on the Remembering A Life podcast and blog: