Death Cleaning

Your treasures are your kids' junk.

A while back, I came across an article on the Swedish practice of death cleaning, brought to America by Margareta Magnusson’s book on the subject from a year ago.

If your family doesn’t want your stuff when you’re alive, they sure won’t want it when you’re dead.

That’s the blunt assessment of yet another self-help author from abroad who is trying to get Americans, who have an addiction to collecting and storage units, to clean up their acts.

The latest volley in the decluttering business comes from Stockholm, where 80-ish artist Margareta Magnusson has just published a slim yet sage volume, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.” The book will be published in the United States in January.

While Japanese item-control diva Marie Kondo gave us strict instructions to keep only things that spark joy, Magnusson’s book is straightforward and unsentimental (with a bit of humor). The main message from this mother of five is: Take responsibility for your items and don’t leave them as a burden for family and friends. It’s not fair. Magnusson says you can keep things that evoke good memories; there are no hard-and-fast rules such as folding your remaining T-shirts to stand upright in your drawers, as dictated by the KonMari method.

The concept of decluttering before you die, a process called “dostadning,” is part of Swedish culture. (It comes from the Swedish words for death and cleaning.) Karin Olofsdotter, 51, the Swedish ambassador to the United States, says her mother and father, who are in their 80s, are in the midst of it back home.

“My parents and their friends are death cleaning, and we all kind of joke about it,” Olofsdotter says. “It’s almost like a biological thing to do.” Olofsdotter says part of Swedish culture is living independently and never being a burden to anyone. How you keep your home is a statement of that.

Magnusson, who has moved 17 times, says women often end up doing the death cleaning. After her husband died, she had to declutter their house; it took her almost a year before she could downsize to a two-room apartment. She says that although it felt overwhelming, she is glad she did it herself, as her husband would have wanted to keep everything and her kids would have disagreed about what to keep and what to toss. This way, she made her own decisions. Now she continues to do it on a regular basis.

Magnusson suggests that age 65 is a good time to start death cleaning, but the process is freeing at any age.

A few of her tips: Don’t start with your photos, as you’ll get bogged down in your memories and never accomplish anything. Make sure you keep a book of passwords for your heirs. Give away nice things you don’t want as gifts, such as china or table linens or books, as opposed to buying new items. Keep a separate box of things that matter only to you, and label it to be tossed upon your death. It’s okay to keep a beloved stuffed animal or two.

I was reminded of this practice the last couple of days, as I’ve been going through the house that my mom lived in for nearly four decades before her passing last month. Germany’s culture is very different from Sweden’s, as nothing like this was practiced in the family. The first two decades of her marriage to my late father coincided with his military career and the frequent moves that entailed, so regular purging was the norm in their twenties and thirties. But they made up for it by being pack rats ever since.

A constant refrain over the years was “Some day, this will all be yours.” And so it came to pass. Alas, I don’t want most of it.

Despite my having made a pretty aggressive effort at thinning out my dad’s possessions when he died nine years ago, getting rid of most of his paperwork and clothing, there was a lot to go through. Things that they presumably enjoyed at some point in their lives—and certainly spent thousands of dollars on—had simply become junk over time. My fiance and I filled up the minivan twice with things deemed neither worth keeping for sentimental reasons nor offering up at an estate sale. It all now resides at the county dump.

The shame of it isn’t just that we had to devote to pretty full days to the process. As Magnusson suggests, it puts the emotional burden on the children of having to decide which of their parents’ prized possessions must be tossed. I’m less sentimental about such things than most but it’s still a wrenching experience.

For example, my dad went through an artistic phase for a few years in his late forties and well into his fifties. While he’d always drawn and engaged in photography, he began painting and woodworking. He left behind perhaps a dozen professionally-framed canvasses of various nature scenes in the Bob Ross genre. I have one that he gave me in the early 1990s. Alas, I don’t have use for any more. I’ve photographed them but will have to let the rest go. Presuming they don’t go at the estate sale, they’re likely headed for a trash heap.

After he died, I rescued his Army dress uniforms, pocket knives, and camera. I’ve now taken possession of many of his wood carvings and a couple more mementos from his military career, including a Recruiter of the Year plaque from 1970 and a bronze statue of a pig in an MP helmet he received as a retirement gift. Those will mean something to me and, just maybe, to granddaughters who never knew him. (Katie was barely a year old when he died and Ellie wasn’t yet even in utero.) But the rest of his material possessions, sadly, are now mostly trash.

My mom had a collector’s impulse and had various assemblies of Hummels, Noritake statues, Swarovski crystal figurines, Boyd’s bears, Santa Claus representations, and all manner of other stuff. Often, she grew tired of the stuff and it wound up in the attic or other storage spaces. The bears, for example, were ruined from weathering. She also bought a lot of crystal glassware, gold-plated cutlery, and the like later in life. Sadly, she’d always wanted that stuff but couldn’t afford it when she was younger. By the time she had it, it was really useless in that she almost never entertained.

I kept one of the Hummels and two of the Noritake statues, as they were part of my childhood and remind me of my mother in her prime. I also kept an inordinate number of stuffed old-timey Santas, which she procured well after I left the house, because I think the girls will enjoy them at Christmastime. Otherwise, though, the stuff just doesn’t fit my taste or lifestyle.

My folks were prone, like most, to the sunk cost fallacy. They retained all manner of crap for which they had no conceivable use on the grounds that they’d paid a lot of money for it and didn’t want to sell it for pennies on the dollar. But, of course, things don’t become more valuable after decades in the attic. The expensive, custom breakfast nook they had made for the house in El Paso in which they expected to retire didn’t really fit the kitchen in Alabama when they unexpectedly moved a year and a half later. It eventually wound up in the attic, where it’s now rotted. It’s still up there, as it’s incredibly heavy; I’m not quite sure we how we got it up there.

There were also boxes and boxes and bags and bags of Christmas items and a couple of boxes of things from my childhood. There were likely some Christmas ornaments and other keepsakes from my childhood that I’d have enjoyed keeping as mementos. Alas, being in rotted cardboard boxes and desiccated plastic bags, I didn’t even go through that stuff. It went right to the dump.

While I inherited my mom’s collector instinct and a bit of my dad’s “This could come in handy some day” attitude, I’m reasonably good at purging possessions I don’t need. I have way more clothing, especially suiting, than I need but I get rid of clothes that I’m not going to wear again a couple times a year. I’ve still got a large comic collection from the days between 7th grade and college but they’re at least bagged and boxed appropriately. And orders of magnitude more than the 30 books Marie Kondo recommends. But I long ago donated all my cassette tapes and the 1992 Encyclopedia Brittanica set for which I paid too much at the time.

I’ve also been ruthless in tossing artwork and other items that the girls bring home from school, but I’ve kept more of it than I’ve had time or inclination to properly scrapbook. Similarly, I’ve given away almost all of their clothes once my youngest outgrew them, but have still kept more sentimental items than I’ll ever dig out and look at.

The bottom line is that the Swedes have it right: purge your crap so your kids don’t have to. If they’re grown, they may well enjoy having a handful of items that remind them of their childhood. If you’re going to put it in the attic, you’re probably never going to take it out. So, see if your kids want it. Otherwise, get rid of it.

FILED UNDER: Parenting
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Having gone through this myself, I can fully relate. When my Mom passed away in 2004 my wife at the time and I did our best to encourage my Dad to get rid of stuff that she had collected over the years that he obviously had no use for, especially things that didn’t have any value. While somewhat successful in that regard, mostly when there was someone around to help him, the fact that I was four hours away and had concerns and a life of my own meant that I was hoping he would do much of it himself. In some respect he did, but in others he didn’t. In no small part I think it’s because it was difficult to just get rid of things that reminded one of her.

    This means that there was still much to deal with when my Dad passed away five years ago.

    The Swedes were on to something

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But, of course, things don’t become more valuable after decades in the attic.

    A guy I once worked with found a matched set of dueling pistols in the attic of a Lafeyette Square house that was being gutted. The exception that proves the rule, I suppose.

  3. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I also empathize with your plight. “If your family doesn’t want your stuff while you’re alive, they …” is also a wise admonition. I’m in the process of decluttering and making sure that my cousins don’t want any of the pictures and assorted tchotchke that came to my side of the family after my grandmothers passing because with no heirs “everything must go–no reasonable offer refused” when I pass on and I would have some slight sadness any regret my inaction might provoke.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    Very sage advice. Here’s a few things I’ve been doing for the past decade or so.
    – My wardrobe management operates on a one-in-one-out policy. If I get a new shirt, an old one has to go. This includes T-Shirts.
    – Those special T-Shirts, like the ones my kids made for me when they were small, became pajama tops. I see them and actually think bout them from time to time, and when they are so holey they head to the trash, I don’t feel so bad. Having worn them so often, I’m not likely to ever forget them.
    – As for the old skis, electronics components, tools, and so forth, I long ago realized that there is no moral high ground in keeping them. If there is waste, it was in buying things I didn’t use. Keeping them in the attic or the shed doesn’t mitigate that.
    – When the family asks me what I want for my birthday, I either request things I have a real need for, or ask for experiences or things you can eat or drink.

  5. KM says:

    A constant refrain over the years was “Some day, this will all be yours.” And so it came to pass. Alas, I don’t want most of it.

    Thank you! I’ve been trying to explain this to family and friends for years. Quite a few of my family have hoarder tendencies and try to pass off old junk as “antiques” or “family heirlooms” that simply MUST be treasured and kept by the next generation. They’re currently cursing out the younger generation who’s trying to KonMari the house and are finding none of the crap brings “joy” or is useful. A box of my great-grandmothers curlers does me no good, especially since I don’t curl my hair and those things look moldy AF. Into the trash they go and great-grandma can be pissed with me in the afterlife if it’s such a big deal!

    There was a story on Yahoo recently about an “ungrateful” bride-to-be who was pissed her fiancee sought out her advice on the ring, only to pass off a grandmother’s ring as an heirloom on his mother’s request. Most of the comments chided the woman and called her selfish for not wanting someone else’s ring – think of the history and sentimentality! The cold hard truth is, just because it was your grandma’s doesn’t mean your future wife will like it. It’s not insulting to the dead to have your own taste and insist on your own style. It’s not insulting to the aging generation to point out if we wanted your stuff, we’d ask for it. We just don’t want to be bogged down with your crap, your parents’ crap, possible even THEIR parents’ crap as well as our own when you die. It’s not personal – we’re rejecting your junk, not YOU.

  6. Joe says:

    In his waning years my grandfather developed a habit, over my grandmother’s objection, of offering you anything in the house you made this mistake of openly admiring or complimenting. “You like it? Take it, we don’t use it.” This habit hit its high point when someone complimented their everyday china and he made his usual offer till my grandmother vetoed it.

    I have had the personal experience of clearing out my parents’ house, my older sister’s house (who was a minor league hoarder) and the various smaller living situations my father graduated to until he died 4 years ago. It has made me very conscious of my closets. I now try to give the nicer tchotchkes away to my nieces who have adult homes. I always accompany the gift with the representation that this was your grandmother’s and she would want you to have it, even if I can’t remember where it actually came from.

  7. Guarneri says:

    Interesting piece.

    A suggestion I have adopted is to identify just one item that is in some way representative of the relationship you had with the person, but also displayable. For example:

    Great maternal grandfather – a rare finely wood inlayed secretary residing in my home office. Grandmother – two pieces of Wedgwood china. Grandfather – a real Acushnet Bullseye putter (he taught me to play and I became a competitive level golfer) Mother – marble top display table. Father – framed medical degree.

    Utility and memory.

  8. Franklin says:

    I can relate.

    I’ve got one or two decent-sized boxes of mementos from ancestors, I think that’s a reasonable limit. Of course, there are also a few things I kept that were useful – a nice lamp here, a rolling tool chest there.

    But even in our 40s, my wife and I purge a couple times per year. We just don’t seem to need the plastic junk from China that certain relatives insist on buying for us. For example, the new juicer that went straight to the local re-use center.

    Heaven help us when *those* relatives pass on.

  9. Jen says:

    My mother is a minimalist, my father attaches sentimentality onto loads of stuff we picked up living overseas. Some of it, interestingly, would actually have had value if he could provide provenance–which he cannot. So it hovers in a gray area. If my father goes first, my mother will get rid of it. If she precedes him, I will have to deal with it someday.

    This concept of death cleaning has been on my mind for a bit now–we do not have children, so there is very little compulsion to hold on to things to pass down, since the recipients are removed (nephews/nieces, or the offspring of cousins–are these second cousins? I can never keep that straight), only things of actual, real value will be kept. We have some work to do.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    After acting as the executor of the estate of a very dear friend of mine (and having to clean out his apartment) I’m even more insistent on cleaning out my own place NOW and not leaving the whole mess as a task for my executors or friends. Am quite a few years before the 65 year threshold, but cleaning up now means not having to worry about it later when I might not be quite as good lifting and shoving around heavy boxes.

  11. Joe says:

    @Jen:
    Cousins in the same generation are “first,” “second,” “third,” etc. The children of those cousins are “once removed” and the grandchildren are “twice removed,” etc. My first cousins kids are my first cousins, once removed. “Cousins” is actually a generic term for collateral relatives and can technically be used for aunts and uncles as well.

    Tomorrow, we will do cosanguineal and affinal.

  12. Grumpy realist says:

    @Joe:

    We can also go over such topics as executory interests, contingent remainders, and the dreaded Rule Againt Perpetuities.

    (Incidentally, does anyone ever still actually create life estates? I sometimes wonder whether we poor legal bastards are simply boning up on the equivalent of tourney etiquette: at one point very important, but now—like those tchotchkes in the attic—now unused and covered under mold and spiderwebs. )

  13. Joe says:

    @Grumpy realist: You are mixing anthropology with law. Life estates are still a thing, kind of a big thing, along with your other listed topics.

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jen:

    –are these second cousins?

    Based on what I read on the innertubes, the children of your cousins are your first cousins, once removed (as in a generation younger), but it’s not uncommon to call them second cousins. If I understand what I read, your cousins’ cousins not from your father’s side of the family would be second cousins because they have different grandparents than you do.

  15. Joe says:

    Not quite, @ignint cracker, now we have to get to cosanguineal and affinal. Cosanguinal kin share at least one common ancestor (of the same blood). Affinal kin are related by marriage. My brother, mother and grandfather are cosanguineal kin. My brother’s wife (my sister in law) is affinal, as is my mother’s brother’s wife (my aunt). You are technically cousins of one degree or another with all of your consanguineal kin. You also count as affinal cousins the spouse of each. But if your cousins have cousins that are not cosanguineal to you, they are called “other people.”

    Because I practice law in a relatively small town, I realized that the client on the other side of my first closing after returning here was my counsin’s cousin’s cousin, but otherwise no relation to me.

  16. Dave Schuler says:

    Fashions change. Young people today may think it’s junk but in 10, 20 years their views may not be the same.

    What you consider junk the girls may think is just wonderful. That’s frequently the case. Dad’s stuff is junk; Grandma’s stuff is a treasure.

    I suspect I am the only person here who was at one time an antique dealer. Contrary to what was said above, practically everything increases in value with age, especially when it turns 100. The earliest cracker jack prizes were nearly valueless—value of less than a cent. Now some are worth $10 apiece. Increasing in value 10,000 fold ain’t bad. Glass and dishes that were sold in the dime store a century ago may be worth hundreds or even more today.

    I really wish I still had that Amazing Fantasy #15.

  17. MarkedMan says:

    @Joe: And just to add a tangent to the tangential discussion on relations, here’s one change of language in this area due to unintended consequences: Because of the one child policy (and preference) in China, it has become the overwhelming norm that people do not have brothers or sisters. When I was helping put together an R&D center there I was a bit surprised to hear how often people, especially younger people, referred to their brothers and sisters. It was only after I felt comfortable enough with some of them to ask about (what I though was) this politically fraught topic that I learned they were referring to their cousins as brothers and sisters. The cosanguineal contemporary they felt closest to was their cousin. It gave me some pause when I realized this too would disappear. Although their parents might have siblings and therefore they would have cousins, they had no siblings and so their children will have no cousins.

    The one-child policy is now officially the two child policy, and even while I was there there were enough exceptions as to make the possibility of two child families relatively common. However the reality is that a large segment of the Chinese population invest so much time and energy with their one child that it would be impossible to have a second. I recently saw that some researchers think the actual Chinese birthrate is 1.1 children per woman. Replacement rate is 2.1.

  18. Joe says:

    @Joe: correction: consanguinous, not cosanguineal.

  19. Gustopher says:

    My father’s new wife has a large collection of wooden phallus sculptures, that she has picked up on her travels. I can think of few things creepier than getting your parent’s wooden dildo art collection when they pass on.

    “She wanted you to have these.”
    “Why?”

  20. Dutchmarbel says:

    Fortunately I am not very sentimental. Pictures and written anecdotes are holy items, the rest is replaceble. But I navigate between two contradicting feelings.
    I like to declutter, I enjoy the space it creates, the order and clarity.
    I like to hoard, because decades ago, as a student, I was really poor. I now have this urge to keep things ‘because you never know when you need it and you might not have the money to buy/replace it’. In my environment I see that poor or formerly poor people often have more difficulties with getting rid of things than the well off ones.

  21. michilines says:

    I’m curious as to why nothing has been mentioned of pets. I volunteer at a local shelter and there are always multiple pets surrendered by owners who in fact are the children of the actual owners.

    Often times it’s older dogs and thankfully, for the most part, they get scooped up pretty quickly. I can understand why. It’s been more than 10 years since I came across a litter of puppies and had to go through the vaccinations and housebreaking. Give me an older housebroken dog who loves to just hang out any day.

    Other times it’s poor cats. They never seem to adjust very well. They want their house and person back. They are not happy — even though the kennels are pretty cool and they get a lot of attention. (The shelter I volunteer at has feline socialization and enrichment everyday — it’s all pretty cool both for the volunteers and the cats.) Last Sunday, I worked with a cat who had been surrendered by the kids of the elderly owner. She was pretty pissed, but I have super-ninja-kitty powers and got her to stop flicking her tail for a little while.

    I guess my point is that pets are even more difficult to deal with than stuff. I haven’t read either of the books mentioned — is that aspect addressed? Has anyone else had to deal with this particular issue?

  22. Jen says:

    @Joe: Thank you so much! That is the clearest explanation I’ve received to date, and one that I believe I’ll be able to remember. Very helpful–this site is a font of knowledge, largely attributable to the comment community.

    @michilines: The issue with pets breaks my heart. It can be complicated–pets are wonderful companions to the elderly, but there is always the chance that the pet will outlive the owner. My husband and I are late 40s/early 50s, but we still have a written contingency plan for our dog, should something happen to us.