I’m looking at the pile of junk I’ve pulled from under my bed. The void beneath my mattress has become a no man’s land of things I don’t use but can’t bear to part with: old university projects, ancient diaries with entries that would make you shudder with embarrassment, clothes I’m convinced might come back into fashion, fancy-dress costumes, a broken MacBook, unused Christmas presents. The list goes on.
Now, I’ve decided it’s about time I stop hoarding random relics under the bed – and start ‘Swedish Death Cleaning’ instead. The phrase translates from the Swedish word ‘dostadning’, and relates to the practice of clearing out one’s possessions before death. The idea is, it saves your loved ones the onerous tasks of having to sift through your items and find homes for them (or not) once you’re gone, and also frees you from the psychological burden of being surrounded by chaos and clutter.
It’s not as depressing as it sounds
The phenomenon was coined by Margareta Magnusson, a Scandi who describes herself as “somewhere between 80 and 100”. Having lived by the mantra for years, Ms Magnusson has penned a book on the subject, The Gentle Art Of Swedish Death Cleaning. The movement has gained many followers, thanks to its frank and honest approach to mortality, and our complicated relationship with hoarding.
“Death cleansing means removing unnecessary things and making your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming close for you to leave the planet,” writes Ms Magnusson in her no-nonsense guide. Rather than being macabre, she believes cleansing yourself from a lifetime of unnecessary belongings can instate a permanent form of organisation that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.
“When you death clean, it stops you from running around the house looking for your bag or your keys, because there are fewer things for them to get lost in,” Ms Magnusson says. “It gives you more time and makes you less stressed.”
It can be done at any age
Ms Magnusson insists that death cleaning can be done at any age, and you don’t actually have to wait until you know you’re on your way out. It’s a method for reevaluating your possessions, taking stock of what’s important. and removing what’s not.
“Just look around you. Many of your things have probably been around for so long that you do not even see or value them any more,” she explains.
“Your exhaustion with all this stuff may appear out of the blue one day. When someone cancels a weekend visit or a dinner, you feel grateful instead of disappointed, because you may be too tired to clean up for their visit.” I can certainly relate to this, cancelling dinner plans after staring into the abyss of a mounting pile of laundry, washing-up and general life debris that I was too bone-tired to touch.
So how do you get started?
Ms Magnusson recommends dividing your belongings by category and tackling the easiest one first. She suggests starting with clothing and avoiding sentimental items such as photographs, otherwise you’ll get stuck in memory lane.
Aside from pulling the plug on a borderline hoarding issue, the method reveals that there’s a joy to spending an afternoon picking through mementos of the past. “I’ve discovered that it is rewarding to spend time with these objects one last time, and then dispose of them. Each item has its own history, and remembering that history is often enjoyable,” says Ms Magnusson.
So, following the book’s guidance, that broken MacBook goes to a used parts shop, my stash of unused make-up is passed on to friends. Even once-adored clothes I’ll never wear again – a dress I wore on a special first date, a coat that no longer fits – are donated to charity. “Sometimes you have to give cherished items away, with the hope they end up with someone who will create new memories of their own,” says Ms Magnusson.
Hold on to the precious stuff
Of course, you don’t have to throw away everything in a minimalist rage. “Save the things that make you happy, or your life easier,” says Ms Magnusson. “Throw away the things that have accumulated that you no longer need.”
For private keepsakes that are priceless, such as my hilariously angst-ridden diaries, Ms Magnusson suggests creating a ‘throw away’ box. “When I find things that have absolutely no value to anyone else, but enormous value for me, they go in my throw away box,” she says. “Once I am gone, the box can be destroyed.”
The throw away box also has clear instructions to friends and family that if something unforeseen happens, these personal relics are to be destroyed and not mortifyingly read aloud at your funeral.
Isn’t it the same as Marie Kondo’s method?
Of course, The Gentle Art Of Swedish Death Cleaning is just one of many tidying manuals that’s gained hype in recent years. Marie Kondo found worldwide fame with global bestseller The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying, and decluttering has never been more relevant, as we increasingly become more conscious of the environmental impact of getting through so much ‘stuff’.
Crucially, one of the main ways Ms Kondo and Ms Magnusson differ is because, instead of asking if an item ‘sparks joy’, as per the Marie Kondo method, Ms Magnusson asks you to question whether anyone you know will be happier if you hold onto it. Plus, it’s all about the simple joy of living with less, and getting good use out of what you do own.
Another of Ms Magnusson’s rules is to make sure you talk about death cleaning as much as possible with anyone you might one day be doing it for – such as parents – as this adds a sense of accountability to the process.
So how does it feel?
After an initial wave of dread and regret on leaving the op shop, I soon feel better looking at the pleasantly clear space under my bed. It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.
In all of my rented flats over the past 10 years, the bed area has become my hoarding space – something I’d get defensive about if boyfriends or flatmates ever tried to prod around in or ask me about. Now I know it won’t be haunting me in the afterlife, either.
It seems, whatever your age, death cleansing is good for the soul – but for the elderly, it can be the greatest gift you leave your loved ones. “Once someone has gone, things can be chaotic enough,” Ms Magnusson says. “Sorting through everything is sad sometimes, but I really do not want to give my beloved children and their families too much trouble with my stuff after I’m gone.”
Do you buy into the concept of death cleaning? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?
The Gentle Art Of Swedish Death Cleaning: How To Free Yourself And Your Family From A Lifetime Of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson is published by Canongate, available now.
– With PA
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