The gentle art of Swedish death cleaning
On a particularly turbulent flight to Dubai, a violent sandstorm clouded all visibility, and I had, I was convinced, my final thoughts. They didn’t involve a romantic epiphany or a deep-seated regret, but instead, crowded around an old journal. Which family member would find it? How would they process the unfiltered thoughts of a 15-year-old? Would I be watching over their shoulder? Would this humiliation torment me in the afterlife? Ultimately, I survived, the journal didn’t.
To prevent such last-minute terror and minimize the inconveniences of death, Scandinavian artist Margareta Magnusson, mysteriously aged “between 80 and 100”, prescribes the Swedish art of döstädning, or death cleaning. After surviving her mother, mother-in-law and husband, Magnusson found that the material possessions they left behind only added new, logistical burdens to her grief. “I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me,” she writes in the new best-selling book The Gentle Art Of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, which was published last month. It spawned worldwide interest, much like Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s “KonMari” method, and supplanted “hygge” as the internet’s latest Scandinavian obsession.
In this slim manual, which is a case for gradual detachment as much as decluttering, Magnusson prescribes practical lifestyle changes like aggressively reducing your possessions with age (more pointedly after 60), downsizing precious memorabilia and leaving handy instructions and passwords for your loved ones. She also recommends sorting through piles of clothes and books before reaching for items with sentimental value, like old photo albums or college trophies. Digitizing old memories, she says, is an efficient way to hold on to the comfort of nostalgia while freeing up closet space. Especially helpful are Magnusson’s chapters on discussing death cleaning with your family, marking out a “Throw Away Box”— items that only held meaning for you, like old mixed tapes or a collection of ticket stubs, that your loved ones can discard without a second look—and a guide to carrying secrets to your grave, titled “If It Was Your Secret, Then Keep It That Way”.
Through this book, Magnusson aims to gently lead families towards the prickly subject of mortality, and evoke sensitive but useful conversations around the life—and things—we’ll leave behind. People of all ages can find value in döstädning, a way of always being prepared for the unwelcome.
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