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Book: Swedish Death Cleaning

Updated: Apr 18, 2019


Many lifetimes ago I briefly worked for a guardianship trustee who dealt with difficult, disorganized estates and trusts that could not be settled due to very sudden illnesses and deaths. My job was to inventory the households as quickly as possible under duress with decidedly more unusual circumstances than I was used to in an auction house, where normally the family is the consignor and is involved with the sale of the estate.  One case I was privy to involved a woman with a lot of assets who had died without finalizing a will, and who happened to also be a hoarder. The paperwork involved with some assets were hidden within piles stacked waist-high in her small home and the employees were charged with clearing the home and finding the documents. It looked like an absolutely futile task without the owner being present. The recent book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter by Margaretha Magnusson came on my radar a few weeks ago and I seemed to see dozens of articles about it every week, all about the Swedish tradition of 'death cleaning' or paring down our belongings to manageable volumes as a favor to one's family in the eventuality of our death. It's a meditative short read, with anecdotal tips given in a very forthright, light tone.  Reading it, I realized my very culturally Swedish grandfather had lived his life in this way when I knew him best, always giving away any unused furniture or ill-fitting clothing to his children or friends. This facilitated a semi-nomad lifestyle in retirement with not much more than a shoeshine kit and a cardigan - yet he always looked natty for mass and enjoyed life unencumbered by a bunch of stuff. But he also talked about death as if it were a funny thing that would happen someday, and I recognize that attitude in the book. Magnusson lays the process out as a collaborative process that involves friends and family for accountability - the thinking is that if you tell a few people, then they are more likely to ask you about what you are doing and help out. First is a clothing purge of unused closet contents, then a general household sweep, clearing unnecessary multiples of items and things you always wished to use but never did. Gathering financial information and passwords into one document is another big step we could all perform even if we did not wish to go the whole way with this type of downsizing (how many of us have that in one place?). Gifting treasured items is an idea Magnusson presents as a way to part with things with some finality while still knowing they are being loved by the people we love. Having recently moved, I used this tip to unload some beautiful clothing and art that I could not bear to give to Goodwill. Magnusson recommends appraisal as a good way of knowing an item's current worth for certain in order to determine how to dispose of it. We so often put off facing the eventuality of organizing our lives, but we have to think about it as a gift to our family that will provide comfort and freedom when we are not longer here.

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