“It is amazing, and also a little strange, how many things we accumulate in a lifetime.”
~ Margareta Magnusson, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning
It all started with a mouse.
Up early, I was sitting in the dark, quietly sipping coffee and pondering life when I heard a scurrying under my seat. Using my phone as a flashlight, I knelt down and peered under the couch, startling a tiny mouse in the process. Squeak! it shrieked defiantly, as if irritated to be interrupted eating a hole in my furniture.
Anyone who lives in the country knows that there is never just one mouse, but instead a nest of them. And that means droppings. I threw open the cabinet under the kitchen sink to find those tiny black rice-like pellets everywhere. By the time David wandered in looking for coffee, every cabinet in the kitchen was open and every inch of counter or floor space was covered in stacks of dishes and serving ware. He could only see my feet and bottom sticking out from under the sink while I furiously Cloroxed every available crevice, muttering something about a hantavirus.
I ran every plate, utensil, cup, and serving dish through the dishwasher. I hand washed all the wine glasses and flower vases.
And when it was time to put everything back in order, I paused. I had been in a cleaning frenzy for several hours, moving on feverish autopilot. When I finally took a breath, I was startled.
Why did I own so much shit? And why did it suddenly feel all this shit owned me?
Why did I have so many coffee mugs? Who needs 6 baking sheets? Or 4 muffin tins? Did we need a rice cooker and an air fryer and a crockpot? What about those 17 cookbooks? When was the last time I cooked any recipe that I hadn’t found online?
It was time for some döstädning. Döstädning is a Swedish word that roughly translates as Death Cleaning. I recently read Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. After cleaning out three different houses when family members died, the author decided to sort through her own possessions to save her five children the stressful task. I was drawn to Magnusson’s view. She isn’t as strict and minimalist as Marie Kondo. After all, a fork doesn’t necessarily have to spark joy to remain useful. Magnusson simply thinks a good decluttering is good for the soul and benefits your loved ones if you should die.
I have a group of women I have been lifting weights with for the last few years. We’ve become a chosen family, passing the time by discussing books and Netflix shows, but also walking each other through some hard life stages: parenting woes, changing jobs, menopause, our changing bodies. Several of these women have lost parents in the last two years, left with the unenviable task of grieving a great loss while also acting as executor for their parents’ estate. A few others are going through late-life divorces, which is a sort of death in itself. They’re all death cleaning, and overwhelmed by all the decision-making around the stuff. Plus they’re grieving, so their thought-processing isn’t clear. Will they want that cast iron skillet later? What about that bracelet? Will their kids – or grandkids – want any of it?
We have returned to this topic a lot. One thing every one of them agrees on is this:
They want a few things, but they don’t want everything. And what is meaningful to them now isn’t or wasn’t always what their parents or ex-spouse found meaningful.
In ancient Egypt, people were buried with their belongings so that they would be comfortable in the afterlife. I’m chagrined to admit that I’d need a good-sized swimming pool just to be buried with all my plates and dishes. Instead, I keep thinking about Keith Richards and how he snorted some of his father’s ashes with cocaine. In so many ways, that’s a much healthier attitude. Ok, maybe not the coke part, but in a cremation as a way of taking up less space as the energy remains sort of way.
Swedish death cleaning need not be morbid, but also seen as purely practical. My kitchen clean-up would have taken far less time if I had fewer dishes to remove, wash, and restack. And since I won’t actually kill the mice, Lord knows I’ll be cleaning out the cabinets again before long.
All this to say that I took a huge haul of dishes and mugs to CC’s Closet. Threw away all the stained or ripped dish towels. Boxed up some kitchen extras (who needs 6 spatulas?) to send with Izzie when she moves out next year. And my kitchen feels lighter and looks brighter. I’m planning to Swedish Death Clean one closet or storage space each month in 2023, culminating in our attic, a notoriously cluttered spot in my home. Wish me luck.
Does anyone need a coffee mug?