Spring cleaning or death cleaning?

Friday, April 6, 2018 9:24 PM

It’s not spring cleaning anymore. Now it’s death cleaning.

A new book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, taps into fear, guilt and regret by suggesting that throwing stuff out now will prevent any burdens our children – or whoever – will have to go through when we die. We’ll have no difficult decisions at the end, and our things will not get into the wrong hands. It is written by Margerata Magnusson, a Swedish artist who describes herself as between 80 and 100.

Death is a hot topic right now. There are so many books, articles and ideas about how to die, what is politically correct, environmentally friendly, spiritually in line, personalized and on trend. I read there are now social gatherings in cemeteries, moonlight tours, cocktail parties and even yoga classes among the headstones. There are death doulas, at-home funerals, Death Cafés and many creative ways to dispose of the body.

Is this latest fascination with death a way of dealing with our fear? Or is it objecting to the commercialism and uniformity of the funeral industry? Our generation has always done things differently, perhaps this is just another example.

These days, everything seems to be so much a reflection of us, who we are, how we live, how we want others to view us. Is this another obsession of our time? Or are we all just trying to be independent, responsible and thoughtful?

The minimalists believe our memories are inside us, not inside things. Giving things away now is like experiencing little deaths, in preparation for the big one.

In Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the popular book from a few years ago about tidying up your home and therefore your life, the essential question was what sparks joy in any object you were uncertain of throwing away. In death cleaning, it’s “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?” Death cleaning addresses decluttering, sensible precautions about secrets one may have and preparation for the big day. One of the chapters is titled, “If It was Your Secret, Then Keep It That Way.”

I’m thinking of how sweet and emotional it was for my brothers and I to go through Dad’s stuff after his death. A memory here, a remembrance there, a fond reminiscence of something we could all resonate with. There was a certain amount of honor or respect we shared by doing this.

Keeping the secrets I can understand. I struggle with what to do with my years-worth of personal journals. Do my kids really want to read them? And do I really want them to? I’m still not sure about this. Perhaps I’ll destroy them to “keep (my secrets) that way.”

Is death cleaning another way to self-care, like the wellness practices of fitness, diets and mindfulness? You can’t just die – you need to have all these preparations and expressions and personalizations to die well. They show how well you lived.

I’m feeling I just want to be at peace when I die. I want to have no regrets, have finished all the endeavors that are still before me and have my closest people feel a warmth and joy in their hearts that I lived. Whatever that takes to get there may be very different for all of us. I don’t think I’m going to be doing death cleaning, I need to do spring cleaning!

Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus to the other end of life and written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at