Book review: Magnusson book explores ‘death cleanings,’ or reducing possessions

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

We like our stuff. During our lifetime, we tend to collect a lot of stuff, sometimes intentionally, sometimes by benign neglect. And then there’s the consumer philosophy espoused by more than a few Americans: he/she who dies with the most stuff wins. The certainty in all this is that he/she will indeed die and there will be “stuff” for someone to deal with. Ifthe “stuff” is valuable, dealing with it can become contentious, as it has in many a family. If it is not, it becomes a burden, time-consuming, etc. “Why did — buy/keep this?”

The author of “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” Margareta Magnusson, who is somewhere between 80 and 100 years old, has had to do three “death cleanings” in her life: her mother, her father-in-law and her husband. After the death of each, she was the person responsible for determining the fate of their possessions. How much better, she feels, if we each undertook that responsibility before we die. We could determine the appropriate disposal (gifting, charity, throw) and live a simpler, more organized life. And we would improve the quality of life for those who would otherwise inherit the task.

Magnusson does not see the death cleaning as a sad thing. Most of the stuff we keep has memories attached. If done over time (she recommends starting by at least age 65), one can enjoy the memories and at the same time, determine the fate of the item. Is this something that has value to a family member? Would someone who received it based on need enjoy it as much as you have? Or has the item simply outlived its usefulness?

An effective method to begin the process is to put things in categories and do one category at a time. Categories can vary from a related grouping (e.g., books) to an area (e.g., man cave). Items are then grouped: keep, donate, throw …. If the cleaning process is started soon enough, one can enjoy the memories associated, remember why the item was saved, and be quite specific as to where the donated items will go; e.g., back to the person who gave the item as a gift.

Perhaps the most difficult to deal with are the photographs. Would your children enjoy a collection of pictures taken during their childhood, or would a prospective spouse? Keep in mind that scenery pictures seldom have value to those who didn’t share the experience. Yet pictures of people, if named and dated, can be quite valuable.

Then there are those personal things that we may well want to revisit. Magnussen’s suggestion here is ingenious. Label a box “throw away.” Hopefully you can keep it small, perhaps a shoebox. Letters that you want to read again, or pictures or … Things that have value to you but would not to anyone else. When you’re gone, out they go without having to explain their value, as they are clearly labeled for disposal.

Death cleaning: a life revisited without imposing on those who remain after our departure.

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