For anyone who somehow missed out on Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” or who found her de-cluttering style too quick, too cute or too oriented toward a younger set, a Swedish author “between the age of 80 and 100” has come out with her own take on the subject.
In “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” (Scribner, January 2018), Margareta Magnusson uses a dry, unsentimental and sometimes dark Scandinavian sense of humor, and writes with an older set (and their younger relatives) in mind.
“Aging is not for weaklings,” she says. “That is why you should not wait too long to start your downsizing. Sooner or later you will have your own infirmities, and then it is damn nice to enjoy the things you can still manage to do without the burden of too many things to look after and too many messes to organize.”
“Death cleaning” is translated literally from Swedish (“doestaedning”). Magnusson says it’s a de-cluttering tradition generally undertaken by those 65 and up. The purpose is to streamline your belongings while you’re still healthy enough to do the job — thus saving relatives the difficult task of sorting through them after you’re gone.
The concept, she writes, “is not sad at all,” and can be uplifting and rewarding. The focus is not so much on keeping what “sparks joy,” as Kondo advises, but on finding the right homes for beloved possessions so they can spark joy for someone else.
The diminutive book — complete with playful drawings by the author, a professional artist — meanders from subject to subject like a conversation over tea with a friend. It addresses how to approach “death cleaning,” how to encourage an elderly family member to do so, what to keep when downsizing, and even how to arrange the furniture in a smaller space once you do.
Magnusson says she has done “death cleaning” for parents, in-laws, friends, and, after her husband died, for herself. She downsized from a five-bedroom house in the country to a two-bedroom apartment in Stockholm.
“To do your own death cleaning can really be very hard,” she admits, quickly adding, “I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.”
“All my kids came home for the funeral, but the death cleaning took almost a year,” she writes. “I worked at a steady pace on my own. I kept in mind comments from my children about certain things they adored and held on to these items to give to them later, while cleaning out things that nobody cared about.”
Magnusson recommends starting by going through the basement, attic, and any cupboards or closets by the front door.
She called an appraiser to help decide which items to sell. Then, family, friends and neighbors were invited in to see if they wanted anything. As she looked around, Magnusson kept a notepad handy to label as many things as she could, like labeling a lamp “give to Peter” or other items “give to charity.”
“Tell your loved ones and friends what you are up to. They might want to help you and even take things you don’t need and also help you move things that you cannot move alone,” she writes. “You will see that a steady stream of people you like (or even dislike) will come to take things such as books, clothes and utensils.”
Have a grandchild or friend about to move into a new apartment? Invite them over and have bags and boxes at hand so they can take things with them when they leave, she suggests.
Like Kondo, Magnusson recommends leaving sentimental items like photographs until the end of the process. She, too, suggests dividing belongings into categories, and tackling the least sentimental (generally clothes and books) first.
Once the bulk of unwanted stuff had been cleared away, Magnusson says she gave herself one week per room to clear up the remaining items in the house.
“In this way, I felt, I could handle the death cleaning on my own, without rushing,” she writes.