Three years ago, my friend Jenny sent me The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson. The book, which was launched at the height of the Kon Mari craze, was a more delicately written and sentimental version of the year’s popular decluttering themes.
You see, the practice of Swedish Death Cleaning (the Swedes call it döstädning) was built upon the belief that you should declutter and sort out all your belongings before you die, so that the relatives who survive you won’t have to deal with it afterwards. It sounds very morbid at first, but in Magnusson’s often humorous, self-deprecating-granny prose, döstädning is a very practical move—and more than that, it is an act of love.
I read a few chapters and then chucked it into the abyss of my bookshelf which was already groaning under the weight of my tsundoku collection of hardcovers and magazines.
A couple of months later, my aunt died suddenly and my elderly uncle called to ask me to help him organize his house. They had no children, and I was the only remaining niece who wasn’t living abroad. “Just come over one weekend and help me get rid of some stuff,” he said. Easy-peasy, I thought.
I was wrong. When I pulled up to his house, which I had not visited in 20 years, it was just full to the brim with stuff—all 500 square meters of it! I was greeted at the garage by a mound of medical equipment dating from the 1970s (they owned a medical company) that had pushed my uncle’s car to the edge of the driveway.
Inside was no better. A tiny pathway wound around piles of boxes of clothes, shoes, and bags. In the dining room, unused dinnerware and assorted ceramics were stacked precariously one on top of the other. “There’s more at the back,” my uncle said ominously, and led me to several other rooms where the sheer volume of belongings made my head spin.
When I came to my senses and realized that everything would not disappear on its own, we asked my young cousin to come over to help sort it out—thank you, dear cousin! And then I hosted a few open house sales and asked friends to come over and buy. I told them: “Please buy…everything.”
“Are the ladies heading over?” My 80-year-old uncle asked. Yes, I said. A couple of minutes later he pulled out three large boxes of designer bags and even more boxes of china sets. I ordered pizza and some drinks, and the estate sale became a weekly thing until a bulk of the items were sold off. In a way, the constant purging and regular interaction with new people also kept my uncle’s simmering grief at bay.
Divested of all items, including his old house, my uncle moved to a smaller home, a quiet apartment with a communal pocket garden, friendly neighbors, and minimal furniture. “I don’t want any more things,” he said adamantly at the last lunch I had with him. “Do not give me another shirt for my birthday!”
Sadly, at the very beginning of the pandemic last year, my uncle passed away; not from the virus, but from a lingering cancer that he hid from everyone.
Bereft and trapped at home for the first few months of the lockdown and initially without a job, I tackled my tsundoku shelves of books. I was finally able to read The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning at length, and realized, upon finishing the book, that in spite of all the difficulties in purging my uncle’s belongings, it was much easier doing it when he was still alive, than if he were dead. I also realized that all that purging was a way of bringing my uncle closer to me and eventually becoming a father figure, and it was his way of staying in touch frequently, since he already knew he was dying.
It was indeed an act of love.
You can buy your own copy of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning here. Stay safe.