In my work as a professional organizer, mortality is often encountered, and not only with my most senior clients. Sometimes death is brought up when someone is looking for support with letting go of items that have been stored in their home since the death of a family member. Other times people are looking to downsize their belongings so as not to burden their family members when they die.
Decluttering can, and perhaps always should be, connected to death and mortality. I believe that if my clients would allow themselves to think of their mortality, then we could make great progress towards simpler living.
Death and Decluttering: Beyond Swedish Death Cleaning
Despite being raised in a family where we talked openly about death, I’m mindful that this is not everyone’s experience. Sometimes I have to listen carefully for clues that my client is open to discussing death or mortality. At other times my clients, even in their 50s, are clear that they contacted me because they were fearful of leaving lots of stuff for their grown children to take care of after they died.
As a member of the sandwich generation, with two young children and two aging parents, I am so appreciative when I hear from these individuals. I am ever mindful of the stuff that will be left for me and my sister to take care of when our parents are gone.
The Many Sides of Death Cleaning
During one assessment with a man in his 60s, he stated that what he was looking for from me was help with Swedish death cleaning. Swedish death cleaning was popularized in North America several years ago after the publication of Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, written by Margareta Magnusson. Swedish death cleaning is the practice of going through your belongings and keeping only what is of greatest value in your life. This is specifically for the purpose of not burdening those who are left to clean your home after you die.
Death Cleaning as Death Preparation
Death cleaning can be thought of as a process or ritual that can be performed at any point in one’s life. It has benefits beyond that of unburdening family members after one’s death that makes it relevant at almost any age. Research has demonstrated a significant relationship between clutter and subjective well-being, with both younger and older adults having poorer well-being with increased concerns of clutter in their home. When people wait too long to engage in the practice of decluttering, it either becomes too late because they die before it is accomplished, or it becomes increasingly challenging to accomplish due to physical and/or cognitive decline.
When death cleaning is done thoroughly, it allows an individual to process each belonging in their home and reflect on its overall meaning in their life.
Going through one’s belongings can be a mindful act of preparing for one’s death, or learning to come to terms with mortality. This can be helpful for the individual, as well as their family members or friends when they are invited into the process. Venn and Burningham highlight the presence of two conflicting perspectives regarding the relationship between ownership of material possessions and well-being. While accumulation of too much stuff can be burdensome, and contribute to poorer well-being, belongings can also represent the importance of our relationships with others, act as memories of others or events, and can be tied to identity formation.
When death cleaning is done thoroughly, an individual can process each belonging in their home and reflect on its overall meaning in their life. It is, in a sense, an accounting of one’s life and speaks to what they value and how they choose to live their life. It is because of this meaning-making that death cleaning can be a useful practice at any age, as well as an opportunity to live a more value-driven life.
In my work, it is not uncommon to address the client’s decisions about what to keep/discard, while simultaneously addressing items that belonged to deceased family members. These items have often been stored away in bins or boxes in a basement or garage and hardly ever looked at. This is after-death cleaning. Avoidance of this task is common because individuals feel they are dishonouring their loved one’s memory by giving the belongings away or throwing them out. In my experience, however, the opposite is true. By storing these items in hidden away places, the person’s memory is not being honoured. When individuals intentionally select the most precious items to keep and make more accessible, only then is that person’s memory being honoured. Some individuals also find the process of passing on their loved one’s belongings to others in need to be helpful for their ongoing grieving process.
Personal Values in the Process of Decluttering and Organizing
The connection between death and decluttering is about much more than just death cleaning. When someone declutters and organizes their home, they make decisions based on their values–what they think is important in life, and how they want to be perceived by others. The questions I often think about when trying to get at their values, but am too afraid to vocalize, are “How do you want to be remembered once you are dead?” or “If you had to write your own eulogy, what would you say about yourself?” When my clients are able to identify their core values, they are able to make the most meaningful changes.
One client of mine came across an old necklace that had belonged to her grandmother. She had no intention of ever wearing it but as she held it in her hands, she decided that she wanted to be buried in it. She had never expressed this wish to her family members. The process of going through her items not only practically prepared her, and her family, for death, but it was an opportunity to lean into the family history she so greatly valued.
Decluttering and Legacy
When individuals can ask themselves what legacy they want to leave in terms of belongings–but also knowledge and values, their answers can be useful in the process of decluttering their home. Each item they handle can be compared to the idea they have about the legacy they want to leave behind. This can also be a useful tool to make changes in one’s consumption habits—the most important aspect in maintaining a low clutter home.
The process of decluttering allows one to look back in time and reflect on how one’s life has been lived
For many of my clients, decluttering is also a step towards living a lower-waste or minimalist lifestyle. When making a decision to move closer to this lifestyle, my clients tend to mention not only the benefits to their own wellness, but also a desire to improve the environment for the next generation. Decluttering and changing consumption habits thus becomes part of their meaning making and part of the legacy they leave behind.
The process of decluttering allows one to look back in time and reflect on how one’s life has been lived, how one has spent their time and money, and whether one’s possessions reflect the values they hoped to live by.
The process of decluttering–especially of the death cleaning variety–can make us look forward in time and make decisions while contemplating our mortality, considering the legacy we want to leave, and attempt to reduce the burden on others who do the decluttering after our death. Given the uncertainty of the timing of our death, the concept of death cleaning should perhaps instead be adopted as a new approach to living.