When my pack rat father moved into what turned out to be his last home, he did downsize, relatively speaking. Still, even as a single man in his late 50s, he felt that his new place, a 1,600-square-foot, three-bedroom house with an office, attic and two sheds in East Asheville’s Beverly Hills neighborhood, lacked adequate storage space.
And so, as one does, he single-handedly built a sizable new workshop, mostly from hoarded and scavenged materials. Into that building, he stuffed a tractor-trailer’s worth of his most prized possessions: tools, building materials, vintage toys, hardware, Christmas decorations and much more.
Four years later — after a bout of furious tidying in expectation of visitors — he laid down on his living room floor and died. He was 62.
A self-employed insurance agent, my dad left a business in full swing, along with his home and outbuildings and their contents, but no will.
At the time, I lived in Boston, where my amusements included a full-time job, an hourlong commute and a toddler. As my dad’s only child, the task of settling his affairs fell to me.
In light of this backstory, it’s little wonder I’d be interested in the grimly named — but actually quite life-affirming! — concept of Swedish death cleaning.
Book of the dead
Author Margareta Magnusson published The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter in January 2018, but the book has recently seen an upsurge in interest, says Ryan Matthews, assistant bookstore manager at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. In fact, Malaprop’s is sold out of the title and has two copies on backorder, while the seven copies held by the Buncombe County Public Libraries were all checked out during the first week of July.
Although the 17 total copies Malaprop’s has sold don’t qualify Magnusson’s book for blockbuster status — especially compared with the 631 volumes of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing the shop’s customers have snapped up to date — it’s still a strong showing for a niche volume that’s been out for over 18 months.
“This is a small book about this relatively obscure practice of Swedish death cleaning,” Matthews notes. “The fact that it’s sold 17 copies in Asheville, North Carolina, does say something about this moment that we’re in as a culture.”
The message of the book, according to Asheville resident Amie Paul, is simple: “Don’t leave a burden for your children. Clean house before you die, and clean it when you’re young enough to do it yourself. If there’s something that really means a lot to you and you love it and you’d like to see it every day, keep it. If you never use it — especially for tchotchkes — narrow that down so you’ve only got a few special ones.”
Other people’s history
For Paul, who’s in her 60s, accumulating possessions is something of a birthright. She is the eldest daughter of a New Orleans family whose famous ancestor, Eliza Jane Nicholson, in 1876 became the first female newspaper publisher in the United States when she took over The Picayune after her husband’s death. Nicholson, a poet and writer, then ran the paper until her own death in 1896.
“I was basically raised looking at old photographs, going through jewelry boxes, going up to the attic and getting out the silver trunk and being told the stories of all of that stuff,” Paul explains. “And I think because of all of that, or maybe because genetically I was hard-wired to be a collector, I’ve kind of been a collector of things.”
Paul now sees her collecting as a mistake — “A big one!” she laughs — and she’s remaking herself as a “disperser” who’s busy finding the right homes for her possessions.
Items with historical value, such as Nicholson’s garnet Victorian locket containing wisps of Paul’s grandfather’s and her great-uncle Leonard’s hair, may find a new home with The Historic New Orleans Collection museum, which already has some artifacts associated with the family, Paul says. Photos of her mother, Elizabeth Fischer, taken during her 1948 rule as Queen of Carnival now decorate Paul’s friend’s Airbnb in New Orleans.
With help from her husband, retired Warren Wilson College professor Graham Paul, Amie Paul has scanned many other family pictures. “I still have these two boxes of historical photographs, but I no longer feel like I have to guard them with my life because they’ve been scanned. When I figure out what to do with them — whether it’s donate them or sell them in an antique shop or shred them — I’ll be free to do that.”
More practical household items, including the camping equipment Paul says she knows she’d never use again now that her children are grown, have been donated to organizations such as Homeward Bound and Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity.
Magnusson’s book resonated with Paul because it’s more of a philosophy than a how-to text. “It really is about simplifying your life and taking away the burden from the next generation,” she says. “And at the same time, I have given a lot of things away that have gone to places where I think they will be appreciated, and that makes me happy.”
Professional organizer Roberta Anderson says she’s read Magnusson’s book two or three times herself and has recommended it to many clients.
“I feel like, as we age and as we come toward the end of our time here, people look around and say, ‘Wow, I have so much stuff. Who’s going to handle this when I’m gone?’” Anderson notes. “Especially people who have handled death cleaning for friends and family and have been through other people’s stuff — that’s a major motivator.”
Although she now consults with organizing clients full time, Anderson is also a registered nurse. She says she’s noticed that clients who have gotten their homes and lives under control have also experienced “a marked improvement in health,” which she attributes to decreased stress. “We have this stimuli all the time of things that we need to do and things that need to be accomplished, and it just gets really overwhelming,” she explains. “And people don’t even recognize that as a stressor in their lives.”
Anderson sees an interesting parallel between Magnusson’s and Kondo’s recommendations about the order in which cleaning should happen. Both advise beginning with clothing before moving on to furniture and household items. Photographs, letters and other sentimental objects should be saved until the end of the process.
“The art of decluttering is really about decisions,” Anderson says. “Once you’ve gone through most of your house, you’ve built that decision-making muscle up enough that, when you get to that hard category of sentimental items, it’s just a little bit easier for you.”
With her 80th birthday coming up in October, Lynne White is death cleaning on behalf of both clients and herself. She’s been in the organizing field for the past 15 years with her life and business partner, Scott Bird, 73.
“If we get called on a really tough job and there’s so much stuff, we come home and the next day start downsizing yet again,” White says. “Because we don’t want our kids to have to go through that.”
A former art gallery owner and then real estate agent who specialized in staging properties for sale, White says the aesthetic benefits of organizing shouldn’t be minimized. “I can make a linen closet look beautiful in 15 minutes just by folding what’s already in there,” she confides, revealing that most organizers are also “great folders.”
People are amazed to find “how good it feels to have order and how peaceful it can make you feel knowing that your paperwork is organized and your home is in place,” White says. “It doesn’t have to be minimalist. There are homes with lots of stuff in them that are artistic in a way. It’s not just strip it down, but creating a comfortable zone of minimalism.”
For White, getting started is the most important step.
“If you just set a short amount of time aside, you can work a miracle for yourself,” White says encouragingly.
And then, with more bite, she adds, “Just take the book and do what it says, dammit.”