It's often difficult to talk about death with your loved ones – your own death, that is. Your family may prefer to stick their head in the sand and pretend it won’t happen but it will, of course. And one of the greatest gifts you can give your children and grandchildren is to downscale as much as possible.
The Swedes call it "death cleaning": setting your affairs in order in your twilight years. Margareta Magnusson, a Swedish artist who describes herself as "somewhere between 80 and 100", has written a book called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. It’s something she’s done for herself and others, so she’s become rather expert at it.
In this extract she gives advice and tips on how to deal with this sensitive issue.
Death cleaning isn’t sad
Swedish death cleaning is a term that means removing unnecessary things and making your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave this planet.
Some people can’t get their head around death. And these people leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal? Sometimes I feel a little uncomfortable with how unappreciative I am about some of the things I want to rid myself of. Some of these things have brought benefits to me.
But I’ve discovered that it’s rewarding to spend time with these objects one last time, then dispose of them.
How to begin
Be aware that to downsize your home will take time. Start by checking all your storage areas and start pulling out what’s hidden there. Who do you think will take care of your affairs when you’re no longer here? Loved ones and friends might want to help you and take things you don’t need. Perhaps a grandchild or someone else you know is about to move into their first home.
Invite them over. Show them your things and tell them stories about the objects they don’t know. Have some bags and boxes at hand so they can take stuff with them right away.
Sort and sort out
Almost everything in our homes belongs to different categories – for example, furniture, clothes, books, linen and so on. I always choose clothes as my first category. This is easy for me since I know I have many garments in my wardrobe that I seldom or never use.
Sort your clothes into two piles. Pile 1 is for clothes you want to keep. Pile 2 is for clothes you want to get rid of. Then look through pile 1 and pull out items that require small adjustments or dry-cleaning. The rest you can put back in the wardrobe. Pile 2 is to throw or give away.
I managed to reduce my wardrobe by two dresses, five scarves, one jacket and two pairs of shoes. A grandchild took a pair of shoes and the rest I gave to the Red Cross. Wonderful!
Cleaning up after my husband’s death
When my husband of 48 years died after a long illness, I was struggling to both clean up his things and to begin thinking of how to organise my own things for my move to a smaller living space. When you’ve been a couple for many years it’s hard to handle the fact that you’ve become single.
My favourite oracle and problemsolver was no longer around. I tried to present myself as I believed others wanted to see me: that I wasn’t going to break down, and that I was working hard to move on. And yet, in a way, my dearest and best friend was still very present in our home, which made it hard to move on.
I realised I had to find a new home quickly, a place where there would be fewer memories and that would be more manageable for one person to look after. My grown-up children claimed some clothes, books, tools and furniture, but of course a lot of things remained to be taken care of – to sort, to keep or to throw away.
I contacted an auction house, which looked at the things I wanted to get rid of and gave me an appraisal. Some of these things I put up for sale. I then asked friends and neighbours if there was anything they wanted. After that, I went into each room and made a list of everything that was left and made a clear note of what to do with each item.
Next to a lamp I would write, "Give to Peter", next to a painting "Give to Aunt Ellen", next to something I couldn’t place, I would write "Give to charity". After each room was done I took a well-deserved break.
Books are generally hard to sell. I suggest you let family and friends browse among the ones you can live without and take what they want. Sometimes books have notes in the margins written by people you know. These books can be difficult to get rid of for sentimental reasons.
When buying used books, I often look for volumes with notes in the margins written by strangers. It gives the book some extra character. So don’t be afraid to give away books with notes in them. If you have several books on a specific subject such as art, gardening, cooking or science or – as I had – nautical books, you might find someone who’s interested in buying the lot.
Photos can be really hard to deal with. Going through them is quite sentimental. So many memories come back – memories you’ll want to keep, maybe to give to your family. But remember, your memories and your family’s aren’t always the same. What one family member might think is worth saving, another might find completely uninteresting.
This isn’t a task your children will really resent being left to handle. They might even enjoy it. I remember one time when all my grown-up children visited to celebrate a birthday. I’d pulled together a lot of photos and sorted them into envelopes marked with the children’s names.
We all gathered around the dinner table. At first, things were quiet as people opened their envelopes and began to look through their photos. But after a while I heard them chatter: "Wow! Look at you!" "Have you seen this?" "Do you remember that?" It became a lot of fun.
By making games and events with family and friends out of the difficult job of death cleaning photographs you’ve gathered over a long life, it can be less lonely, less overwhelming and more fun. You also don’t have to carry the weight of all those memories by yourself and you’re less likely to get stuck in the past.
Having said this, though, it’s worth leaving photos until last when death cleaning. It takes a lot of time and it’s much nicer to go through old photos in peace and quiet later on, after you’ve made some successful progress on other categories of objects and things.
When you’ve lived a long life it’s so easy to get lost among memories from a long time ago. Give yourself the space and time for this precious activity.