Have You Started Death Cleaning Yet?

“I’ve never seen the settlement of an elderly person’s estate that didn’t involve at least one Dumpster,” said an estate lawyer.

If you have helped with the post-death cleanup of a relative’s worldly possessions, you know the lawyer’s words are true.

Margareta Magnusson, an elderly Swedish artist and author, would like you to make the lawyer’s words a lie by engaging in the gentle art of Swedish death cleaning while you are still alive.Enjoy her reassuring 3:47 minute video.

Imagine, you could die tomorrow, and who is going to take care of all this crap?

Margareta Magnusson

What is Death Cleaning?

Death cleaning is making life easier for your grieving family and friends by sorting, organizing and, where necessary, getting rid of stuff before you’re dead and they are left with the hassle.

Who Should Death Clean?

I remember informing my high school English teacher that I had no intention of ever dying. Clearly, I was too young to start death cleaning. But once aware and even minimally accepting of your own mortality, you’re ready to begin.

Why Should You Death Clean?

There are advantages, of course, for the people you are leaving behind. For example, there are fewer squabbles over who gets what because you’ve sorted it out in advance and perhaps even already given them whatever they’re desiring. There’s also less angst about who has to take stuff that they didn’t want when you were alive, don’t want when you’re dead, but feel guilty about pitching. And let’s not forget that you’ll save your loved ones money. It is expensive to get rid of stuff, whether that involves renting a dumpster, hiring a professional downsizer, or delaying the sale of the house for the time it takes to empty it.

There are also advantages to you. A report in Psychology Today cites no fewer than eight ways in which clutter is distracting, guilt-inducing, frustrating, and stressful.

When Do You Death Clean?

Death cleaning is not a weekend or holiday event. You will never check it off your to-do list. It is an ongoing process that ends only when you die.

However, within the span of time from now to your death (which I hope will be decades from now), there are some ideal times to death clean. Moving from one place to another tops the list, especially if you are moving to a smaller place and must downsize.

And, of course, if you are paying to keep stuff in storage units, that’s another good time. The self-storage industry in the United States made $24 billion profit in 2014. Amazingly, 50% of people who rent self-storage units are smily storing stuff that won’t fit in their homes, even though house sizes have almost doubled in the last fifty years. cardboard box filled with photos

How Do You Begin Death Cleaning?

Magnusson’s book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, will be available in January 2018 if you feel the need. In the meantime, she offers a few suggestions:

  • Stop acquiring stuff! Research proves that happiness returns to pre-acquisition levels soon after you make a purchase.
  • Tell friends and family what you are doing. It helps you to be accountable and, if you wish, gives them an opportunity to tell you which of your possessions they would treasure.
  • Start with the easy stuff–the clothes that don’t fit or are worn to threads; the extra dozen plates in the kitchen cupboard; the wedding gifts that were never opened because, really, how many fondue sets can you use?
  • Sort through photos, children’s artwork and other sentimental memorabilia last. If you do it first, chances are good that you will be derailed by memories.
  • Keep whatever you want. No one is saying you have to empty your house before you die.
  • Get rid of any secrets that could harm people you care about. If there’s something you don’t want to dispose of, but don’t want anyone else to see, keep it in a box marked “Discard without looking.”
  • If you aren’t using something, give it now to someone who would love it. You get the added bonus of enjoying their pleasure in your gift while you are still alive.
  • Put all financial papers in one place, along with a list of passwords to online accounts.
  • When deciding what to give, donate, or toss, ask yourself Margareta’s question: “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?”

Do I Need to Move?

There were many times in the last few years when I was convinced that I needed to pack up and move. Since retiring, I’ve craved a sense of ease, typified by my dream of a cozy little house with wide plank wood floors, sun-filled rooms highlighting my few simple yet exquisite possessions, gauzy white curtains dancing in the gentle breeze from the ocean that’s just beyond my front door. Yup, your typical beach-house fantasy.

Prime among the many problems with this fantasy is the fact that I love my current home and property. When I do decide to move, I will be a horrible, demanding nightmare of a client for some poor unsuspecting real estate agent because I will want a smaller version of exactly what I have. My home was designed by an artist so it has some unusual features, such as hallways that are extra-wide so that artwork shows well. It would be easy enough to build another house like this one, but it won’t be easy to find one.

Fortunately, my minimalist beach-house envy has faded in the past six weeks of sorting, organizing, discarding, donating, and getting ready to sell my stuff. I got the fresh start, the new beginning that I was craving, by touching every single item in my home and reliving the memories associated with them.

So I’ve Started Death Cleaning But…

I’ve always had a box marked “Throw Out Without Looking if I’m Dead.” Makes me sound mysterious, doesn’t it?

Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece after all.

Nathan W. Morris

My passwords are in a file that is not password-protected.

I’ve gotten rid of a bunch of stuff. And, since this isn’t my first decluttering rodeo and I love to organize, I have more empty drawers, open surfaces, and sparsely filled closets than most people. And yet, and yet…there’s still so much stuff that, if I died tomorrow, my heirs would be dealing with my stuff for weeks.

Death cleaning, I’m learning, is daunting and definitely a long-term process. I’d better start by figuring out who might want my 41 Kris Kristofferson CDs. Oh, dear. This could be more difficult than I thought.

What do you own that you absolutely love, but suspect no one else would want?

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  1. Great ideas for everyone I would think even if your only thought is to declutter your place. I do think it is an ongoing battle. I last cleaned out our whole house in June and already I feel I could do it again.

  2. Hi Fran,
    When it comes to death cleaning and earmarking things for friends, if I go before you, you get my substantial post-it note collection. I’ll never forget our initial bonding over post-it notes!

  3. I have recently heard of death cleaning, Karen, although I can’t remember exactly where that happened I would not doubt it was on the net. I live on the computer lol, being a YouTuber is my excuse. I am always editing videos, answering emails from people who watch my videos and of course uploading videos…just sayin’.

    I guess I death clean too – most often when I move and sometimes when the clutter drives me mental. I can remember an elderly relative who passed away and left an entire household (including attic) full of stuff to dispose of. This subject is at the top of my mind now in particular because my father-in-law is not in the best of health. My husband and I are co-executors of the estate. His house is going to be a nightmare when it comes to purging its contents prior to the sale of the house. He is a bit of a hoarder – there are clear areas to walk but every cupboard and closet are jam packed with stuff and the basement is the storage area for many items I doubt he has seen or touched in decades. I am not sure there is time to do any death-cleaning in his house, much less getting him to agree to it. As for our place, we have a little extra stuff here that I am sure we could/should get rid off but after a giant purge before moving here June 1st of 2016 I think we are good for now.

    That box marked “Throw Out Without Looking if I’m Dead” would be too tempting. I am someone to whom you could command to do the dishes and I will guarantee you that dishes are the very last thing I will be doing. You can ask me politely and I would most likely pick up the washcloth and start doing the dishes without needing to be asked twice but TELL me to… hoo boy will you have a fight on your hands.

    You could ship those 41 Kris Kristofferson CDs to me if you like I appreciate his songs, his voice and his poetry. I would not even try to challenge you for #1 Fan status but I do like his music.

    The things I love but fear no one else would want is my Stephen King collection of books and movies. Now, there, I will claim #1 Fan status (no, not with Annie Wilkes’ kind of obsession she had for Paul Sheldon so relax). I take pride in my collection, much as you probably do with Kris Kristofferson, that has taken me years and years to amass. Hhmm – that is a tough one given not many people go for physical books anymore and then to narrow that group down by those that enjoy Stephen King’s writing…

    1. Good to know that my Kris collection has a future home, Susan. Sorry that I can’t return the favour with Stephen King. I love his book ‘On Writing’ but that’s as far as it goes.
      As for the “throw out without looking” box, I hope you’d be able to do it if it was someone’s dying declaration, your one chance to honour their request – maybe not the same thing as dishwashing requests??
      Good luck with your father-in-law’s place. Hopefully it will be easy to make decisions about his various possessions when the time comes.

      1. Of course, the “throw out without looking” box would be honoured as the last request should be. You are right, it is very different than a dishwashing request. I would be in a very different state of mind as well – more reverent than rebellious at that point for sure! Upon further reflection, it would actually save me from having to make that decision… a blessing really. 🙂 Please ignore my previous statements in my first response…a case of shooting off my mouth (er fingers) without thinking first. 😉

        Thanks for the encouragement when it comes to my father-in-law’s place – I am sure it will be unpleasant and stressful but we will get through it. Hmm…now who do I know that likes Stephen King brand of entertainment? 🙁

        1. Hey, no problem at all Susan. I do the same thing. My responses have lots to do with how much sleep I’ve had, how busy I am, and my mood at the moment. Today, for example, I’ve been so tired that I’m indifferent about everything!
          Congratulations on the big success with your YouTube channel. Well done!

  4. Love, love this! What a great video too… I think it’s a very healthy way to approach the inevitable (although, like your high school self, I am often in denial). Any of us who have had the job of going through the home of a deceased loved one and deciding how to get rid of everything knows how difficult it is. Anything we can do to ease the burden for someone else, we should try to do. And – bonus – we get to enjoy living in a less cluttered house while we are still above dirt!

    1. I completely agree, Janis. Death cleaning is an activity that is a win/win for everyone. I too see it as a health response to the inevitable… now that we have, mostly, accepted that there will be an inevitable!

  5. I had never heard of death cleaning. What an incredibly helpful and informative post and video Karen. My daughters both live in the States, and I have a letter addressed to each of them that details where everything is; it also lets them know what I have and how much I owe and I update it every six month. But the concept of getting rid of “stuff” isn’t easy – for me at least. Clothes, no problem but I seem to live with clutter, clutter, clutter, and no matter how much I tell myself to downsize, the days drift away or I simply make the excuse that I may need that “some day”. Thanks for this post Karen – perhaps next week I’ll start……….

  6. I’ve started my cleaning, Karen, for myself while I’m alive, and for my family after I die. I had a role model who did his death cleaning before he died. I also had actual experience to be one of the few who were responsible for cleaning out a family member’s stuff – a physically and emotionally-draining experience that I’d not want to do to my family. What I own and love but suspect no one else would want are the hand written letters and cards from my now deceased family members and my friends since my pen pal days. As you said, It’s a long process but I’ve stopped much of the incoming sources of more stuff and have been chipping away at my remaining possessions so I’m slowly getting closer to my “living light” state.

    1. Hi Natalie,
      I’m not sure what happened to my response to you. Sorry – it seems to have disappeared.
      What I wanted to say is that it’s impressive that you’ve stopped the more stuff coming into the house. That’s the stage I’m at now – wanting to significantly curb my spending and my ‘stuff’ acquisition. I’m not sure how far I’ll get along the ‘living light’ road, but I think it’s really wonderful that you’re well on your way. By the way, you’re the first person I’ve ever heard of who actually knew someone who did their death cleaning in advance. I imagine that made things much easier for his family members.

  7. This all makes sense to me.
    I still prefer to call it “decluttering’, “deep Spring Cleaning”, “Following the Marie Kondo Method” or something a little gentler. (Sensitive soul….I know)!

    1. Hi Donna,
      Will you try something out for me? Please try responding to this message. Shiraz has just changed the comment box so I think you should be able to reply without having to enter your info again. And you should be able to get follow-up comments by checking a box, if you want.
      There’s a different, deeper intent with death cleaning than with Marie Kondo’s method or regular decluttering, but I think you can call it “looking at elephants” or anything you want to help you feel good about doing it!

      1. Hi, Karen (and Shiraz) – My sincere apologies. I did not see your reply until now. (Thus my request for an email reminder when you have commented on my comment)! Sorry for the delay. All seems to be working well now.

  8. When my Dad died a couple of years ago, it seemed to be a comfort to my Mum to go through his things and dispose of his clothes and books to good homes. She also went through all of his papers and read many of the sermons and articles he’d written over the years. It kept her occupied and gave a focus to her memories, so there are positives to clearing up after a death – though my Dad was a tidy man so it wasn’t a daunting task. There were two things she found little stashes of in various places – small note books and nail files! We think he must have bought those items just about every time he went out. This amused us.

    1. Hi Anabel,
      You are so fortunate that your dad was tidy. I can well imagine that, under those conditions, taking care of your dad’s things would have given your mother great comfort and mostly good memories.
      I love his little stashes. They seem so telling of his work ( the note books) and his tidy nature (the nail files).

  9. I relate to this as I was the primary person who managed my mother-in-law’s totally full, 6 bedroom house when she passed away 16 years ago. It took me 9 months to sort through everything, get family to decide what they wanted to keep, work with an auction house on things of value, donate tons of stuff. Yes, my mother—in-law…none of her kids were/are organizers. Unfortunately, my husband, who watched me do this, has decided that someone else can do the same for him. He doesn’t get that it might be me again….he thinks it’ll be one of his siblings or nieces/nephews. So he remains a hoarder. It’s a challenge I’m trying to learn to live with.

    I am not a hoarder, but I have many things that I love and know will not be desired nor appreciated by the next generation. I keep them around because they bring me joy looking at them. I fully expect them to be dumpster-ed.

    1. Hi Pat,
      Nine months to empty a house – groan!! That’s a really challenging slog. Thank goodness you were able and willing to take it on.
      I too have lots of stuff that brings me great joy. Those are the things I’m determined to keep until they are no longer important to me. If they end up in the dumpster, as I know they will, I fortunately won’t be aware!

  10. I guess when you are a person who doesn’t like to collect stuff and lives in a minimal way, you are always death cleaning. Even though we carry all our stuff with us wherever we go, I still feel like I have too many belongings. I am and I love downsizing whenever I can. It is liberating and makes me feel more free and flexible. Yes, I could use more clothes right now (it is almost winter after all and I have only one pair of wearable jeans left), but I don’t want more clothes! And, I hate shopping and spending money. With that attitude it is easy not to collect stuff. 🙂

    I think the whole concept of death cleaning is a very useful and thoughtful one. But, if I were to find a box of my relatives that says “toss without looking”, well… that is really testing a curious mind!

    1. I wondered about your take on death cleaning, Liesbet, and am not at all surprised to hear that your minimalist lifestyle keeps you always downsizing.

      Just think of the creative writing inspiration you’d get if someone left behind a box that said “toss without looking.” I imagine you could dream up better contents than what would actually be found in the box. Hmm… that would be a good writing prompt I think. What’s inside a box titled “toss without looking” if that box belongs to your dad? mom? sister? a favourite or least favourite aunt? I think I’ll give this a try!

      1. That idea makes me smile, Karen. A great prompt indeed! It could definitely make for an intriguing short story, or fiction novel. I think you should give it a try. 🙂 Or, it could be the topic of a blog post.

        I’m also happy to report that I was notified about your reply. Very easy and enjoyable. Thanks for adjusting that!

        1. Excellent, Liesbet! I’m delighted that you were notified of my reply. That’s one problem solved. The next is – did you have you enter your information when you did this second comment? Shiraz was fixing that too so that you wouldn’t have to. Hopefully it worked for you now, but if not, it should definitely work next time. Fingers crossed.

          1. I did have to fill that information back out, Karen. I”m sure she will be able to fix it soon. Oh, look at that… It is filled out for this comment. Awesome!!!!

  11. I’ve threatened my husband that if anything happens to him, I’m going to lock his office door and just never go in there again. He’s a pack rat for sure. I’m less so, but still would leave a mess for anyone to clean up if I were to leave this earth today. I started a new rule for myself last year that for every one new item I bring into the house, at least one item has to go, so at least I’m not accumulating more stuff. I am motivated after reading your post to clean out some more things this weekend though. The box labeled “throw out without looking” made me laugh. I’m pretty sure that would translate to “Open this first!”

    1. Hi Christie,
      How goes the weekend death cleaning? Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write!
      Ah the temptations of a “do not open” box. I had no idea that so many people would find that irresistible. The response is giving me some good ideas for a future writing project.
      Great self-discipline on one thing in/one thing out. I’ve never actually done that myself, but lots of friends have said that it works well for them.

  12. Karen, I’m afraid that to me, this concept seems really morbid. I’m still quite young! I have lots of living left to do! I’m sure that someday I will be too old and feeble to ski, cycle, paint, or cook. But until then, I am keeping my skis, bicycle, easel, and cookbooks, etc.


  13. Hi Jude,
    I’d certainly hope that every single tribe member of Profound Journey still has lots of living left to do, including my 81 year old mom!
    Death cleaning doesn’t involve getting rid of skis, bicycle, easel, cookbooks, or anything else that you love and use. It’s about being conscious and deliberate in acquiring new stuff, and about thinking ahead to the work of your heirs before keeping the boxes of stuff that have sat, unopened, in storage for the last twenty years. Not saying you have those boxes, Jude – just that death cleaning is about that stuff! And finally, it’s about organizing what you do have so that life feels more spacious now while you’re alive. That’s the part I especially love.

  14. I didn’t realize that after all these years, I’ve been actively involved in death cleaning without knowing it. I thought it was just that I’m not a pack rat and I hate clutter 🙂

    “Stuff” is insidious and has a way of accumulating in spite of our best efforts. I recently came up with a formula for it … Time + Available Space = Stuff to the 3rd power.

    … but if I ever encountered a box labelled ‘discard without looking”, you can be sure I would be looking!

    1. For those of us who share your anti-clutter proclivity, Joanne, your formula is as profound as e=mc squared.
      Wow, the number of people who would look at the “discard without looking” box amazes me! This is really looking like one of those questions that should be asked at family gatherings. If it’s not already in a box of “questions to ask at parties” someone’s missing a bet! It sure inspires pretty definite responses!

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