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The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter Hardcover – January 2, 2018
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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"A fond and wise little book... I jettison advice books after I’ve flipped through them. This one I will keep." --Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"A slim yet sage volume... While Japanese item-control diva Marie Kondo gave us strict instructions to only keep things that spark joy, Magnusson’s book is straightforward and unsentimental (with a bit of humor). The main message from this mother of five is: Take responsibility for your items and don’t leave them as a burden for family and friends."
--The Washington Post
"Proustian... A primer on how to winnow your belongings before you die, so you don’t burden your family... Ms. Magnusson is the anti-Kondo, who takes us on a charming and discursive tour of her own stuff." --Penelope Green, The New York Times
“Magnusson shares solid guiding principles for organizing your home, no matter your age or life circumstance.”
"One of the most charming, funny, and motivating books I've read in some time... Magnusson is an absolute delight. This book is so much more than lifestyle tips. It's full of life. Magnusson's candid humor and unassailable spirit comes through on each page... The best way to prepare for death is to live a good life, which Magnusson has done. We're lucky that she shares so much of it — in stories of gratitude, family, work, and love." -Buzzfeed
“Sure, it sounds morbid, but it's actually a pretty smart idea. Death cleaning isn't about getting rid of all your stuff, but rather streamlining your life so you're only holding onto what makes you happy . . . it's about so much more than dusting and sorting.”
“It’s a very short book and when I first picked it up, I thought it could easily have been edited down to a magazine article, or even a tweet…But her writing grew on me. If it were boiled down, I would miss her voice…Reading her book is much like having a sensible, cheerful aunt sit you down to tell you hard truths that your mother is too nice to say.” --Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Keep only what you love and what makes you happy in the moment. It’s like Marie Kondo, but with an added sense of the transience and futility of this mortal existence.”
—The New York Post
"Witty, useful and oddly profound." --Entertainment Weekly
"Has benefits you can enjoy while you’re still very much alive... could be a good way for families to discuss sensitive issues that might otherwise be hard to bring up." --TIME
About the Author
Margareta Magnusson is, in her own words, aged between 80 and 100. Born in Sweden, she has lived all over the world. Margareta graduated from Beckman's College of Design and her art has been exhibited in galleries from Hong Kong to Singapore. She has five children and lives in Stockholm. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is her first book.
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And I wasn’t disappointed. So what makes Magnusson’s slim but effective tome different than any one of the other “get organized” books out there? Hers is done with humor and humility and from the perspective that one day each of us will be gone from this earth. And who wants to be remember by their family and friends as a packrat? Or as someone who lived in a house where the camera crew from Hoarders was just outside the window? As the author states in the foreward: “Let me help make your loved ones’ memories of you nice—instead of awful.”
What is Death Cleaning?
The Swedish term döstädning literally means “death cleaning” in English. And as the author states, “it is a term that means that you remove unnecessary things and make your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave the planet.”
Simple, right? Actually not as simple as you think. I’ve gone through two major “clean outs” of homes in the past 10 years, and I can tell you that each situation is different and each clean out takes lots of time. Magnusson cuts through the sentimentality that can often bog us down when we set out to do a “purge” of possessions. The author bluntly reminds you that if you are sitting on items that you haven’t looked at in years, would you really miss them? And what is the real value of these items? And more importantly, what legacy are you leaving for your children or grandchildren?
Death cleaning according to Magnusson is “about a permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.” So this isn’t just for those of us in our twilight years . . . anyone who feels burdened by their possessions can benefit from the sage advice found in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.
Practice Advice Delivered with Humor
Magnusson is “somewhere between 80 and 100 years old” as she states in the About the Author section and much of her advice is based on real experience. She cleaned out her mother’s apartment as well as her mother-in-law’s apartment after their deaths. And she downsized her own large home to fit into a two-bedroom apartment when her own husband died.
One touching segment, for me, was when the author discussed finding notes from her mother pinned to specific items. Each note contained advice as to how to dispose of the item and who to contact since they might be interested. This practice provided peace of mind to Magnusson as she sorted through her mother’s possessions.
And the funniest segments dealt with finding what the author calls “vice” items such as a block of arsenic (which her father kept on hand during World War II when the Nazis took over much of Europe) or cartons of cigarettes in her grandmother’s linen cabinet where she would sneak a smoke. Magnusson advises that if you have items tucked away that would cause embarrassment or discomfort when found by your loved ones, dispose of them. Or, in the case of a loved one’s collection of “marriage counselors”” keep your favorite one, not all fifteen.
Not All Advice Works for Genealogists and Family Historians
While I agree with the author on her basic approach to handling family photos and other sentimental items – set them aside to review later and don’t get bogged down in a walk down memory lane or you’ll never accomplish the cleaning – I strongly disagree with some ways of handling these items.
Throwing away duplicate photos or images that are out of focus etc. is great, I don’t agree in disposing of photos just because you can’t identify anyone in the picture. As genealogists we know that we have resources to help figure out who is who and when the image was taken even if there are no notes written on the back.
In addition, when it comes to salacious stories, letters and diaries, she writes: “Perhaps you have saved letters, documents, or diaries that contain information or family stories you would never wish to embarrass your descendants with. While we seem to live in a culture where everyone thinks they have the right to every secret, I do not agree. If you think the secret will cause your loved ones harm or unhappiness, then make sure to destroy them. Make a bonfire or shove them into the hungry shredder.”
Again, I have to disagree. As a family historian my role is to uncover the truth, and then to preserve the truth. There are better ways of handling this type of information: one method I use is to preserve the information, place it into an envelope with instructions on how to handle it (such as release after all living individuals identified in the story have passed), and then store the item with estate planning and other important papers. This way my executor can decide how to handle the items, but they aren’t burned on the trash heap.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning – A Great Gift
There are several books that I occasionally send to friends and family members, and even colleagues, as a thank you or when they are going through a difficult time in life. If you have parents who should be downsizing, or know a friend who just lost their spouse and needs to go through possessions, the calming advice in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning can help remove the sting from such a process. I’m adding this one to my list of my “gifting” books.
One of the most important pieces of advice from Magnusson, besides performing your own death cleaning NOW, is to discuss the topic with your family members and friends. She notes the Viking tradition of burying objects with the owner when they died: “This was to be sure that the dead would not miss anything in their new environment. It was also an assurance for the family members who remained that they would not become obsessed with spirits of the dead and constantly be reminded of them because their possessions were still scattered all over the tent or mud hut.”
I enjoyed reading The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margaret Magnusson and I intend to put much of the information to good use in 2018 as I downsize my home here in Chicago. One of the main themes in Magnusson’s work is one of generosity: giving away those possessions that have outlived their usefulness in your life and gift them to someone else in need of their functionality. Doing so reminds me of the motto on Peter Bailey’s office wall in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life: “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”
A lot of people are complaining about how it doesn't tell you HOW to clean. That's not its aim. What it does it show you how to get into the correct headspace to DO the things YOU should be doing without selfishly expecting other people to clean up after you when you have died.
Read it with care and embrace what it tells you. You will be happier in the long run.
She says that death cleaning is not a sad thing to do, as she walks you step by step through eliminating things you need, don’t want, or don’t have room for. She says that remembering the history of each item one last time can actually be enjoyable.
Some practical tips include: start by checking the items by your front door; do the large items first; choose the clothes category early on.
She also suggests you don’t wait too long.
Once you get things under control, you can enjoy life even more. Magnusson says, “Death cleaning is not about dusting or mopping up; it is about a permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.”
I recommend this book to anyone who is ready to downsize their belongings and upsize their living. (My thanks to NetGalley for the review copy of this book.)
I can tell you- it was an eye-opener! We all learned a lesson in what really matters; that sometimes it's the simple things in life, like a bottle of drinking water,a cold can of baked beans,a can opener and a heavy lock on the door that can bring you the most comfort. I have been told by some friends that freeing trapped neighbors from the rubble of a nearby house is also quite fulfilling. When the military starts patrolling in helicopters, cases of water become available, someone pours a pail of cold cistern water over your head in lieu of a shower and you think you're in heaven or maybe just wish you were, one can truly begin to understand the meaning of death cleansing.
Later, when you and your friends are strong enough to come together to saw, smash and shovel through the wreckage of what was once your lives comes a kind of enlightenment; "What the hell was all this stuff anyway?"
Of course, there are moments ofter a month or four, when one is caught short remembering grandma's porcelain virgin/infanta or the garter Lulu tossed to your husband at a London revival of 'Guys and Dolls' on your honeymoon, but one soon overcomes the sadness choosing instead to concentrate on the more impotrtant aspects of life like maintaining the generator or camping out in the dry insurance company office to await what is owed for a replacement roof.
There are indeed lessons to be learned here, friends.