In pursuit of sanctity: death cleaning or the disabusing of pastiche?


When I was in college every few weeks I would go through all of my stuff to either give as a gift or donate. 

But why? 

The honest answer is anxiety.

I was so happy to have the freedom I had at that time. I felt successful, independent, and working toward something better. 

Yet, I still thought that if something, anything were to happen to change my situation, I wanted the ability to adapt quickly – or extricate myself quickly. 

Why would I even think that?

I’m still working on the answer to that question. It s a deeper question than I ever initially considered. 

Perhaps I thought it wouldn’t last or couldn’t last. Maybe I knew it was temporary because I had other things planned in the pipeline. 

Growing up I loved watching home or craft DIY shows on tv. Now, living abroad far away from HGTV or PBS, I am so thankful for YouTube. Let me tell you though, not all of these shows are created equal. My favorite channels provide insight and education balanced with just enough personality. If the former or the latter is too much, then it just doesn’t work for me. 

So picky, I know. Hey, this may be the modern golden age of television, but it might also be the golden age of Youtube. There are two billion monthly active users, with 30 million active daily users, and one billion paid subscribers on the platform. Wow.

At first, I was just going to watch Marie Kondo’s Netflix show and see what YouTube had to say about Swedish Death Cleaning, but then I read both books. Magnusson’s book was available first, but then I did also listen to “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo. I had tried twice before but couldn’t do it. The third time is the charm I guess. The things I do for this blog.  

I may just see too much utility, and not necessarily joy in the things I own. So, what would I be saving?! 

Except for books; We have far more books than we will ever need, or read. I know that. Yet still, we bring more into the house. Oh, for the love of books, they do bring me joy and they can all be tossed upon my death, I am fine with that. 

Then again, who am I to really say. It is already clear that I have kept far too many boxes…and glass jars, and other items well beyond their use.

I also have not read “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant,” by Margareta Magnusson. The basic premise here is to get rid of all the stuff you don’t need or want to pass on now (or at the very least have conversations about it with your loved ones), so they are not saddled with all of your shit. My mother read this book and said she loved it. I loved that she loved it. 

On name and lose presence alone, I can already get behind the latter. Get rid of all the stuff you don’t need or want to pass on now (or at the very least have conversations about it with your loved ones), so they are not saddled with all of your shit. 

Why do I love that my mother loved the book on Swedish Death cleaning? Well, besides the fact that it sounds really fun to say both in my head and out loud? We have a personal connection to it. 

Let me explain.

“The things you own end up owning you.” Fight Club, 1999

Here is a lovely read about how Tyler Durden (from Fight Club) was a minimalist. This is one of my favorite books and films for the exact reasons The Minimalists outline.

A personal story

In the late 1990s, my grandmother passed away. It was mainly my parents’ responsibility to clean up and clean out her farmhouse, they owned it. My grandmother was an amazing woman, but as a child of the Depression, she saved (what seemed like) nearly everything. I remember how incredibly resourceful she was as it always amazed me all that she could do, on the farm, with art and crafts, DIY, and with food. 

I remember that in her five-room (including the kitchen, not the bathroom) farmhouse the one room we were not allowed into was her sewing room. In all of her years living in that farmhouse, I saw the inside of that room once. It is the bigger of the two bedrooms upstairs, but it was packed with stuff. There was so much in the room that there was a path to the sewing machine and closet behind the sewing machine. I don’t remember how old I was when I saw the state of this room, perhaps a preteen, but I remember the piles of things that came up to my waist. 

She and her partner also had an unfinished basement full of crafting, gardening, and farm stuff. 

Cleaning all of this out stressed my mother to no end. 

Grief affects us all differently. I cannot attest to how my aunts and uncles truly acted or reacted. I just remember my mother’s reaction at the time. What I mean here is that I don’t know what perspective is real and true in the end. I simply saw my amazing mother overwhelmed and feeling rather alone with my husband in her task. 

At the time I remember hearing that my aunts and uncles and their spouses came to help in so much as they collected what they wanted from my grandmother’s grand collection and were on their way. Again, grief makes us see and feel things differently than how they might otherwise really be. This is not to discredit the grieving, by no means. This is just to say it is a partial story. 

At the time, as a reaction to seeing my mother like this, as I never had before, I said please do not ever do this to my sister and me. Either divvy up your things in your will or give it all away. I don’t want either of us to have to be stuck sorting through another life.

History in pictures

One thing my mother did with a lot of her mother’s mementos was to group them and then create shadowboxes. I love looking at these when we visit my parents because they tell a wonderful personal history of the life and times my grandmother lived. These shadowboxes include matchboxes of places my grandparents would frequently go to dances in, or dance cards because that used to be a thing. My mother also has a book of old correspondence between my grandparents when my grandfather was in the Pacific during the war.

On personality types

This is also a reflection on how (I think) my sister and I deal with what we are confronted with. 

At the time, and possibly now as well – I see myself often letting the wave overtake me, working to stay afloat in its water, whether I should or not until I can address the issue at hand. Whereas my sister seems to have an all-or-nothing approach, especially to clutter. This approach usually lends itself to the latter as it is far too overwhelming to her, regardless of any utility or sentiment that may be hidden in it. 

Nearly twenty years ago, when my sister moved into her house, she had nothing. It was a foreclosure though, so basically, the bank came kicked out the previous owner and locked up everything inside. 

When my sister got the key, all the clutter inside the house overwhelmed her. She wanted to toss everything and start bare. Luckily, she also had my parents who could sympathize with her situation, but also see the value in not chucking absolutely everything because she was going to have to live there. 

The house wasn’t supposed to be a shell. 

Don’t get me wrong. When my son and his father or my son and his friends are playing, I tell them to make all the mess they want, just be prepared to clean it all up in the end, on your own. Often I will walk into the room and completely do a one-hundred and eighty degrees turn and walk right out again because of the amount of clutter that has been created in that space. I do not want to deal with it. 

We are sisters after all.

History in pictures

One thing my mother did with a lot of her mother’s mementos was to group them and then create shadowboxes. I love looking at these when we visit my parents because they tell a wonderful personal history of the life and times my grandmother lived. These shadowboxes include matchboxes of places my grandparents would frequently go to dances in, or dance cards because that used to be a thing. My mother also has a book of old correspondence between my grandparents when my grandfather was in the Pacific during the war.

I suppose what my mother turned into shadowboxes would likely be what Magnusson would call my grandmother’s personal ‘throw-away’ box. However, remember my grandmother saved nearly everything, so maybe not. 

Photo by Rostislav Uzunov on

Does it spark joy?

Really, what do you have that still has value to you, that isn’t just taking up space weighing you down emotionally. Marie Kondo has devoted her life to organizing. A job she began in college, it is now a full-fledged consulting business with clients worldwide, multiple books, and a Netflix series. Kondo has six basic principles for tidying up. Firstly, to commit to the task, fully. Secondly, to imagine the life you want, draw it, write it out, or vision board it. Thirdly, go through all of your stuff in an organized method, but discard first, before reorganizing. 

Her manner of decluttering asks that you not declutter by space or location, but instead by category. This means to go through your clothes first, for example, or your books, toys, etc. Meaning, get all of those items out all at once and go through them. If other items from this category are found later they must be thrown out (donated, whatever – just not kept in the house), no matter what. This is because, according to Kondo, if this method is not followed nothing would truly leave your possession. 

Additionally, Kondo suggests either getting your family or household to participate completely or having them be left in the dark about your decluttering. This is because they may become sentimental for your items and end up keeping them for you. If this happens what are you even doing if you truly cannot part from your things. 

Once you are ready to move on to reorganizing the items you would like to keep, the order of organization matters. This is because what you will do first will be the easiest, then leading to the most challenging. Kondo recommends beginning with clothes, then books, papers, miscellaneous, and finally the most difficult to reorganize: sentimental items. 

Kondo’s last step involves asking yourself if the items ‘spark joy’? How does the item or items make you feel? This step can be intensely personal as each of us will respond differently to the sentiment that our items evoke. I both like this step and feel funny about it as well.

Death cleaning?

The Gentle art of Swedish Death Cleaning is meant for people aged sixty and above. However, this guide is not meant to depress you in preparation for death, but really for you to reflect on your life and the items you have acquired throughout that amazing life, reflect also the memories those items evoke and consider what you should leave behind or pass on. Essentially, don’t leave behind what to you is memorable stuff because others might not see the same value or sentiment in the items, they might only see a burden to dispose of. 

Additionally, Magnusson requests that you have conversations with your family about the items you would like to pass on to them, and ask those family members if these items are something they would like to have. If your family members choose not to take these items, you still have time to find them a home or donate them to a charity. 

A really good tip is to go through anything that is possibly a secret or something privately kept from others. If you don’t want others to discover this private secret, then dispose of it yourself. As Magnusson states in the book, “Keep your favorite Dildo, just throw out the other fifteen.” 

It can be difficult to see our parents and relatives or even others that we care for as full human beings if we have only ever known them as a parent or relative, or only ever as ‘old’ or ‘in need of some assistance’, but Magnusson gently points out that all people, whether they happen to be Grandma or not, are or at least at some point was just like you with exciting full lives with some secrets…just like you. So, what. 

Magnusson’s approach is the opposite of Kondo’s. Where Kondo’s approach is caring and swift, or rather immediate, Magnusson’s is also kind, but evolves, at your own pace. Both ask their readers or followers to reflect and appreciate where our stuff came from. Both also ask others to recycle or donate what is not of use or that which does not have sentimental value. Kondo’s approach is about creating space for the rest of your life whereas Magnusson’s is about creating space for your loved ones as well, long after you are gone. 

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on

Differences in the approach

While listening to these two books, something did strike me. I felt as if Magnusson was having a conversation with me that happened to have a few suggestions sprinkled in whereas, Kondo seemed to be giving me instructions sprinkled with stories. Given that Kondo has a Netflix show, a Worldwide bestseller, and is an international consultant, I think her book was slightly more successful, so maybe readers want those instructions over the stories?

While these two authors may have differing approaches, their goal is the same. To help you rid your home of excess stuff as it ways us down mentally and emotionally. This is a weight we do not need nor do we need to pass it onto the rest of our family. In the end, both approaches are about having less stuff in your possession so you can have less stress both in and from the space that is supposed to recharge you, your home. Additionally, though, both systems or styles asks their readers to reduce the number of possessions in order to live a fuller, happier life.

No matter which style suits you best, the point is not necessarily that the less we own the better, but that what we own should really matter to us and bring us joy, not just take up physical, mental, and emotional space in our lives.

Oh, and on the question of if Tyler Durden ever offered decluttering tips, in a way he did. His message: Don’t own it in the first place.

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