Swedish Death Cleaning Brings Peace and Joy

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The Swedish have an extremely pragmatic term known as döstädning. Translated, the term means death cleaning, as means death and städning means cleaning. It is the common practice of leaving one’s physical possessions and personal effects in good order to make things easier for loved ones upon our death. From my own experience, the process actually brings great peace and joy.

I recently read The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson to help me face a houseful of things that belonged to my late father, mother, and grandmother. Although I generally have little attachment or sentimentality toward material objects, I found it painfully difficult to part with things that belonged to people I love.

When my father died six years ago, it fell to me to deal with his possessions. With the exception of his clothing, my mom wanted us to keep nearly everything else of my dad’s, including a wooden duck lamp he made in high school. Suffice it to say it’s an ugly duckling. That poor thing lived more than sixty years in a box that has moved from my grandmother’s house, to my parents’ house, to my mom’s condo, to my attic. It’s the poster child for Swedish death cleaning, yet no one could let it go.

After my mom passed away I knew I had to deal with her things, my dad’s things, and all of my grandmother’s things Mom had kept for more than twenty-five years. A few treasures found good homes, but a huge stash of furniture, books, knick-knacks, decor, and memorabilia weighed heavy on my mind and on our attic floor.

Not only did Swedish death cleaning help me sort through my family’s belongings, it gave me a reverent opportunity to revisit and honor them. I was finally able to keep the memories and say goodbye to the objects. It also made me more aware of my own limited time and space on this planet. I’ve whittled down my possessions to what I need and what truly sparks joy, as Marie Kondo advises. My affairs are now in order to make things easier for my survivors, giving me enormous peace of mind.

The process left me with an unexpected sense of serenity, happiness, and increased appreciation for what really matters in life. I’m grateful to be in good health, and I plan to live the rest of my days unburdened by excessive material objects. I do have a secret desire that my dad’s lamp is bringing joy to someone who finds it just ducky. §

“I never saw a U-Haul behind a hearse.”
~ Billy Graham, evangelist

The Book that Changed My Life

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The year was 1994. My daughter was four and my son two. I had stepped away from my teaching job for a couple of years since my paycheck didn’t cover the cost of daycare. My husband took our only car to work every day, while the kids and I stayed home and had the time of our lives (without cable, video games, or the Internet).

It was not the plan for a college-educated woman who became an adult in the 80’s, a decade that brought us the movie Working Girl, yuppies, rampant consumerism, a bigger-is-better mentality, and over-the-top glitter and glam. Madonna’s hit song was a constant reminder we were living in a material world.

One Saturday I took the kids to the library, and a new book by Elaine St. James caught my eye – Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter. I checked out the book and re-checked it out as many times as the library allowed until I knew it by heart.

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St. James gave 100 practical tips for simplifying in eight categories of life and was a pioneer in doing so. This was long before words like decluttering, minimalism, professional organizers, and Marie Kondo were a common part of our vocabulary. The author helped me adopt a simplicity mindset at a time when it wasn’t that popular. It set me on a path that has influenced my personal and professional life to this day.

Not long ago I downloaded the book for $1.99, and it was like visiting with a wise old friend. It got me back in touch with the roots of simplicity the author planted in me so long ago. Here are my favorite tips from each section of the book. These days, I don’t believe they need an explanation. There are 90 more great tips in the book, but committing (or recommitting) to just these ten would simplify anyone’s life and spark a whole lot of joy.

  1. Your Household – #1 Reduce the clutter.
  2. Your Life-Style – #22 Build a simple wardrobe.
  3. Your Finances – #38 Get out of debt.
  4. Your Job – #52 Do what you really want to do.
  5. Your Health – #69 Learn yoga.
  6. Your Personal Life – #77 Spend one day a month in solitude.
  7. Special Issues for Women – #92 Take off your fake nails and throw out the nail polish.
  8. Hard-Core Simplicity – #99 Get rid of all the extras.

The last paragraph of the introduction to St. James’ book is interesting to read almost 30 years after she wrote it. “Wise men and women in every major culture throughout history have found that the secret to happiness is not in getting more but in wanting less. The nineties appear to be presenting one of those golden moments of change, the opportunity to freely give up the things that don’t make us happy and to incorporate the lessons of the eighties into a simple but elegant life-style for the nineties – and into the next century.”

I wonder how she thinks we’re doing. §

“The only thing we’d ever gotten from a power lunch was indigestion.”
~ Elaine St. James

The Elegance of Cats ~ a poem about simplicity

Simple As Cat
by Alicia Woodward

keep it simple
purred my cat
life is easy
when you live like that

plenty of water
and some food
a yummy treat
that tastes so good

a cozy place
to take a nap
a cushion, a basket
or a lap

a little piece
of bright red string
we don’t need
too many things

a sunny spot
here in the hall
chasing shadows
on the wall

a gentle rub
behind the ears
kisses and snuggles
make everything clear

keep it simple
purred my cat
life is easy
when you live like that §

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