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 Elegance of (Finally!) Organizing Our Family Photos

Did you hear that deep sigh of relief? It was just me, basking in the satisfaction of finally organizing heaps and heaps of family photographs into labeled storage boxes that fit perfectly in a single living room cabinet. I’m feeling as light as a feather and breathing deeper than I have in a long time.

I like to keep a home that is fairly minimal and well-organized, but our messy stash of family photos became my dirty little secret, much like Monica Geller’s closet on Friends. I think what pushed me to finally deal with them was a book on Swedish death cleansing. Don’t worry, it’s not as morose as it sounds. The idea left me totally inspired to get all of my personal things in order. (Look for an upcoming post on the topic.)

I did make cute scrapbooks for my children as they went from birth through their high school graduation, but that barely made a dent in our photo collection, and another decade has now come and gone. I’ve tried to tackle the ever-growing heap, but I get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the photos and the emotions that inevitably come along with a trip down memory lane.

After our last move, all the photos ended up hidden away in six deep drawers of a large bedroom dresser. We’ve since randomly tossed in more and more photos, greeting cards, notes, and special memories.

But wait, it gets worse.  When my mother moved in with us, she brought along a big cedar chest filled to the brim with thousands of loose photographs spanning more than 100 years. Stick your hand in the chest and it might come out with a picture of my grandfather as a baby, my parents’ wedding, my first loose tooth, my sister’s prom date, a pet from 1972, my daughter’s college graduation, or someone nobody knows.

If you can relate and could use some inspiration, let me share my process. It’s certainly not the only way, but it got the job done.

Sort Photos:
This took me a full week. I dumped manageable-sized heaps of photos on the floor where I sat sorting into piles around me. Me…my daughter…my stepson…my husband…my mom… my sister…my grandmother…my niece…my son… my step-daughter…my dad…with a cadaver! (Seriously, he was in dental school.) Everybody’s family is different, so just start making piles and see how they start to shape up. Take a break when your head or back starts to hurt or you feel emotionally drained. It can be an exhausting process even without pictures of cadavers.

Purge Photos:
While you go through each and every picture, have a criteria for what to keep. I decided to immediately toss photos that are:
*duplicates of the same event/people
* blurry, dark, or unclear
* unflattering of the person in the photo
* shots of nature or tourist sights
* of people you barely know
*of cadavers

Give Photos Away:
I don’t think we are obliged to run around giving people photographs we come across during our sorting. However, since I was doing this project on behalf of my family, I was more than happy to box up and ship hundreds of photos to my two sisters who live in other states. I told them the photos were coming and to feel free to do with them whatever they wished.

Organize Photos: 
There are lots of ways to organize photos. After careful consideration, I think I did the simplest thing. I went to Hobby Lobby and bought all of the large-size photo storage boxes they had. It turned out fourteen boxes worked perfectly for us. In case it might help, here’s how they’re labeled:
*Alicia – childhood photos & personal pursuits
*Mike – childhood photos & personal pursuits
*Woodward – family photos
*Fry – family photos
*Alicia & Mike – our photos together
*One box for each of our children and grandchild
*One box for each of our daughter’s weddings
*Alicia’s Keep – special cards, notes, and letters
*Mike’s Keep – special cards, notes, and letters

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My Thoughts On Digitizing Old Photos:
I know a lot of people recommend scanning and digitizing old photos to get rid of the physical clutter. In fact, that’s what I was going to do, but I decided against it for several reasons.
*Services like Legacy Box are expensive.
*We have photos from 1900 that still look fine, so I’m not particularly worried about our photos aging.
*I love the idea of pulling out a box and looking through the photos.
*I suspect any digital format available will eventually become obsolete.
*I like the ease of having the physical photos and not having to log on to a computer to find the photo I’m looking for.
*We can easily add to the boxes or add more boxes, if needed.
*Finally, I like knowing that upon my passing from this realm, our children can easily take the boxes they are interested in.

If your family photos are in order, I applaud you. I know it’s a huge job. If it’s something you’ve yet to do, I hope this encourages you. It really does feel great to have it done, and I was surprised by something unexpected. I truly feel I’ve honored the people in those photographs, especially the ones who are no longer with us, by making it easy to open a box and see their smiling faces again. §

“Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you”

~Jim Croce