Opinion: How the ‘Swedish death cleaning’ helped me declutter
You don’t want your loved ones to be stuck decluttering your house — or storage unit — after you die. Follow these tips to declutter while preserving the most important things
Editor’s note: Part 1 of this two-part series talked about hoarding and rapid decluttering. This column deals with making decisions on what to keep.
There are some aspects of dejunking/decluttering that are easy for me. Old papers, old bills, obvious trash, VHS tapes, the old AOL trial disk — none of those give me a second’s hesitation. But, much harder for me are books, fabric, photos and other sentimental memorabilia like my kids’ papers from school. I’m finding “Swedish death cleaning” to be helpful in helping me loosen some of the heart strings that have been bound to stuff.
Swedish death cleaning
“Swedish death cleaning,” popularized by Margareta Magnusson, a Swedish artist and author of “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter,” is the idea that when you die, your loved ones are going to have to go through your stuff and clean it out, so do as much as you can before you leave this planet. As far as I know, I’m not knocking on death’s door, but realizing that my kids would not only have a lot of cleaning to do but that they would also likely be resentful doing it is motivating for me.
What should we keep?
That brings me to a question about what we should keep. I asked Ken Williams, the state archivist, for advice and then laughed when he told me, “I definitely live by the mantra that ‘when in doubt, throw it out!’”
He also told me that he finds it “surprising how much we keep in paper when we have the same thing in digital/e-record format.” He recommends a “personal retention schedule,” such as seven years for tax and financial records, then destroying the ones older than that. (Still a problem when I only get around to it once every 15 years, Ken.)
I also asked professional organizer Jenny Layton for her advice on what to keep. She says if it brings us joy (à la Marie Kondo) rather than weighing us down with guilt, or a sense of “obligation,” then keep it. Otherwise, get rid of it to make space for what really matters. She quoted Stephen Paul, who said, “The space for what you want is already filled up with what you’ve settled for instead.”
Family memories and family genealogy can be very difficult to pare down. I have plastic totes full of photos (from the pre-digital camera days), cards, school papers — even old newspaper articles. What do I do with all that stuff? Those memories are precious!
Williams told me that he has a file drawer for himself, each child and grandchild where he keeps things given to him. But he also has digital folders for each one. This year I have embarked on a mission to scan everything (eventually) at my local family history center. I then upload everything I’ve scanned to a computer program that can sort by date and location (sometimes it will need your help). And it has facial recognition capabilities, so I now have folders for each child with pictures going back years. The company also emphasizes duplicate storage locations: computer, external hard drive, the cloud and your phone. When one goes down, you’ve still got your memories safely accessible.
We have also inherited boxes and boxes of old family group sheets that, in my mind, have little value, since the information is now available digitally. But it feels sacrilegious to (gasp!) throw away family history. A quick Internet search, however, showed me that even professional genealogists recommend getting rid of duplicates and then scanning the originals. An article in Family Tree magazine recommends asking yourself five questions about items in your family history collection: Is the item one-of-a-kind? Is a digital version available? Who will inherit this when I die (either item or information)? What practical value does this item hold and what sentimental value does it hold?
Full disclosure: family memorabilia is probably the last thing I’ll get to when decluttering. But hopefully the photos will at least be scanned and tagged with a year and the names of people in them.
I believe in having food storage, for a variety of reasons, including an unanticipated global pandemic. But even food storage needs to be gone through, “decluttered” and rotated. I went downstairs last week to get a can of mandarin oranges. When it went “pffft” when I opened the lid, I looked at the expiration date. 2009. Oops.
At least I’m not alone. Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints joked about it in the October 2020 general conference. “We discovered ... items in a remote closet that had been in our food storage for decades. Frankly, we were afraid to open and inspect some of the containers for fear of unleashing another global pandemic! But you should be happy to know that we properly disposed of the hazardous materials and that health risk to the world was eliminated.”
Another room added to my declutter list.
Besides family photos, I think we all have stuff that is hard to part with. My two biggest categories are books and fabric. Books are my friends. But being honest with myself, I’ve changed how I consume books. I’m almost 100% digital now and that, combined with one of my daughter’s side-eye glances, helped me donate many books. I’m crossing my fingers that someone else will love them.
I’m not quite ready to get rid of my fabric stash, even if I haven’t sewn in five-plus years. If the global supply chain is completely interrupted, I can sew clothing for my entire family!
Or maybe I’m just really good at rationalization.
Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.