What do you want to be to the people that you love? A loyal friend? A trusted advisor? An empathetic listener? An inspiration to live a life aligned with purpose? Depending on the relationship, any or all of these may be true.
I think, however, everyone can agree on one thing we do not want to be to our loved ones: a burden. And yet, this is exactly what most of us are without even realizing it.
Don’t agree? Let me ask you a simple question: What will happen to your stuff when you die? I’m not talking about money in your bank account, property, or financial investments that may be covered in your will. I’m talking about your stuff. The stuff in your house right now.
It has to go somewhere, which means that someone still living at that time- likely someone close to you- will have to go through it all and make decisions on your behalf. Imagine your loved ones combing through piles and boxes of your stuff. Not knowing what to do with them because you didn’t make it clear what your wishes were. Imagine the time, the physical and emotional energy spent doing this. This is the burden on our loved ones that we have the opportunity to avoid. How? Death cleaning.
What is Death Cleaning?
Death cleaning is a concept popularized by the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. The author, Margareta Magnusson, self-described as “somewhere between eighty and one hundred years old,” defines death cleaning (döstädning) as when 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.”
Magnusson describes her experiences death cleaning on behalf of her loved ones, including her husband, and also how she used what she learned to do her own death cleaning. She recommends starting at 65, but after reading the book, I decided to start my own death cleaning now at 39, even though I am in excellent health.
How is death cleaning different than decluttering?
Decluttering is an important step in a journey to a simpler and more minimal life. When you remove excess physical belongings, you create space to pursue that which is most important to you. The benefits are primarily yours to enjoy, although decluttering can positively affect whoever is living in your home as well.
Death cleaning goes a step beyond decluttering in that once you decide the things that you want to keep, you provide guidance to your loved ones as to what to do with those items after you die.
How I Death Cleaned
After reading Magnusson’s book, I was immediately motivated to do my own death cleaning. Luckily I’ve been steadily decluttering and have a good process in place to keep excess items out of my home. Here’s what I did:
(Note: The first two steps are not death cleaning per se but can help reduce the burden on your loved ones)
1. Have a will in place, and make sure that your loved ones can access information easily.
I know that there is a cost to creating a will but I would highly recommend making it a priority to determine where your assets will go after you pass. In addition to a will, my husband and I have a safe deposit box at a bank and a fire safe in our home with important documents. Finally, we use 1Password to store our passwords and recently upgraded to having a shared password vault. We are easily able to access banking, investment, and home management information if one of us falls ill or passes away.
2. Create a document explaining your specific wishes for a funeral and/or burial and share it with a loved one.
I created a Google Document with my funeral wishes (music, readings, flowers), as well as my burial wishes and shared it with my husband.
3. If you haven’t scanned your photographs as part of your decluttering process, do it now.
I scanned all of my physical photos and put them in Google Photos which is accessible by my husband. One tip from Magnusson – if you don’t recognize all of the people in the photo, consider shredding it rather than keeping it.
4. Do an inventory, first by category and then by specific sentimental items, to explain where you want everything to go.
The majority of your items are probably not ones that you want your family to keep after your death, so create an inventory document by category explaining where you want things to be donated. For example:
-clothing and shoes
-jewelry and accessories
Then decide which remaining items have special significance, such as family heirlooms, and inventory them with a description of their significance. Tell the story of your most beloved items! In her book, Magnusson explains that her mother had put handwritten notes on her items, explaining what to do with them, which made it so much easier to go through her things after her death. Another option is to create a shared online document, taking photos of the items and providing guidance on where you’d like them to go.
For any item that you want to go to a family member or friend, you may want to have a conversation with them now about whether they want the item in the first place. The family member can always be the primary designee with someone else (or a charity) as a backup.
5. Keep a shoe box with things just for you with a “throw away” note.
Magnusson writes that she kept a box with “things that have absolutely no value to anyone else, but enormous value for me.” For me, this is an accordion folder with the handwritten novel I wrote in the fifth grade, a few newspaper clippings, and the invitation to my wedding. I put a “Throw Away When I Die” sticky note on the folder.
A Burden no More
In 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey talks about “beginning with the end in mind.” He encourages the reader to visualize their funeral and what people will say about them as a catalyst to live a purpose-driven, meaningful life. I agree with Covey and choose to live my legacy by living intentionally and in alignment with my values and purpose for the people I love.
This is the legacy I want to leave – not the burden of piles of disorganized stuff that my husband and children will have to go through. Visualizing this, in some ways, is even more powerful for me than my own funeral.
Death cleaning is a way to free your loved ones from the burden of your unmade decisions. As Magnusson says, “Do not ever imagine that anyone will wish—or be able—to schedule time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself. No matter how much they love you, don’t leave this burden to them.”
About the Author: Emily McDermott is a wife, mother, and simplicity seeker, chronicling her journey at Simple by Emmy. She loves to dance, write poetry, and spend time with her husband and two young sons.