The new decluttering trend called Swedish Death Cleaning
I'M ABOUT to ruin an otherwise enjoyable morning by going where every daughter has gone before. I'm about to have an awkward conversation with my parents.
"Ah, mum," I say, clearing my throat. "You have many nice things," I splutter. "Have you thought about what you want to do with them all later on?"
My mum puts down her tea cup. "Sorry?"
I persevere. "Dad, do you enjoy having all this stuff?" I gesture at a pile of newspaper clippings on the coffee table, one of the many quirks of my father, who for the past decade has been methodically cutting out reviews for books he would like to read, annotating them with some useful information ('World War II biography'; 'Booker-nominated novel') and then leaving them in fire-hazard piles all around their lounge room. "Could life be easier and less tiring if we got rid of some of this stuff that you have collected over the years?"
"I'm not throwing out the book reviews, Hannah-Rose," my dad replies, without looking up from his newspaper.
I try once more. "Is there anything we can do together in a slow way so that there won't be too many things to deal with when you are not here any longer?" Reader, silence isn't golden. It's deafening.
I told you this was awkward. These aren't phrases that I've come up with myself. These are some of the things that you ask during dostadning, or Swedish death cleaning, the new decluttering technique that promises to rid your life of extraneous objects.
Sorry, did you say death cleaning?
Let's get it out of the way right now: Swedish death cleaning is a little bit morbid. The idea is that when people die they leave stuff. Lots of stuff. Reams and reams of it, piles and piles of it. And it's friends and family that are left to dealt with this stuff surfeit, this surplus of minutiae.
That's where dostadning comes in. In Sweden, people start the process as early as their '50s, slowly but steadily decluttering as the years roll by.
"Death cleaning is not about dusting or mopping up," says Margareta Magnusson, the author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (Scribe, $24.99), who is currently in the process of dostadning and says she is between the ages of 80 to 100. "It is about a permanent form of organisation that makes your everyday life run more smoothly."
But Magnusson says the process isn't just for those contemplating making a visit to the great wine bar in the sky. It's for all ages. "My motto is, if you don't love it, lose it. If you don't use it, lose it," Magnusson tells me. (She loves a motto, the book is full of them. My favourite, when discussing how to deal with your secret vices, is this gem: "Save your favourite dildo, but throw away the other 15!")
"I don't think you need to start death cleaning at 40, but you need to start thinking about your habits of collecting and you should definitely start getting organised."
I'm not 40 and I'm not unorganised, but I do have a lot of stuff. I have shoe boxes full of ephemera from high school, notes that my friends passed me in class, handfuls of Smirnoff double black caps and little bits and pieces of pressed flowers and other s**t I have no idea why I kept. I have enough books to start a mobile library. And don't even get me started on the wardrobe. I've kept things that are too small, too big, and too 2008. As Magnusson says, you won't be taking any of it with you, so why hold onto it now?
Keep only what you love, and what makes you happy in the moment. It's like Marie Kondo, but with an added sense of the transience and futility of this mortal existence.
Let's get started
The first rule of death cleaning is talk about death cleaning. All the time. You talk about it with anyone for whom you might one day be death cleaning, like your parents. And you talk about it with your friends. Magnusson believes that it adds a sense of accountability to what you're doing. If you vocalise it, it will come. Or something like that.
In practice, you get a lot of confused, perplexed faces. One of the things Magnusson suggests is that you isolate things that you don't want any more and give them to your friends and family whenever they come over for dinner, or whenever you catch up with them.
The first time I tried to do that, passing on a scarf to my friend Sam, she point blank wouldn't accept it. The second time I tried "giving" a pile of books away, I realised two days later that I wanted them back. Giving became lending, and the books made their way back to me the next week.
That weekend, I went to a friend's place for lunch. Don't buy your host flowers, Magnusson advises. Give her some of your things instead. So I dutifully turned up on Natalie's doorstep with some skincare that I hadn't even cracked open to try and, yes, some more books. Natalie was delighted.
So delighted in fact, that she gave me three books of her own to take home.
I wasn't having a lot of success with my bookshelves, so I decided to pivot to my wardrobe. Magnusson suggests that first-time death cleaners should start with the closet, as it takes the least toll upon your psyche to work through.
Her advice is simple: Take stock of your wardrobe as a whole, the colours lined up together, everything in one place.
Only keep the things that you feel you will really wear when you look at your wardrobe in this way.
In the spirit of the Swedish part of death cleaning, I unearth a giant Ikea FRAKTA bag and start filling it with things that do not fit with my wardrobe "as a whole". The midi dresses and skirts, the oversized sweater, the dressing gown coats and the overalls all stay.
Into the tote bag goes that copper-coloured silk blouse I bought at an ELLERY sample sale and never fit me, not even when I bought it, the tattered COS T-shirts bought on holiday six or seven years ago and really ought to replace, the silver handbag - I know, I know - I haven't worn in half a decade, but that I once used every day, and a whole bunch of miscellaneous, shapeless, cheap fast fashion things that I have no excuse for buying.
I do as Magnusson suggests and try to sell as much as I can on eBay. I am shocked that I make almost $500, hawking my old nubby cardigans and a few pairs of shoes. When Magnusson went through the same process with her wardrobe "a grandchild took a pair of shoes and the rest I gave to the Red Cross," she recalls. "Wonderful!"
Although it took time to photograph, write listings and monitor every piece of clothing on eBay, and then schlep over to my local Vinnies to drop off all the didn't-sells, I feel enormously better once that bag has gone. A successful decluttering episode is like a drug. And I want more.
But does it work?
A week of death cleaning and I definitely have less clothes. I have gained a stack of seven books, though - three from my friend, and four from the second-hand section at Vinnies when I dropped off my clothes.
"Living smaller is a relief," Magnusson writes, and she's right. "I know many people who can sit in a messy home and look as if they are happy and in harmony. To me they seem almost comical. I don't understand them."
Don't fear death cleaning, she adds. Happy memories will become happy memories for others. Death cleaning isn't the story of death and its slow, ungainly inevitability. But rather the story of life, your life, the good memories and the bad. "The good ones you keep," Magnusson says. "The bad you expunge."
The best part of death cleaning, by far though, is the tip Magnusson imparts in chapter 20. It's here that she shares the secret that makes death cleaning so palatable.
"Don't forget yourself," she writes. After every successful culling, take yourself out for a treat and do something you enjoy, like seeing a movie or, in Magnusson's case, heading off on a solo weekend away for some gardening.
So on that note, I'm off to the bookshop.