It’s really kind of a morbid word, and if you Google “death cleaning,” your choices vary between services that you can hire to clean up after an “unattended death” and what people do to declutter their homes and parcel out their belongings to those they love before they die.
Family Handyman Magazine’s Nick Gerhardt wrote that although the term Swedish Death Cleaning is “off-putting…it’s kind of meant to jar you into action to decrease the burden on your family.”
In the modern day, it’s based on Margareta Magnusson’s 2018 book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter.” But anyone who has spent any time with an older family member knows, this is one art that has been around for generations.
“I don’t want my kids to have to sort through all my stuff after I die, so I might as well get rid of what I’m not using now. An old friend taught me to start giving stuff to your kids while you are still alive so you can see them enjoying it, while getting it out of your house,” said Carita Crain, who has already begun death cleaning at the age of 67.
Crain said she is currently going through dishes and kitchen items. “I’ll post a picture on our group message, and they let me know if they want some of it,” she said. “The items they don’t want will be donated to a thrift shop. Next will be small furniture items, the table and chairs on my deck—because nobody sits out there anymore—and such. Those sentimental items will probably be listed and I’ll try to decide who gets what. I’m at the point that I don’t want my stuff to own me, and I wish I had taught my kids not to collect stuff they don’t really need. But my first goal is to get my kids to retrieve all their own stuff. All my kids except one have moved out, and I’m pushing ‘reset’ on my life.” Crain raised six children—homeschooling them all—on her own after her husband, Mike Crain, was killed in a car accident in 2005.
“In Sweden there is a kind of decluttering called döstädning—dö meaning ‘death’ and städning meaning ‘cleaning,’” Magnusson, a Swede, writes in the forward to the book. The process of clearing out unnecessary belongings or willingness to unload and declutter, she said, can be undertaken at any age or life stage but “should be done sooner than later, before others have to do it for you.” Magnusson holds that people should start thinking about death cleaning as soon as they’re old enough to start thinking about their own mortality, TIME reports. She recommends giving things away to family and friends “whenever they come over for dinner, or whenever you catch up with them,” reports the Australian website Whimn.
According to TIME, Magnusson does advocate for keeping sentimental objects like old letters and photographs that she describes as things “just for me” in a “throw-away box,” which can be thrown away when she dies, without inspection.
“I guess you could say my mother taught me,” said Pat Echelmeier, a 78-year-old mother of four. Echelmeier’s mother gave her a perfect little strawberry-shaped sugar bowl for her 50th birthday that she placed in her china cabinet. When she downsized homes following the death of her husband, she gave the sugar bowl and the china cabinet to her own daughter. Echelmeier has a biological son and daughter, a step daughter, five grandchildren, two step grandchildren and one step great grandchild. She also had a biological son who was killed in 1984 when he was cleaning a fuel pit while serving in the United States Air Force.
She has already given out many of the things that filled the home she and her husband shared for over two decades. The two were married for 30 years. “I’ve kept things I want like my grandpa’s table and my in-laws’ antique bedroom furniture, but when I sold the house, I just felt like here I was with a big house and no place to go with everything. And I had had two years after my husband died to think about where I wanted everything to go.”
So she gave her daughter the dining room table and her son her old Volvo for his son who was just beginning to drive, and she’s promised her grandson a Gary R. Lucy print that she purchased when the two took a trip to his gallery in Washington, Missouri years ago. “There are just different things that they’ve made comments on over the years,” she said. “The bedroom furniture will eventually go to my step daughter because it belonged to her grandparents.”
Echelmeier said she has no regrets. “It just seemed like the right thing to do. I don’t want there ever to be a harsh word between my kids, I have seen families where there are hard feelings, and I have the right to say who gets what. I tried to be fair. I don’t think kids should have to do all that in addition to the grief of losing their parents.”
Apparently it’s not just women who embrace death cleaning either. Former St. Charles County, Missouri Sheriff Ray Runyon passed away July 11 at the age of 83. The youngest of his five children said his dad was a death cleaner long before it was chic.
Runyon was in law enforcement for 33 years in various capacities at the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department, including sergeant, lieutenant and eventually sheriff, as well as atthe Warren County, Missouri’s Sheriff’s Office and the Cottleville, Missouri’s Police Department. As sheriff, Runyon served during the Great Flood of 1993, the murder investigation of Walter Scott and the murder of Angie Housman.
Still, the father of five, step father of two, grandfather of 21, great -grandfather of 16 and great-great grandfather of one, found time to give away over eight decades of living. “He took all of the family heirlooms such as his father’s watch, saddle, old tin plate and cup and passed them out to us five kids,” Jim Runyon said. “Then he passed out some of his personal belongings such as badges, guns, plaques and awards to us. Then he drew up a will that he went through and wrote down items that were to be distributed to each person in his will. For instance, he left me a pontoon boat, his first-born grandson got his 1940 Mercury Coupe. The rest is to be sold and put in a mini trust and the money is to be divided equally. He had his will set up that if anyone contested anything in the will they would be excluded from the will and would receive $1. So, once all bills are paid, land and house sold, investments cashed in, life insurance collected, only then can any money be dispersed. He had his funeral paid for and plots all paid for. He was a very organized person. But most of all he left us all with some of his wisdom, compassion and all of his love and a warped sense of humor.”
Steve King’s dad—a Baptist minister for over four decades from the early 1950s to the 1990s—was giving away things for years before his death at 92 years old in 2014. “What was sad about it were those things that meant so much more to him than the person he was trying to give it to. He collected coins for years, and the last 15 years of his life, he would try to give away coins a little at a time. I was one of the few takers, and still I was reluctant. I still have a lot of his collection, which will not make me rich, by the way. He also tried to give away books. I was even more reluctant there, but I have a couple, just because there’s his handwriting in them. My folks didn’t have much of value on this earth when they left for Heaven.”
Pat Chrismer-Glebavicius gave her sons some of her things last Christmas. The 63-year-old gave one son all of her mother’s treasures from Greece and the other her grandfather’s shot gun. “They both knew that they were getting personal things from me,” she said.
Retired Boeing worker, Sheila Lake, said she assembled albums for her four biological and two step children with school and family pictures and items she “had saved that they gave me or things they wrote in school projects. They all loved them.”
But Lake said her 90-year-old sister had her own ideas about death cleaning and parceling out her belongings to her four children. “My sister boxed stuff up and wrapped it and gave it to her kids for Christmas. She and the kids all got a good laugh and a memory.”
At 62 years old, David Huckabey said he wants to declutter and share his treasures, but his kids don’t want them. “I have noticed that the younger generation has no interest in antiques or anything handed down even if it is a part of their family history,” he said. “I was thrilled to get stuff handed down. If that stops, people will not know about where they came from. To me that stuff is important. I don’t know what to do with things, because nobody wants it. I hate to have these things end up in an antique store or somewhere like that, but it looks like that’s what is going to happen. I have stuff that my Dad bought, and it means the world to me, but none of the kids want anything to do with it. So I guess it will end up in a store somewhere. It’s really sad to me. Kids these days live in a throw away world. When you are done with something, you throw it away.”
Barbara Smith said her step mother has been giving things away for years. “She says she wants to see us enjoy them now, she doesn’t want to burden others to do it after she’s gone. She’s given away mostly her jewelry that she’s collected throughout her travels.”
“My grandma put Post-its under everything in her china cabinet with a name on it. That is who it was supposed to go to,” said Terry Lewis. The mother of three, grandmother of seven and great-grand mother of 16 was 93 when she was killed in a car accident.
Roger D. Burns said he’d “rather call it down-sizing than pre-death purging because it sounds so much better.” By the way, the 69-year-old says he has a garage full of stuff that he’s been slowly and philanthropically emptying for years.
Kurt Varvaris, 50, says he’d like to leave less evidence that he’s been here, but his kids won’t let him. “My footprint, when I die, would be so much smaller, if only I could get rid of all the stuff I have both in my basement and garage,” he said. “Ironically most of said stuff is either in-laws’ or children who are adults now but don’t have the space in their own rented homes. Woe is me. Dadgummit.”
That’s why Lois Martin is giving her kids their own possessions now. “I just gave my daughter her childhood record albums,” Martin said. “I’ve given her all her Cabbage Patch creatures, place mats we used when she lived at home, little things along the way like that.” Besides, she said she doesn’t trust notes. “My mother-in-law did that, but they were ignored by whomever cleaned out her house.”
Patrick Cunningham said his mother welcomed him to take what he wanted, but it’s difficult to actually do. “My mom asked if I would want anything in particular, and I said her anniversary clock of 30 years from MEMC,” he said. “She told me to take it whenever I was ready, and to think about anything else I might like to have. I have a few things, and I have to say, it feels weird, but it’s part of life.”
Elizabeth Sparks’s own father passed away at a young age, so the 52-year-old said she’s always made a point of giving her five children anything they wanted from her possessions. “As my children move out, I’m giving them things I already want them to have,” she said. “It’s not that I think I’m old or dead yet, but my dad died at 49, so I’ve learned most things are just things. So if I see something my kiddos think is sentimental, I just give it to them now. I have given them furniture that has been passed down that are antiques, photos plucked right off the wall, gave our living room furniture right out of the room, china, Christmas dishes, clothing, sentimental rings, and there’s more I’m sure. It’s not to enable them, as the oldest ones work full time and go to school full time. It’s so I can see them enjoy it now. I always kind of thought leaving items in the will when I’m gone could leave to fighting. I want my kids to be close and to never fight over stuff.”
Marilyn Hardy agreed. “Material possessions are nice to have, but after that I need to see my successors enjoy them as much as I have.” The 67-year-old says she’s left notes on her jewelry and taped names on valuable pieces of furniture for each of her four children and four grandchildren.
Suzanne Lindquist has decided to move. But she was death cleaning before that. At 71, she says the heart doctor tells her she’s got at least another 30 years, and in her own mind, she’s still 20. She’s marking her stuff anyway, though. “As I am moving, I’ve been asking what the kids want now to take home. And for years the kids would say, ‘I want that when you die.’ And I would write it down. As time goes by I have been putting things such as the house and other things in mine and their names, so they will get it when I die. But no one wants to really talk about it with me, about death, while I’m still alive and well.”