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Clean up before you pass on

Based on a book titled The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson, the Swedish custom of “death cleaning” is quite a sensible and practical way to manage your possessions in your golden years.

For background, Magnusson wrote the book after dealing with the deaths of her parents and husband, and not knowing what to do with their possessions. Her book describes the concept of döstädning, which translates to “death cleaning”.

This is where a person begins decluttering slowly, so that in the event of their passing, their worldly possessions don’t become a burden and huge emotional strain on their loved ones.

In case you’re already thinking that throwing away things is not the way for you to handle your worldly possessions, consider this: the offspring of baby boomers aren’t that excited about inheriting the belongings of their parents, according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor.

Items like old wood furniture are outdated, even if they are valuable, so what’s the point of passing them on to your family members if they prefer Ikea or Muji home accessories anyway?

According to Magnusson, those aged 65 and older are good candidates for decluttering. Donate your possessions, give them to your favourite people whom you think will benefit from certain items as gifts, or sell them for a fair price.

To begin, Magnusson says it’s best to avoid looking at family albums or heirlooms at first. Clear out storage spaces like the basement or attic, where forgotten and unnecessary items are bound to be taking up space. Go for your closet and empty it of the items that you no longer wear.

What stays, what goes

For each category of items you are decluttering, you should have piles, e.g. to keep, to donate and to throw. —

Once you’ve picked a space to start your death cleaning, the next challenge lies in being able to throw things out. Magnusson recommends ma- king use of categories. Clothes and books are the easier ones.

But you might also have collections of certain items, like your favourite magazine, toys, shoes, stamps or fridge magnets, among others, that may have taken time to find and build up.

There are also likely to be items that hold fond memories for you, such as a diary or love notes from an old flame. To (hopefully) make things easier when deciding on what stays and what goes, create piles within your categories.

Have a “toss” and a “keep” pile at least, and if possible, aim to put half of the items in the category in each pile – this should help keep you on track with decluttering. But what about those items that hold fond memories of moments in your life?

Clearly, these may be the items that you don’t really need, but can’t bear parting with. For this very reason, Magnusson recommends having a “throw-away” box to keep these items in.

The box isn’t a reminder for you to throw those items out; rather, it is meant to make it easy for your family members to get rid of them once you’ve passed, as the items will likely bear little significance to them.

Lessons for the young

Although the process of death cleaning is meant for older folk, there are quite a few significant lessons that younger individuals can gain from this exercise.

The most insightful one is on the practices we have throughout our lives that create clutter, and how being mindful about those practices can save the loved ones you leave behind a lot of headache. Here’s an example: having collections of things.

Retail marketing strategies are always trying to get customers to make repeat purchases of items, such as fast food set meals with toys, or limited edition series of sneakers or caps.

Even if they aren’t retail gimmicks, we may also enjoy collecting things like key chains from every country we visit, or items that normally go in the bin after use, like movie ticket stubs or clothing tags from your favourite brands.

While these are harmless, they are the reason we have so much clutter in our lives. It may be time for us to rethink how many of these things are truly worth keeping or collecting.

Get others involved

While you might derive great pleasure from your collection of certain items, like Coca-Cola bottles in this filepic, it might be a burden to your family members after you’re gone.

Very few people enjoy cleaning, let alone a cleaning process that symbolises the end of your journey in this life. But well-intentioned individuals would not want to place the burden on their loved ones to sort through a lifetime of their stuff.

To help move the process along, involve someone in your death- cleaning process. By letting others know, you’ll be more accountable for the steps needed to complete the decluttering.

The other main reason for involving others is to make your friends and family aware of your plans. Don’t forget that decluttering can include digital assets as well.

Delete the online accounts that you don’t want, and document login information for the accounts that your family needs access to, such as for banking, investments and taxes. Above all, don’t view this process as a stressful one.

View it as many sessions of celebrating the life and experiences you’ve had. You could maybe even invite a few close and trusted ones to join you in these sessions to relive your memories.

When you look back and realise that there’s enough to be joyful about the life you’ve had, death cleaning may very well make you feel blessed, grateful and alive.

By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper, 13 Dec 2021

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