Döstädning: Swedish tradition helps Individuals prepare for death

Professional organizer Catharine Murphy. PHOTO COURTESY OF PASSION FOR ORDER

Alice Adams

Death Cleaning, and decluttering 

When my Aunt Margaret suddenly (and literally) dropped dead while cutting her daily banana in half, the task of cleaning out her many closets, cabinets and drawers fell to my mother, her favorite niece.

Enlisting the help of several friends, Mother spent an entire Saturday emptying Aunt Margaret's home of a lifetime's accumulation of memories and a lot of stuff. Boxes were filled, loaded into a truck, transported across Dallas and then unloaded into one-half of the garage.

Twenty-five years later, when Mother prepared to move into a senior community, many -- if not all -- of Aunt Margaret's boxes had to be opened and sorted through. Even my sainted Mom had to part company with box after box of long-outdated items and useless junk.

Let's face it: Americans tend to be pack rats, never throwing anything away because "I may be able to use this again someday," or "This may come back into style," or "I'm going to lose a few pounds so I can wear these trousers again," and while all intentions are well-meaning, very few are ever acted upon. Want an example? Just watch the reality TV show, "Hoarders."

Dripping Springs resident Catharine Murphy, president and CEO of Passion For Order, a professional organizer and member of the National Association of Professional Organizers and the Austin Chapter of NAPO, has worked on projects organizing residences as well as businesses.

"Some people are disorganized because their parents were disorganized, so they never learned the skill," said Murphy, who spends much of her time working with cutting horses. "Others , who would be otherwise organized, become overwhelmed after a life event, such as a death, birth, a job loss or a move."

But the biggest problem she's found is normally organized people -- like you and me -- who have so much stuff coming into homes, from shopping trips, online shopping deliveries or inherited household goods, they just cannot manage it all.

"Sometimes we move to larger houses to accommodate our stuff...or we rent a storage space or put up a storage shed," Murphy said, "so what I do is educate people...make them aware, like one client with two dogs who had 12 dog collars."

Recently, Americans have imported several organizing ideas from abroad. First, from Asia, we went whole hog with Marie Kondo's, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising. This book have been sold in 40-plus countries, making it one of the biggest surprise hits of the publishing world in recent years.

“In Shintoism and in shrines, tidying and cleaning are regarded as mental cultivation and spiritual training. I suggest people develop their home as if it is their own shrine, which is a power spot for its residents,' Kondo wrote.

Next, Americans embraced a trend Denmark called "hygge" (pronounced hue-gah), a feeling of cozy contentment and well-being through enjoying the simple things in life --like scented candles while reading a book in front of a warm fire on a rainy Sunday with a hot cup of tea and a cozy blanket.

Hygge is such an important part of being Danish culture, it is considered "a defining feature of our national identity and an integral part of the national DNA," according to Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen.

Then there was "lagom," a Swedish trend, pronounced 'la' like 'bar', 'gom' like 'prom.' However, 'lagom' is much easier to understand than hygge's indescribable feeling of 'coziness.'

Translated as "just the right amount," "lagom" is about being frugal, fair and creating balance in one's life. Think Goldilocks at the home of the three bears: one chair is too big, one is too little and one is just right.

Where hygge describes a moment, lagom describes one's approach to life.

Now we have döstädning. It, too, is a Swedish tradition -- “dö” meaning “death” and “städning” meaning “cleaning.” It's a method of downsizing and organizing introduced by the Swedish author Margareta Magnusson.

In her book, she writes: "This approach is an easy way for folks, age 50-plus, to purge their homes and organize their possessions in hopes their children won't be overburdened by their belongings once they pass away," and, as Magnusson continues, "It may sound morbid, but it actually makes sense."

This author's approach to decluttering is blunt and devoid of any sentimentality as journalist Juri Koncius observed. According to Magnusson, "If your family doesn’t want your stuff when you’re alive, they sure won’t want it when you’re dead."

But death cleaning isn't about getting rid of all your stuff. It is, rather, a way of streamlining life so you're only holding onto what makes you happy.

"Death cleaning is not about dusting or mopping up," Magnusson writes. "It is about a permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly."

The Stockholm resident's upcoming book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, describes the practice in detail, but it won't be out until January, so here's what we know about döstädning, so far :

1. It's for everyone, not just people over 50. Magnusson says every person should begin death cleaning after 50, but the idea can work for all ages—truly, the approach is helpful for anyone who wants to simplify and organize their life.

2. It should be a slow and ongoing process. This cleaning technique can't be started and finished in a day, week, or month. It's going to take time and should be seen as a lifestyle change—not a period of intense purging.

3. As you sort through your home, you should think about your will, the memorial service you want and the inheritance you'll leave behind. The experience should be comprehensive and practical, helping you prepare for the end of life, allowing you -- not others -- make the big decisions.

4. You should share your intentions. Tell friends and family about your plans, so they can hold you accountable. In the book, Magnusson stresses this as a very important step.

5. Gift your unwanted items. When you drop by a friend's house, skip the flowers or food, and bring them a few books you no longer want. Or, gift your grandchild with a treasured item you want him/her to have. Begin the process of giving away your items to people who could use them or may want them.

6. Start with your closet. It's less emotionally taxing to get through, according to Magnusson. Begin there and perhaps you'll feel motivated to tackle the garage or storage unit.

7. It's very therapeutic. Death cleaning isn't about dying. It's about looking back on your life and keeping only what's important. Through the process, you'll take stock of your many blessings, relive fond memories and be able to archive your greatest treasures. It's actually a neat way to write your own narrative.

8. Reward yourself, but not with more stuff! "Don't forget yourself," Magnusson writes. After you finish organizing an area or part of your life, treat yourself to a movie, manicure, or delicious meal–not a trip to your favorite store.

Magnusson has moved 17 times and says the task of death cleaning often falls to the woman. "After my husband died, I had to declutter the house; it took me almost a year before I could downsize to a two-room apartment.

"Although it was overwhelming at the time, she said she is glad she did it herself, as her husband would have wanted to keep everything and her kids would have disagreed about what to keep and what to toss. This way, she made her own decisions. Now she continues to do it on a regular basis.

Koncius' article contains a few of Magnusson's tips:

1. Don’t start with your photos, as you’ll get bogged down in your memories and never accomplish anything.

2. Make sure you keep a book of passwords for your heirs.

3. Give away nice things you don’t want as gifts, such as china or table linens or books, as opposed to buying new items.

4. Keep a separate box of things that matter only to you, and label it to be tossed upon your death. It’s okay to keep a beloved stuffed animal or two.

Catharine Murphy said most clients she has worked with have two or three organizing books on hand when she visits. "Most of them could not go through the process of decluttering by themselves," she pointed out. "Most even admit, they need moral support and/or some hands-on help."

As for the new trends and traditions being imported to the U.S., Murphy believes some pieces of these trends work for some while other people find different pieces that work for them.

In her personal organizational practices, Murphy said when something comes in -- to her kitchen, closet or bookshelves, as examples -- something goes out.

"Sometimes, before I buy something new, I ask myself, 'What would I get rid of?' and if I can't think of anything, I don't buy it. In the process, I save money."

She's also a believer in giving gifts that are consumable, such as candy, soap or homemade jam...and instead of toys, think about giving a child an experience, like a trip to the movies, a day in a national or state park, dance or music lessons. "There are so many options to 'stuff,'" she said.

So whether you adopt an organizational practice from Japan, Denmark, Sweden, or call on a local organizational specialist (and Murphy said there are many good ones in the Greater Austin area), whatever you can do -- on your own or with help -- is the best practice.

Murphy reminds: "There's no magic bullet when it comes to decluttering your home -- and your life. It's all about planning, time and some plain ole work."

To find a professional organizer for your projects, Murphy suggests visiting https://www.napoaustin.com and looking under the topic, "Find an Organizer.




Photo: Professional organizer Catharine Murphy. PHOTO COURTESY OF PASSION FOR ORDER




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