“Swedish Death Cleaning” is an unusual moniker for an interesting process. The purpose of a Swedish death cleaning is to rid ourselves of unnecessary possessions so those we leave behind won’t have to when it’s our turn to do the ashes-to-ashes thing. It’s more commonly used by those wishing to declutter in a big way whether to downsize in general, move to a smaller residence, or just to simplify their lives.
A Swedish death cleaning can benefit many people but it’s definitely not for everyone. Those in the minimalist camp can become even more so. Those on the other end of the spectrum who enjoy lots of “stuff” can ignore the idea altogether. Those somewhere in the middle may benefit by getting rid of some of the unnecessary things in our lives, beginning with those 10,000 plastic shopping bags overflowing from the broom closet.
I enjoyed a comment made by a SurvivalBlog reader a few months back on the subject of simplifying our lives but regret to say I cannot find it to provide a link. About that same time, I read a related article, The Last Temptation of Things. This article is a bit more extreme and if you read nothing else from it, the comments are very entertaining. I hadn’t realized this topic could be so polarizing.
I’ll share some of my experiences from the two times I did a Swedish death cleaning, once in my house five or six years ago and the most recent one in my workshop. Being such an emotional and polarizing topic, I have no suggestions for anyone. The main impetus for writing this article is the many comments on SurvivalBlog over the past few years from those preppers who live in tight quarters not having enough room to store many preps. Perhaps a Swedish death cleaning could help them create more space for at least the most basic necessities.
And for my friend with three rented storage units, perhaps he could save himself some rental fees.
What I’ve Learned From Auctions
I enjoy going to estate auctions for many reasons, not the least of which is for the great bargains. I generally have a “shopping list” with me hoping to find certain items I need for the homestead. There are two basic kinds of auctions: an older couple is downsizing and moving to another house, generally smaller and nearer to relatives, and those auctions when an older person has passed away and their children are selling a lifetime’s collection of things found in most households.
Many times at auctions I look over all the items and think to myself, “Wow, these people had a lot of stuff!” I often think on those occasions how much you can tell about the person’s life by their possessions: things they loved and enjoyed, collections of one kind or another, their taste in furniture, artwork on the walls, even their kitchen wares. I consider myself a minimalist so the sheer volume of all their possessions is often incredible to me.
There are two main types of items found at auctions:
Type 1 Items
I see a lot of collectibles, some still in the original boxes because conventional wisdom says they’ll be worth more money that way. I went to one auction with a collection of 100+ kerosene lamps, most of which brought surprisingly good prices. On the other end of the spectrum it’s sad to attend some auctions where someone’s lifetime of collected items goes for almost nothing: nobody in attendance was interested in those things, original boxes or not.
Then one day I had a revelation. While much of the stuff was “junk” to many of us, and pure clutter to minimalists, to their owner they were a source of delight. It wasn’t relative whether the collectibles were really worth more in their original boxes or not, the owner thought they were and it brought them happiness. It wasn’t important that at their auction they only brought 5¢ on the dollar of what they thought an item was worth, their joy was in their thinking that it was very valuable. Others take joy in collecting things in a series so they can have a complete set, often waiting on edge for the next item in the series to come out. For yet others, their happiness was in collecting things that were antique, or beautiful, or whatever it was the collector enjoyed. Happiness is often a difficult thing to find in life, so I say more power to people who find joy in collectibles that will clutter their house and perhaps sell for 5¢ on the dollar at their auction.
Type 2 Items
Other auction items I see represent life from their younger days: tons of canning supplies they no longer use, pressure cookers, canning jars, electric can openers, rototillers and push mowers that haven’t worked for years. Other items are outdated things like old cell phones, VCR tapes by the hundreds, and other items hard to imagine why the owner was still holding on to them. Others are multiples of things: 11 cookie sheets, 27 pots and pans, 5 drill motors, three dozen screwdrivers, etc. One auction I attended had five old aluminum pressure cookers, all missing the weight on top. The most practical items are their furniture, washer and dryer, and all those necessities for modern-day life which we all need.
Younger families just starting out in life can use many of these items and thrift stores can use most of the rest.
My First Swedish Death Cleaning: the House
After a serious event in my life a number of years ago, I decided it was time to do my own Swedish death cleaning. I wanted to get rid of many of the things mentioned above and a whole lot more.
I started with the larger items. Like most organizing activities, it felt like I had accomplished a lot in a short amount of time with the big things out of the way first. I also began with things which were a no-brainer to toss, things which I had been wanting to get rid of anyway but just hadn’t gotten around to. I also decided to use the important downsizing principle of “When in doubt, throw it out.”
How many times have we all said, “As soon as I throw it away I’m going to need it a week later!” The truth of the matter is, it doesn’t actually happen that frequently. We only remember the one time in a hundred when it does happen, not the 99 times when it doesn’t happen. During my declutterization I wasn’t going to let this “I’ll need it later” stumbling block stand in the way of my progress. And here’s an interesting concept: If I toss that gizmo only to discover I need it six months later, I can go to the store and give them some money and they’ll give me a new one. It’s a great system. For me, the minimal amount of money I’ll spend replacing that one item out of 100 is well worth not having to deal with the other 99 items which are just clutter.
Holy cow, I couldn’t believe the size of the clothes pile when I was done getting rid of the ones I no longer wear. I had more clothes sitting in the pile than I had left in the closet. As I was folding and packing them up for the thrift store, half of them weren’t even in good enough shape to donate. Granted, some of them were for those especially dirty or greasy projects but I still had way too many jeans and t-shirts in that category. I kept one pair. Some of the worn-out pile went to the rag box in the garden shed, the rest to the burn pile. I had a tote full of new jeans, t-shirts, socks and underwear so after clearing out the worn-out clothes, I took some new ones out of the tote and put them on shelves and hangers.
Passing Heirlooms on Early
While declutterizing, it seemed like an excellent idea to take all those things I wanted to leave to my children and grandchildren “someday” and make today that day. Why wait to see the joy on their faces and hear their thanks of gratitude when I can enjoy those reactions now? That cleared a lot of things out of my rooms and closets in a hurry. I kept some of the heirlooms which I still use or couldn’t part with yet, including a my great grandmother’s wall clock, four generations of gold pocket watches, and a frying pan. My homesteading great grandpa stole the frying pan in 1914 on their way to Wyoming and used it all during their 63-year marriage. The rest of the heirlooms were all packed up and sent to my future heirs. There were so many packages over the course of a week the postmaster of my tiny local post office thought I’d started an Etsy shop.
Why was I still hanging on to that Mossberg bolt-action .22 rifle? It has a lot of history. My dad got it when he was 14 years old. He and his buddies carried their Stevens Crackshots up into the canyons to plink away with. When the rifle had some sort of a mishap and he arrived home with a blistered cheek, his dad took the rifle and smashed it against a tree trunk in the orchard. (Gun collectors, try not to think about it!) My dad complained he had bought that rifle with money from his paper route so my grandpa bought him the second-hand Mossberg as a replacement. My dad gave it to me when I was 8 years old and taught me to shoot. All my kids learned to shoot with that same rifle. I didn’t give it to my oldest son when he was eight years old since I’d need it to teach all my other kids to shoot when they got old enough. But now that I was downsizing my stuff, it was long past due to send it to him so he could teach his own kids to shoot. I got out my electric engraver, wrote my dad’s initials, my initials, and my son’s initials on the receiver. Gun aficionados are having another arrrgghh moment but it brings up an important point. To me the rifle had no monetary value whatsoever, only sentimental value. I hoped none of my descendants would sell it, having been in the family for so long. That was far more important than any amount of money it might bring at the pawn shop. So the initials were important to see the passage of the rifle through the family instead of leaving a future heir wondering if there was a story behind the rifle.
Papers, Documents, and Receipts
I had ten copier-paper boxes full of various papers and documents, including years of tax returns reminding me of how much I love the IRS and legalized theft. Those had to go. Newspaper clippings, birthday and Christmas cards, etc. Afterward, I only had two boxes left. The rest was shredded and composted and has moved on to its higher calling of enriching the garden soil.
Books, Photos, and Miscellaneous
Most of my books I kept. Those relating to various aspects of house building I gave to a son who could use them. Some relating to various aspects of skill-building I gave to my grandchildren.
I gave my 1,000+ photos to a daughter who scanned them to make a digitized photo album for each family member. I sent all of my Disney and family DVD’s to my grandkids to enjoy. Even though I still watched most of them, they’d get much more use and enjoyment from them. I couldn’t part with Mary Poppins however, it held way too many memories of family life when my kids were growing up. It’s still a good pick-me-up after one of those days when nothing has gone right and it has a great sound track to sing along with. Okay, so much for my tough-guy image.
My cherished $500 guitar went to a daughter who has far more talent than I do. It was one of the very few items in my death cleaning I was sad to give away. My daughter was elated, but I was saddened that my formerly good singing voice and my declining manual dexterity (what little I ever had to begin with) were history, making me feel older and reminding me that at some point I’ll lose even more of my abilities
Early Childhood Items
One box held all my childhood Matchbox cars and my old Tonka jeep still in excellent condition. And there was the antique electric steam engine my grandfather had given me after noticing that at a young age I had taken an interest in mechanical things. It had never worked, but had sentimental value. You could see the principle of how the steam, heated by an electric element inside the engine, moved a piston and rotated a wheel on the side. All these treasures were boxed up and sent to heirs.
In yet another box I still had that stuffed toy animal, a squirrel, which I can see in that photo of my first Christmas. The yellow felt ears were just nubs now and the squirrel looked Asian. I had been intrigued by the feel of a ball-point pen rolling over the soft plastic the head was made of and had traced the grooves around the eyes countless times until they looked slanted. There was an inch-long slit in the back of the head, sewn back up, and I could still feel the acorns I had put there when I was in my single-digit years. My squirrel, obviously a prepper, needed a good supply of food with him always. One of my daughters makes beautiful drawings of fictional animal characters playing together based on her childhood collection of stuffed animals. With her talent she should be illustrating children’s books. I sent her the squirrel asking if he could make occasional guest appearances in her drawings. She told me she bawled her head off when she got it in the mail. Why should that moment have waited until I was dead and gone, with no one having a clue about the background of these things? What would have been a burn-pile item suddenly became a treasured heirloom once my daughter knew the story behind it, especially why the squirrel had that slit in the back of his head.
I had the most beautiful Native American spearhead you can imagine. I traded it for a Superball back in sixth grade. It was a very lopsided trade but my buddy really wanted that ball and I really wanted the spearhead. During my Swedish death cleaning I thought it would be more valuable to him than any member of my family. What a total hoot it would be to track him down after all these years to see if he wanted to trade back. Amazingly, his nonagenarian mother was still living in the same house 50+ years later. I anxiously called her to see if she could give me my buddy’s phone number, my excited anticipation of making the trade growing by the minute. She informed me that he had passed away just a few years ago after some childhood medical complications finally caught up with him. I thanked her and bawled my head off as soon as I hung up the phone.
I could tell you two dozen more stories of the things I experienced while passing on these family heirlooms. For me, the take-home message is that only through doing a Swedish death cleaning was I able to experience the joys of the family members I was giving my things to, as well as experience the sadness, as hard as it was, of remembering an old friend from the neighborhood, even little things like how polite he was (“Yes, ma’am”) and his kindness, and how he had experienced the tragedy of dying relatively young.
Aside from the benefit of declutterizing my house, I had all these wonderful personal experiences brought about by my Swedish death cleaning. And my kids and grandkids received items they could use and cherish now instead of later.
During my cleaning, I did keep my small collection of souvenirs from home and abroad. Since they’re connected with personal memories, my heirs probably won’t have much use for them when I’m pushing up daisies. Some thrift store shopper will think they’re just what they’re looking for.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)