Death Cleaning and Me

I’m not Swedish, not even remotely Scandinavian. But these days any title with death in it attracts my interest. As Margareta Magnusson, who says she is somewhere between 80 and 100, puts it in the introduction to her The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (2018)the “only thing we know for sure is that we will die one day.” My cancer, while dire, has given me seven years of reprieve from the death sentence of late stage lung cancer. Even without that, age alone would have given me a hint that it might be a good idea to think about the physical contents of the closets and drawers, bookshelves and file cabinets, of my Upper West Side apartment. Although the threat of posthumous clutter does not loom large in my contemplation of mortality—the ultimate rite of passage– it would be untruthful to say that I don’t care at all that the mess I’m likely to leave behind will be a problem for someone to deal with.

So I bought the book, even though I was less enchanted by the subtitle’s signal of the “self-help” genre I avoid: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.

Magnusson assumes that at some point in a long life, everyone thinks about moving to a smaller scene. Magnusson has had the experience of what she preaches (not that she’s preachy). It’s also the case that she has been recently widowed and is the mother of five grown children. Is it fair to leave them with the accumulations of their parents? The urge to purge seems driven as much by one’s own needs as the needs of others.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this death-cleaning business. Thinking may be the operative word here. I have not seriously undertaken the process, though I’ve made some random attempts to create order in my closets. What I’ve done is think about my resistance to getting started.

Am I not yet performing the age-appropriate cleaning because I think I’m not going to die? No, my cancer remains active and I read the obituaries, comparatively, I’d say. Seventy-seven, the age I am now (as Simone de Beauvoir once thought about her mother), is an age to die. And my friend Carolyn Heilbrun thought seventy-seven a good age for the suicide she committed. My resistance comes from skepticism about whether downsizing is a good thing. First, would my life seem more enjoyable without the clutter (OK, yes, of course, there’s so much clutter in various closets and drawers that it takes a long time to find whatever I happen to be looking for)? Second, “Let me help make your loved ones’ memories of you nice—instead of awful,” Magnusson writes in the final chapter. But would the people cleaning up after me necessarily appreciate what I’ve done?

Full disclosure: I enjoyed emptying my parents’ apartment, first after my mother’s death, and then, seven years later, after my father’s. Well, enjoy is not quite the right word but there’s something to it, something that means death-cleaning after someone else’s deathis, or at least can be, kind of interesting. Maybe I’ll be more interesting dead than alive, too.

In the case of my parents’ apartment—the perfect candidate, a place they had lived in for fifty years; and an apartment with deep closets. I found objects, documents, and patterns of their relations to things I would not have known otherwise. I found the key to unlocking the mystery of my father’s family. I saw my mother’s compulsion to own things in multiples (including travel souvenirs that seemed destined to become gifts)—ten to fifteen pairs of shoes all in the same style but in different states of wear (including unwearable). I also found a few pieces of children’s clothing she had made by hand—and that I remembered from photographs. She had painted such a bleak portrait of her experience of motherhood that I was surprised to discover that she had kept some of her maternal handiwork. I found letters they had saved that I had written from summer camp, and later from Paris. Those gave me a precious aide-mémoire for Breathless, a memoir about my years living in Paris in the 1960s. Finally, if I had not saved my own correspondences, I would have missed an entire layer of documentation, the record of complicated emotions underlying the history of my relationships with women in the decades following the emergence of second-wave feminism, the most important period of my life.

Had I not had a way to convert these objects into my own writing, I still would have felt enriched and illuminated by the project. After all, when your parents are alive, you’re not likely to be rummaging through their drawers, reaching back into the recesses of their closets, reading the mail they tucked away in neatly bound packets. Yes, I found my parents more interesting dead than alive! I loved finding a two-week correspondence between them during their courtship. Had they been seduced into death-cleaning, what would have survived the purge? I would never have had a glimpse of what my parents were like before I was born, when they were young—and not parents.

Magnusson’s premise is very clearly oriented toward the aftermath of one’s life, the chore that awaits one’s survivors. But—and this is what makes me tempted to follow her lead—she also sees the death cleaning as something one can do for oneself, whether or not one has children: a project for “your own pleasure,” as she puts it. By pleasure, Magnusson means “the chance to find meaning and memory,” which for her “is the most important thing.” It’s a delight, she writes, “to go through things and remember their worth.” This would seem to me the more appealing payoff than merely having one’s things sorted, categorized, organized, gifted to friends, or donated.

The death cleaning is an art of memory. It’s also an art of life.

–Nancy K. Miller is the author of My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism

Featured image: Anders Zorn, Brödbaket, 1889.