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Goodbye to All That

Goodbye to All That
Photo by Tope A. Asokere/Pexel

My Swedish Death Cleaning

By Janet Marshall Watkins

The first time I helped clean out the home of a dead person I was 22 and working my first real job, as a reporter covering local news and celebrity DUIs in Aspen. Tom, the charming, wise-cracking 33-year-old who sat next to me in our office, had just died in a car wreck on a windy mountain road—a thing I learned in a 6 a.m. wake-up call from an editor I didn’t particularly like. 

I made my way to the newsroom and joined my colleagues in a morose morning meeting. We knew we needed to write a story about Tom’s fatal wreck—he was a well-known reporter in our little city, and his family was kind of famous. We also decided somebody should go to his place and tidy up before his sister got to town.

Tom lived in a trailer in a secluded spot on a mountainside overlooking our ritzy village, a location that gave him some distance from the temptations of a city where Hunter S. Thompson ingested more substances than a human should be able to endure. Tom was trying to avoid all that, and I’d given him rides home a few times after our co-ed softball games, which was a good thing since nobody else at work seemed to know where he lived. One of our bosses told me he’d drive over and help straighten stuff up if I showed him the way.

I remember almost nothing about what we did at Tom’s place, which was pretty spartan, with books and a spectacular view. What I vividly recall is driving back down the mountain afterward—blue skies above, wildflowers blooming on the hillside, sun warming my arm as it dangled out the window, and the Grateful Dead’s “Cumberland Blues” rocking on the radio.

When Tom’s sister got to town, I said the things you say and handed her some of his stuff. But I held onto two of his books and didn’t tell her—not for more than a decade. Maybe I shouldn’t have kept them, but I was 22, and holding onto those books, which he’d once told me he thought I would enjoy, felt like I holding onto a piece of a friend I wasn’t ready to let go.

***

The next time I helped clean out a dead person’s home I was 39 and my brother, cousins and I were at our oldest cousin’s apartment in Alexandria. My aunt had found him dead from a drug overdose a day or two before. Accidental, we feel certain, but who can know for sure. My cousin was a Star Trek aficionado who loved drawing and hard rock music, and his death ended a life radically sidetracked by schizophrenia. 

One of the last times I saw him was at our house a few months earlier for a Christmas party. He’d gotten there early, as he and his mom always did, while I was in the kitchen slicing oranges with a sharp knife. He sidled up next to me and nodded toward the knife. “Ever think about stabbing anybody with one of those?” he asked, smiling. “Uh, no,” I said, looking straight at him. I probably shouldn’t have said what I said next, but I couldn’t help myself: “Have you?” “Heh-heh-heh,” he said. “Heh-heh-heh.”

Roger wasn’t violent, just uncomfortable to be with sometimes, and all us cousins had grown up together—sliding down the hill behind our grandparents’ place on cardboard boxes, playing football, making each other laugh so hard we’d spit out our drinks at the dinner table. And then there we were, together again except for him, opening his pantry, pulling out cans of ravioli, sorting his life’s possessions into boxes: One for stuff to keep, one to give away, one for porn. The things you find when you clean out someone’s home.

I took some of his old cassette tapes with me—Quiet Riot, lots of Zeppelin—and listened to “Bron-Yr-Aur” on the drive home. What I’d forgotten until recently was that I also brought home his old boomerang. Why he had a boomerang, I’ll never know. He lived in a dense condo community and didn’t venture out much. But there it was, and I must’ve thought our kids would get a kick out of it. Our 19-year-old reminded me of it recently while I was painting our basement because she had a confession to make: A dent in the wall got there because she chucked the boomerang across the basement to see what it would do. Boom.

Roger probably would’ve heh-heh-heh’d about that, too. And I guess that’s why we keep things—to spark memories and keep our loved ones alive. 

But how many things is too many, and how do you decide which are worth holding onto?

***

One Saturday morning this summer, I announced to Steve and the kids that I was about to start Norwegian Death Cleaning. Death Cleaning is actually a Swedish thing, I realized later. But I was always sure about the mission: Get rid of your stuff before you croak so nobody else has to.

Once you’ve cleaned out a dead person’s place, you think about things like this. I don’t believe I’m dying anytime soon; I sure hope I’m not. But I’m enamored with the concept of making the tough decisions myself. Spare your loved ones and lighten your load. It’s a concept made famous by Margareta Magnusson, author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant

Death Cleaning isn’t Kondo-ing, made fashionable by the Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo, who says you should look at your belongings, ask whether they spark joy, and get rid of them if they don’t. Death Cleaning asks something different: Do you want to burden somebody with this after you die? 

Death Cleaning CAN spark joy, Magnusson says, because it’s nice to go through things and “remember their worth.” But just because something triggers a burst of happiness doesn’t mean you keep it. Hold onto the memories, Magnusson says. Ditch the things.

The message resonates with me because in addition to having Tom’s books and Roger’s tapes and boomerang, we also had, for 10 whole years, nearly the entire contents of my dead Aunt Linda’s apartment in our basement. 

***

Linda was the liveliest, biggest personality on my mom’s side of the family, a woman whose great near-miss in life, which she never forgot nor did we, was that her singing rival in her teen years was Mama Cass Elliot of the ‘60s folk-rock group The Mamas & The Papas. Linda was a fabulous singer; it could’ve been her California Dreamin’. But Mama Cass made it, and Linda went to work at the Pentagon. She bested Mama Cass in one big way, though: Linda outlived her rival. 

Mama Cass died at 32—not from choking, as everybody thought, but from a heart attack. Linda had serious health problems, too, largely stemming from diabetes, but she made it to 70. When she went into a nursing home—first for rehab from a fall, then for long-term care—we moved all her belongings into our basement. We didn’t really talk about whether she’d need her stuff again; I think we knew the odds of her leaving the nursing home were slim. But we didn’t want to put her things in a storage unit, and she couldn’t afford the nursing home and her apartment. So, we took it all in.

After Linda died of kidney failure in 2013, our extended family came over and divided up some of her bigger, better things. Furniture, mostly. Some sentimental stuff. But boxes and boxes remained. Old photos. Pots and pans. Washington football memorabilia. Tax records. Her rolodex. Her hairbrush, even. Our basement storage room is huge, so it’s easy to stick things in there, close the door and ignore them. And that’s what happened, for a decade. 

It wasn’t just my aunt’s stuff taking up space down there, anyway. The right side has our kids’ old things—stuffed animals, toys, musical instruments, sketchbooks. And straight ahead, there are tons of Christmas decorations. But to the left, it’s dead people alley. There’s my aunt’s stuff that I already mentioned, plus my cousin’s art portfolio, plus my grandmother’s old water glasses—which my mom gave me because she, too, though alive and well, is doing a form of Death Cleaning. My grandparents’ living room chairs got stashed in there, too. They’d been at my aunt’s place ever since my grandparents died. In 1979. 

I knew the chairs had to be at least 44 years old, but my mom thinks they predate my cousin Roger, who would’ve been 57 or 58 if he’d lived. The chairs are gold and blue and striped and velvety—fabulous in a vintage sort of way. But they don’t fit our décor, so they’ve been sitting in storage with stuff piled on them. My mom, who loves passing things onto me so she no longer has to think about them herself, said I should go ahead and ditch the chairs. But when I talked to her about this whole Death Cleaning thing, she also had some other feelings—as people often do. Her mother’s water glasses, for example. She’d forgotten that she’d given them to me. I wouldn’t get rid of those, would I? They’re really nice, she said. They have to be handwashed. What she didn’t say was “Give them back if you’re considering taking them to Goodwill.” Maybe it was implied?

I’ve had the urge to purge several times over the years, but spending a weekend disposing of family members’ old things isn’t my idea of a great time. When I finally committed to it, though, I told Steve and the kids they might not see me for hours.  Death Cleaning is serious business, and I took the tools of the trade to the basement with me—Swiss Army knife, trash bags, readiness to have memories stirred. I entered the basement storage room, pulled the chain on the ceiling light and wondered why rooms like that always have uncovered bulbs—like an interrogation’s about to start. I guess because it is.

I parked myself in a chair and started slicing tape off boxes. Pulled out old birthday cards and medical bills. Shredded and trashed them. Looked at old photos and trashed them, too, except for a few in frames, which I put in a small box. Broke down a bunch of other boxes. Filled our trash and recycling bins—no need for a porn bin this time, thankfully—and took a bunch more stuff to Goodwill. Found an old KISS tape from the era when my cousins and I listened to “Rock and Roll All Nite” on repeat. Tossed it.

The basement felt lighter. I felt lighter. I think my kids were creeped out by the number of times I said “Death Cleaning” later that day. They don’t seem to get that I’m doing it for them.

***

When I started typing this, Maui was in the early days of navigating the hell wreaked by massive wildfires. My husband got a text from our sister-in-law, who lives with Steve’s brother on an upcountry Maui compound where a bunch of family members live in several houses with a spectacular view that, on a clear day, stretches to the ocean. 

Fires burned above and below where they live; the closest was only a mile or two away. None, mercifully, blew in their direction, but Lahaina, as we all know, has been devastated. As my sister-in-law said in her message, “It feels like Armageddon.”

In these Armageddon times, when a whole town in paradise can be obliterated so fast people jump into the ocean trying to escape, the idea of holding onto a lot of stuff—and being attached to it—seems indulgent. 

In my old job, as director of a child advocacy organization, we’d sometimes have a guest speaker run us through an exercise that makes you think about your stuff. She’d talk about the harsh realities foster kids face, and then ask us to imagine that we, like foster kids, suddenly had to leave our homes with almost no warning. Other than our pets and loved ones, what three things would we grab?

Everybody answered the same way: Family photos. Important documents. Laptops. Maybe special jewelry. Nobody ever said chairs. Or water glasses. Or boomerangs.

***

At the height of my Death Cleaning, I went to a party with a bunch of moms whose kids had all attended the same adorable little preschool. We’re all older now, with empty or emptying nests. We’ve been through things. I found myself hovering near a charcuterie board in the kitchen with my friend Angie, whose mother-in-law had recently died. And maybe that’s why we started talking about Death Cleaning, how somber it is. I think it’s an energy suck, but Angie, to my surprise, said she thinks it would be fun to Death Clean for people—preferably before they die, of course. We riffed about how she should launch a pre-death cleaning business, and I think she’d make a killing if she hired herself out.

It’s hard to part with your own stuff, and harder still to part with other people’s, especially after they’re gone. You find yourself wondering what kind of cold fish you must be to toss your dead relatives’ things. But Angie’s Death Cleaning Service could ease the burden for you. Keep you from wondering if you’ll be haunted by your aunt if you toss her old Washington football jersey. Or by your mother if you Goodwill your grandmother’s water glasses. Angie could toss things with complete emotional detachment. You wouldn’t even have to know she’d done it. 

I could probably use Angie’s help. Because while I got rid of nearly all my aunt’s things during my Death Cleaning marathon, I still kept two boxes of her stuff. And I saved my cousin’s art portfolio. And, come to think of it, I kept my aunt’s dresser and my cousin’s old Star Trek Enterprise model. I also kept the water glasses. My Death Cleaning isn’t enough for honorary Swedish citizenship. It’s probably a 5 on a 10-point scale. 

I did paint over the dent in the wall from the boomerang, though. And those velvety old chairs are now out of storage and in our basement living area because our 21-year-old thought it’d be great to have a bookstore-style reading nook, and nothing says indie bookstore like comfy vintage chairs. 

Nobody can say we don’t recycle.

***

In my 20s, I could fit everything I owned into my little Chevy Nova and move anywhere—and I did. Traveling light felt like freedom. Just me, my clothes, and the open road. I don’t judge myself for settling down and filling a home with things. But after you climb Accumulation Mountain, it seems like there’s only one way to go: Back down. At least partway.

Not long after my family moved into the home we’re in now, I was unpacking the boxes of books we brought with us, including the two of Tom’s that I’d kept—Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and something by Pat Conroy. But as I looked at them, it finally dawned on me that these reminders of him probably belonged on his family’s bookshelves, not mine. So, I tracked down his sisters.

One immediately emailed back to say she loved the thought of me remembering her brother “and carrying a little piece of him around by way of his books.”  She sent me her mailing address so I could ship her the books. But then I got another email saying I should hold onto one. Too late; I’d already been to the post office. And I’m glad I had. Tom had written all sorts of things in the margins of the Rilke book, and his sister got to read them.

“I can see his scribbling and magnificent doodles throughout the pages,” she said in a note I got soon after. “I can feel his smile and energy.”

The books didn’t matter as much as the memories, a thing also made clear by an email message I got from the other sister as well, who I’d met 30 years before when I was 22 and had just come back down the mountain from her brother’s trailer. 

“Just to be so suddenly reminded of Tom was so special,” she wrote. 

Email wasn’t a thing when Tom died, but the exchange I had with his sisters sparked a moment of bittersweet joy for the three of us—one of the many upsides of technology when it comes to remembering people long gone. The Atlantic recently ran a piece about the power of technology to keep people alive and mentioned a mom who had uploaded her cookie recipes to Google drive to preserve them for eternity. We can all linger on as “digital ghosts” after we die, The Atlantic said. Just like that woman.

I like to think I’ll linger as a digital ghost, too—on social media, and here in Pie & Chai. But I expect we’ll all keep lingering in tangible ways, too. When I look around my house, I see lots of practical things, but also physical reminders of people I love. My dad’s Toronto Maple Leafs toque. A jar with some of his ashes. Gifts from special friends. Necklaces from my husband and kids. Lots of family photos. So many things that might matter only to me.

I’m sure I’ll do more Death Cleaning, but I won’t toss those things, even if it means all my stuff will never fit in my car again. I suspect it will be different for our kids in some ways. It already is. If I were like them, I might just get a bunch of tattoos honoring the people and places that matter most to me. Our 21-year-old has a maple leaf tattoo honoring my Canadian dad, and our 19-year-old has a black armband—plus an Appalachian trail tattoo honoring Steve’s dad, whose old AT hat started falling apart a few years after she inherited it. I suspect my dad’s Maple Leafs toque will fall apart one day, too, so the kids may be onto something. Ink lasts, and it doesn’t take up space.

Whatever else happens, I hope my loved ones will spend as little time as possible in a basement under a bright bulb, sorting through old stuff. I’d rather imagine them out for a drive on a blue-sky day. Tattooed arms dangling out the window, playlists blasting, memories sparking joy. 

*** 

Janet Watkins is the co-founder of Pie & Chai. She works as a technical writer and previously spent 10 years as a nonprofit director and 20 as a journalist. She’s nowhere near done Death Cleaning and hopes she has decades left to finish the job.