How to Discover the Life-Affirming Comforts of ‘Death Cleaning’

Written by Desmond

February 26, 2022

Cleaning out a home can be a morbid, depressing task, often best left until after you’re gone, when it’s no longer your problem. But what if you decide to tackle the chore now, while you’re still here to make the decisions?

As we begin to emerge from a long and deadly pandemic, some older Americans have decided to do just that.

Professional home organizers are reporting a spike in calls from older customers asking for help sorting through their belongings, seeking to dole out the heirlooms and sentimental items and toss the excess. The mood, organizers say, is largely upbeat, with people eager to part with china, furniture and photographs. In some cases, the inquiries come from grown children on behalf of their aging parents, keen to get ahead on the task so they don’t have to do it alone later.

“There’s been a shift in the consciousness of people 70 and over,said Ann Lightfoot, a founder of Done & Done Home, a New York City home-organizing company that saw its business double in 2021, and an author of the forthcoming book, “Love Your Home Again.” “They’re like, ‘Oh my God, nobody wants my stuff. I don’t even want my stuff.’”

Professionals often refer to the task as “death cleaning,” a term popularized in 2018 with the publication of the book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” by Margareta Magnusson, which posited that the prospect of our eventual demise is reason enough to purge.

“Death, that’s a word that scares a lot of people,” said Ms. Magnusson, who is 87, speaking from her home in Stockholm. But in her view there’s no reason to avoid the ultimate awkward conversation, because “that’s the only real thing we know that we will take part of,” she said. “If we know something about our lives, it’s that we’re going to die, that’s for sure.”

In that case, we should have the courtesy to not burden our loved ones with a lifetime of clutter. “I don’t think that’s nice to leave that to your own children,” said Ms. Magnusson, who also suggested tossing any letters or journals that might offend your children, should they eventually discover them. Simply put, we should be preparing for the end throughout our lives, pruning as we go.

Matt Paxton, a downsizing expert and the host of the PBS show “Legacy List,” also has seen a marked shift in the mind-set of older Americans, who are parting with their stuff not out of guilt and obligation, but out of an eagerness to get on with their lives. He pointed to the pandemic as a catalyst for the sudden urge to downsize. Older Americans, at higher risk for Covid-19, have been among the most isolated groups these past couple of years, spending months at home, largely alone, waiting to get their lives back.

“They’re ready to clean out their houses. They’ve been staring at stuff, they’ve been consuming stuff for two years and they are ready to get rid of everything,” said Mr. Paxton, an author of “Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff,” which was published this month. “They want to get out of their house, they want to have experiences, not stuff.”

The pandemic was certainly a catalyst for Ellen Nenner, who is 85 and goes by Ricki. After spending the past two years alone in her five-bedroom house in Jamaica Estates, Queens, she decided to pack up, sell the house — where she’d lived for 50 years — and move to an apartment on the Upper West Side. “It occurred to me quite soon through the pandemic that I was really inhabiting a house, that I was not living a life,” she said. “If I go out to take a walk, it’s a nice neighborhood but there’s nothing of interest here.”

The house is in contract with a buyer, so she has until April to pare down. She’s been sorting through photographs and silver with her daughter, Lisa Nenner Eliseo. The process, she said, evokes memories of her husband and her younger daughter, who have both died. “Going through the house has brought us even closer,” Ms. Nenner said of her relationship with her surviving daughter. “We laugh a lot. Sometimes, we cry a lot.”

The process has been overwhelming at times, she said. But as she’s moved along, she’s gotten faster. One item was a gorgeous silver platter, a gift from her mother, that she used at a time in her life when she hosted dinner parties. But those days are long gone. “As beautiful as it is, I don’t need it, I have no place for it,” she said. “I can get along without it.” And so, she will auction the platter, along with the crystal and Royal Copenhagen dinnerware that her mother gave her. (Her 75 cookbooks, however, will go to a charity.)

Should you look through every photograph? Every letter? The professionals often advise clients to take their time and be deliberate, even if it’s exhausting.

“At the beginning you’re really gung-ho,” said Shelley Anbouba, the owner of NEAT Method Dallas-Highland Park, in Texas. “As you get toward the end, your enthusiasm level changes and your perspective changes, and that’s when you say, ‘OK, I’m done, forget it. I’m just going to get rid of all this.” But Ms. Anbouba encourages people to pause in those moments and avoid making rash decisions.

Lisa Paterson has spent much of the pandemic helping her 93-year-old mother reorganize her Upper West Side apartment. At first, her mother was resistant to the idea, showing no interest in combing through her books, jewelry and photographs. But Ms. Paterson persisted, seeing it as a way to help her mother be more comfortable in the apartment where she has lived since 1972. “I wanted my mom to live in dignity during this stage of her life,” she said.

The process has given Ms. Paterson, 61, opportunities to make peace with her childhood and life. Her father died when she was 11, her brother died at age 27, and her husband was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Going through photographs and old letters with her mother has been cathartic. “It’s a nice thing to do with her and prepare yourself for the end of someone’s life,” she said. “This process has made me feel like I don’t have any questions unanswered.”

Among all the stuff, Ms. Paterson found photographs of her parents that had been tucked away for decades. She framed one and displayed it on her mother’s mantel. “I wanted to honor all of her memories,” she said.

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