Phil Gulley: The Brilliant Swedish Tradition Of Death Cleaning

It’s the solution to our surplus of junk.
My wife and I were sorting through my mother’s belongings after her death when my wife mentioned that if we lived in Sweden, my mother would have gotten rid of her stuff while she was still alive. “They call it death cleaning,” she told me. “I just read a book about it. People disperse their possessions before they die so their children won’t have to.” I’ve been seriously annoyed at America since it elected Donald Trump, and death cleaning might be the thing that tips the scales and causes me to move to Sweden. If my parents had been Swedish, it would have saved me incalculable trouble.

Even though I’m mad at America, it’s probably best I stay here, since I’m terrible at getting rid of things. What I am good at is shuffling my possessions between our main house, farmhouse, and rental home to keep my wife from realizing how much stuff I’ve accumulated over the years. Our farmhouse has six outbuildings I’ve not yet begun to fill, and the rental house came with a barn. It has a hay baler and hay rake in one half, with a whole other half left to cram full of stuff should the need arise, which I’m certain it will. We bought the rental house so we’ll have a place to live when we are old. It’s on the edge of town next to my son’s farm, and we’re counting on him to take care of us when we’re feeble. It’s only 1,100 square feet, so we have some serious paring-down to do.

I thought our sons would want our stuff, but they have their own junk and want nothing to do with ours. Even our daughters-in-law, who are always nice to us, don’t want our things. “Thank you,” they said, when we offered them our collection of salt and pepper shakers, “but those are quite valuable and you should keep them.”

We inherited the shakers from my wife’s mother, who foisted them off on us when we thought she was dying and we couldn’t bear to decline them. It turns out she was faking it and lived another 10 years. This is the kind of deception one must employ to die unencumbered. My mother-in-law would have made a wonderful Swede.

Our fatal flaw was buying a house with a basement just as the flood of family heirlooms was headed our way. None of my siblings had basements, so they expressed their regrets when it came time to disperse the goods. “If only we had somewhere to store them,” they said, then suggested we put everything in our basement until further arrangements could be made. It turns out “until further arrangements could be made” is a euphemism for “until hell freezes over,” because our basement is still packed to the brim with our heritage.

Not long ago, an elderly couple gave us an antique cupboard when they downsized. It would look beautiful in our dining room, but we already have a cupboard in that room, one in our living room, and two in our kitchen. Not to mention several in our farmhouse and rental. I asked a young couple in our Quaker meeting if they wanted one of our cupboards, but they declined, as did a distant relative who commented favorably on it when he came to visit at Christmas.

“I would like you to have it,” I told him.

“I would be happy to take it,” he said. “But I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer and have only weeks to live.”

I was suspicious because he had just purchased a car, gotten a puppy, opened an IRA, and proposed to his girlfriend. Young people don’t understand that if death cleaning is to ever take hold in our country, they must do their part and take our crap. Otherwise, the whole system breaks down.

But it’s not just the youngsters falling down on the job. I’m irritated by the old-timers, too. Not only did they leave behind truckloads of stuff for us to deal with after they died, they sent us all over hell’s half-acre to spread their ashes after they were cremated. I know a man who directed his daughter to scatter half his ashes in a stream in Vermont and the other half on a beach in Hawaii. The daughter assumed his wishes carried the weight of law and exhausted herself hauling her father’s remains around the country. I say once someone is dead, we can ignore their edicts and pitch their ashes wherever we wish. Likewise, we should be under no obligation to make sure their niece in California gets the china or their cousin in Florida gets the photo albums. If that’s where they wanted their stuff to go, they should have lugged it there while they were alive.

The people who have it worst are only children. While it’s true they inherit all of the family wealth, they are also bequeathed the family junk. I know a man whose grandparents and parents were only children, as was he. He ended up with four houses, all of them stacked to the rafters. He never married, had no children, and died leaving a mess for someone else to clean up, in this case a neighbor who got suckered into serving as the executor of his estate. I would have doused the houses with gasoline, put a match to them, and fled the country.

The Swedes don’t give all their stuff away the day before they die. Rather, beginning in their mid-50s, they begin thoughtfully distributing their household goods to family, friends, and acquaintances. If no one wants their stuff, they leave it on their neighbors’ porches when they’re not at home, like zucchini. My wife and I are both 57, so we are tumbling downhill on the slope of life. The time has come for us to start de-possessing. From now until we’re dead, anyone visiting our home has to take one thing with them when they leave. We’ll start with unmatched socks, wind our way through old underwear, then move on to superfluous kitchen items. For simple Quakers, we’ve accumulated quite a bit, so we probably won’t disperse major furniture pieces until we’re 90.

Whoever gets the antique cupboard in our farmhouse needs to know one of the back legs is shorter than the others, so they’ll have to stack three quarters under it to keep it from wobbling. We have a grandfather clock in our dining room that has been faithfully maintained by Lee Edmondson from our Quaker meeting. If we should pass it on to you, you’ll find Lee’s phone number taped inside the pendulum door, just in case it stops running. Lee will be pushing 100 by then, but we Quakers are pure of heart and live a long time, so the chances are good he’ll still be around. Fortunately, Lee hails from Swedish stock, which means he’ll have gotten rid of all his stuff by then, so he should have plenty of time to work on yours.