Death Cleaning. The Swedish word for it is, DoStadning ("Do” is death,“Stadning” is cleaning). And it is the title of a popular new book by Margareta Magnusson called, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. The idea is to de-clutter your life so your death isn't a burden for those you leave behind.
This particular TED Talk was given by a guy named Bob Stein. He started off talking about how, from the time he was a young boy, he was always searching for rituals to give meaning to life. Now in his 70s, he has found a new “late stage ritual”—Death Cleaning.
As part of his Death Cleaning rite, Bob got the idea to unpack certain items, place them in a room and then have family and friends take a look. When something caught their fancy,he would proceed to tell them a story about the item’s significance. In one instance, a teen sees a t-shirt from the 80’s with a man’s face on it. Bob tells the teen about the man who is a political prisoner. That sparked a conversation around political prisoners today, versus 30 years ago. It ended with the young man asking for, and getting, the shirt but also its story. If that same shirt had been discovered in a box after Bob’s death, it would have been tossed. At the very least, there would have been no story about its significance. Proving that often times, it is not the memento, but rather the story behind it that gives it value. It also makes it hard to let go.
Listening to Bob’s talk made me realize we had just experienced our own “death cleaning.”
Yesterday, my 14 year-old daughter, Chandler, ran into the house with a glass box just purchased at a neighborhood thrift store. The sales lady told her it was a “real steal,” and there was likely a story around the little box. It was shaped like Scarlett O’Hara, with the letter W on the bottom. As Chandler excitedly repeated what the sales lady told her, her sister and I knowingly looked at each other. “Sure Chandler, 'a real steal,' the only steal was the $14 she got from you.” Boy were we wrong!
Chandler googled, “pink glass box” and “W” and what do you know! Up popped the picture of the very item Chandler purchased. It was pink depression era glass. “W”stood for Westmoreland. But here is the Death Cleaning part. As if on cue, my Mom started talking about a glass dish that a dear family friend, Peggy Stone, had given her 50 years earlier. She said it was depression glass and just like that, memories from my childhood returned of the pink glass dish in a cabinet in our home. It was beautiful, but as a teen I grew to dislike it on Saturdays. That was the day I was in charge of dusting. Do kids still dust as part of chores? Another blog post for another day.
Back to the dish. I didn't know Mrs. Stone had given it to Mom. The Stones were a special part of our life back then, and from time to time, I think of them. I didn't know the glass had been a part of their family, or that Mrs. Stone was so moved by Mom’s comment on how she remembered depression glass from her childhood, that it inspired her to give it to Mom. I don’t even think I knew what depression era glass was!
And there is more. As you know, we recently moved from our home of 18 years. Moving both my home and mom’s home felt like a Death Cleaning of a different sort — more death, less cleaning. That too is another story for a different day!
Mom said during the move, she had given the glass dish to a friend who was helping her. The friend said the dish was pretty. Mom proceeded to tell her its story, and then gave it to her. Death cleaning—pure and simple... and beautiful. Chandler’s pink box was priceless for the story it inadvertently uncovered. It just proves you never know where, or how, you find your stories.
As I work on this memory documentary, I am constantly looking for new ways to preserve memories, share stories, and appreciate moments. Death Cleaning is a great one.