This Is What Death Cleaning Taught Me About Life

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from John P. Weiss.

When I was thirteen years old, my father suffered a heart attack in front of me and my mother. We were in the living room watching television and he said he didn’t feel well.

Emergency responders were called, followed by several intense hours at the hospital. Thankfully, Dad recovered, but not my boyhood sense of immortality. Life, I quickly learned, can change in an instant.

Fast forward 27 years and I’m holding my father’s hand in a dementia care facility. He is unconscious. The hospice nurse tells me that hearing is often the last sense to go. So I tell my father that I love him. That everyone in our family is fine. That if he’s tired, to rest.

He slipped away peacefully an hour later.

I made all the arrangements for my mother. We held a small memorial for family and friends. We reminisced, laughed, cried, and said our goodbyes.

The next day I drove to my parent’s house. My mother wanted to downsize and move closer to me, my wife, and son.

Dad was a packrat. The garage was filled to the gills, and the rest of the house was equally loaded with a lifetime of possessions. If Dad had met Marie Kondo, he’d have told her that all his stuff brings him joy.

Unfortunately, most of Dad’s stuff didn’t bring me joy. It took weeks of hard work to simplify, declutter, and unload everything. I found a consignment business that took most of the large furniture pieces. I gave away many of Dad’s tools and garage items. There were countless trips to the Goodwill and the local dump.

At the time, I was unfamiliar with minimalism, but the experience left a big impression. I knew I wanted a simpler, less cluttered life.

Don’t leave this burden to them

Margareta Magnusson published a slender book in 2018 titled “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.” Magnusson’s first encounter with death cleaning was when she had to empty her parent’s apartment after the death of her mother.

It’s an enormous task to declutter and organize after the death of a parent or loved one. As Magnusson points out, young families today lead busy lives. She notes:

“Do not ever imagine that anyone will wish—or be able—to schedule time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself. No matter how much they love you, don’t leave this burden to them.”

Death cleaning, Magnusson points out, is as much (or more) for you as for the people who come after. Doing so gives you the chance to find meaning and memory in your things. You’ll also feel a sense of lightness and peace.

If you don’t remember why a possession has meaning or why you kept it, it will be easier to part with. Sentimental items, letters, and photographs are often the hardest to deal with. Fortunately, they can be organized into albums or digitized.

The old barber shop

I went through hundreds of old photos after my father died. I tossed duplicates and pictures of people unfamiliar to my mother and I. The rest were reduced down to one small box, which we plan to digitize into a computer file. It can then be used with a digital photo frame, to enjoy all the pictures as they cycle through.

One of the photos I found in my Dad’s stuff was of the old, vintage barber shop in town where he got his hair cut. Dad used to take me there when I was a kid.

Dad’s barber was named Pat. He was a slender, short man and his small shop was always neat and tidy. Opening the door to his shop, you’d hear the dangling bell as it clanked against the glass.

Inside, there were three of those old barber chairs. You know, the ones with puffy seats, armrests, and those big, metal foot pedals.

Pat had combs suspended in jars filled with mystery blue liquid. There were various electric clippers, hot towels, a small TV (with the game on), and various sports magazines strewn about the waiting area.

After a haircut, Pat would liberally powder your face with a big, soft brush. Then, for the kids, he’d hand out Bazooka Joe bubble gum.

I thought Pat’s barber shop was cool, but I wasn’t old enough to appreciate what my Dad admired most about Pat.

The capacity to enjoy less

Dad once told me that Pat was the most down to earth, authentic, wise, well-adjusted man he knew. Pat loved people and conversation, and his work was the perfect forum for both.

My father was an administrative law judge, and his work was complicated and stressful. In fact, it’s what led to my Dad’s heart attack. Several other judges that Dad worked with suffered heart attacks as well.

Dad admired Pat because he led a simple, uncomplicated life. Even Pat’s home (where my father visited him once to help on a legal matter) was a small, neat, tidy house.

According to my Dad, Pat was far happier than most of the men Dad worked with. Pat had crafted a simple, uncomplicated life.

Despite Dad’s tendency to hoard stuff, he knew simplicity was a virtue. He once told me, “Do we own our things, or do our things own us?”

Perhaps Socrates, who my father admired, said it best:

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

Roses in our winter

What death cleaning taught me about life is that relationships and experiences are what matter, not the stuff we fill our homes and lives with.

Yes, some possessions enrich our lives, but the sweetest memories come from experiences with loved ones and friends.

As we approach the twilight of our lives, memories become important companions. As the author George Will once wrote:

“Memories are roses in our winter.”

Don’t wait until you are old and tired to simplify your life. The Swedish art of death cleaning is not consigned to the elderly.

We can declutter and embrace minimalism at any age. Doing so will unburden you, allow more time for loved ones, and create an abundance of memories to cherish for a lifetime.

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John P. Weiss is a fine artist, writer, and retired police chief. He blogs at JohnPWeiss.com about living a more artful life.