A friend of mine posted a link to an article the other day on Facebook. The article itself is about a book and a new trend – the new form of decluttering – called Swedish Death Cleaning. This is the art of slowing riding yourself of things as years go by so that when you die there is not much junk left, just things that matter. And the people who matter understand why the things matter.
I am a purger. I get rid of things that are no longer of use, taking up too much space, things that don’t fit, things that aren’t ‘me’ anymore. I don’t hold on to much. I am not sentimental about most things. I believe that the things in my home that are important are understood by my husband and daughter – the dining room table that my grandfather built for my parents, that my father kept in their house until his death, a beautiful, sturdy table with memories all over it.
I have been a purger for most of my adult life, but I am perhaps more focused now after experiencing my own father’s death.
My father left behind a three-storey three bedroom house with an attic office completely and totally full of stuff. Not only was it full of stuff, that stuff was almost completely unorganized. His filing system consisted of throwing papers into a box until it was full and then starting a new box.
It was a running joke in the family – how messy my dad was – but I don’t know that any of us ever anticipated that he was also completely unprepared for death.
My father had five children and he had mentioned his will to all of us on some occasion or another. I knew that my brother – the oldest and only boy – would be the executor. What we didn’t realize was that the will was the only preparation he had made for his eventual demise.
The man was in his 80s.
The five of us were faced with a house full of stuff, a will that dated back to 1996, and no indication whatsoever of what of all that stuff was important.
We found a pair of candlesticks that none of us had seen before. We assumed they were a recent purchase. Our cousins from Denmark showed up and informed us that those were family heirlooms that had been in their mother’s possession before she died.
It took the five of us more than two weeks to clear out that house, even with occasional help from our partners. There were piles of trash, we rented a truck for all the donations, and we each took something that meant something to us. And I asked to please have the table.
I have no idea whether that table was just another piece of furniture to my dad, but to me it was something built by my grandfather as a gift to my parents, that we ate family meals at for years to come, and I wanted it in my home.
What is even better about this idea of death cleaning is that it forces you to talk to your family members about what you want.
Now, Joe and I have talked with each other about our wishes, and family members know what happens with the kid if we both meet our ends. My mother has her cremation planned and paid for, as does my grandfather. My father, on the other hand, left us no indication whatsoever. He mentioned his will repeatedly (despite failing to update it), but he never told a single one of us whether he wanted to be buried and where, whether he wanted a funeral and what kind.
We were flying by the seat of our pants, and so we decided to make it less about him and more about what we needed. What his partner of 15 years needed. If I could speak to him again I’d probably say something like “Dad, come one, you were 82.”
It’s been more than two years and I’m still in utter disbelief about how unprepared my father was for his sudden passing. I plan to be as prepared as possible for mine.