real life

'I woke in the middle of the night and remembered the box I never wanted my son to find.'

I’m not sure what made me think about a small storage box tucked away in the garage one night while I was trying to sleep. I just know that once I remembered it was there I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even get away with pretending to relax in my bed, a trick I often used to lull myself into think I had had a few hours rest.

Suddenly I was acutely aware that, in that box, lay a whole part of my past that I had clearly tried to package up and tuck away. I had never spoken to my son about it and I didn’t ever intend to. I knew that I had to get to that treasure chest of memories and dispose of it before he was the one who uncovered it. You know that urgency that creeps up on you in the middle of the night? When you begin to imagine you are mere hours from death and you need to deal with that thing hanging over your head right now even if it’s the last thing you do? That was me and the box of stuff.

I have been thinking about that box of “stuff” in a whole new light as the concept of Swedish Death Cleaning fills my social media feeds. Swedish born artist Margareta Magnusson, who claims to be “between 80 and 100” has just written a book called “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to free yourself and your family from a lifetime of clutter”.

The term Death Cleaning comes from the Swedish word Döstädning, “dö” meaning “death” and “städning” meaning “cleaning.” The idea behind Death Cleaning is that you get rid of all the clutter in your life while you are still living so that your children, or your friends and family, don’t have to do it after you’re gone.

lana hirschowitz

Lana: "I never wanted my son to find that box in the garage."

Magnusson has cleaned out the houses of her parents and her in-laws, she’s also had to clean out all of her late husband’s possessions so she certainly has some experience in the field. She’s also “between 80 and 100” so presumably she’s doing a bit of Death Cleaning of her own.


When I think about getting rid of that box of stuff in my garage I can relate to a sense of freedom that came from letting some of my past go, kind of like sorting it out before I die. Although I still have to deal with it mentally, the fact that no physical reminders remain means it’s something no one else will ever have to deal with. It means that painful period of my life will end with me and can’t burden others.

It’s like Marie Kondo’s cleaning regime, but rather than focusing on your own sense of tranquillity and peace, you are tending to the equanimity of your loved ones after you have passed.

It’s hugely confronting to think about your own death and what will happen to your things after you die, one box is easy to deal with – but thinking about everything else, the contents of my bedroom cupboards, the drawers, the kitchen, my books, my photos – my hard drive!! It’s overwhelming. And a little bit frightening.

For anyone struggling with grief, we have a book recommendation for you. (Post continues after audio.)

I think about my parent’s homes and the sheer amount of stuff in them and when I am feeling particularly maudlin I imagine my sisters and me surrounded in the physical memories of their lives after they have left us. I imagine the everyday stuff – the brooms and the dusters, the toothbrushes and face towels, the dinner plates and the kitchen utensils. Will going through that stuff one day after they have died bring us closer to them? Will it help us imagine their lives more fully in a way we can’t do while they’re alive without intruding on their most private spaces?

And what about our digital lives? With so much of our lives lived online, our thoughts, ideas and activities stored digitally do we need to clean and curate the files we have uploaded, do we need to clear our cookies to disguise the searches we have conducted? You can nominate someone to look after your Facebook account after you die – but do you really want anybody else to see your search history? Your hard drive?

I wonder if Death Cleaning, both physically and digitally, is a way of wiping out the past or is it something we think we can do to try and curate the memories we leave behind. Maybe as we grow older it’s a physical manifestation of cleaning our selves of the emotional ties that bind us. Maybe it helps us focus on the lives that we have lived rather than the lives we will one day leave behind.

I do know that I sleep better at night knowing that my son won’t have to be confronted with the pain of my mistakes if he ever goes through the mess in my garage. Given the state of that garage I think he’s going to have a fair amount of physical stuff to get through, but right now I am off to delete my browsing history.