When I was in grade school, my neighbor began death cleaning. She was about 70 (which seemed ancient at the time), and she wanted her daughter to have an easy time of cleaning up this small, always tidy house.
Death Cleaning is a current trend, fueled by the Swedish ideas of Margareta Magnusson and the Japanese esthetic of Marie Kondo, who wrote books about cleaning before you die. The added caution was not to leave your material goods to your kids, who probably don’t want it.
My neighbor, whom I called Oma (grandma) was ahead of her time. She cleaned closets, keeping three items to wear and a pair of “good” shoes and work shoes. She cleaned off shelves, eliminating vases, knick-knacks, books (keeping a bible), magazines, pictures on the side table, prints on the walls, presents, and memories.
She kept the TV, her ancient Singer sewing machine (with a treadle action), the bed, a sofa, a chair, and four pans in the kitchen. The kitchen table stayed, but two of the chairs were given away. She kept a few cleaning tools. A throw rug by the bed was left in place, but not the larger rug in the living room. I’ve seen nun’s cubicles with more comforts.
Every morning, she mopped the floors in her house, wiped the kitchen counter, and sat on her porch. When I asked her what she was doing that day, she said, “I am waiting to die. But my soul is clean. So is my house. I will be a burden to no one.” It sounded as if she had reached her life’s goal. Maybe she had.
But she did not die. Not then. She lived another 10 years. When I was too young for school, Oma told me wonderful stories about her girlhood. It was wild west mixed in with amazing tales and astonishing inventiveness. She had grown up in a time I could not understand, but I loved the fact that she made clothes out of old flour sacks and shot squirrels to feed her family.
In those last 10 years, I saw her fade. Because she had nothing around to stimulate her, she began to forget her own memories. I’d tell her the stories I’d heard from her, and she marveled at them, as I had. She wilted and shrank. She got smaller and tinier, mentally and physically. I grew taller, and the difference made me sure she was receding from life. And she was. The day she died, her body was removed from her clean home. The next day, the few furnishings were removed. In less than a week, the house had been repainted and a “For Rent” sign stood out front. There was nothing left of Oma except, for me, her memories.
Oma was the ultimate “death cleaner.” And while I applaud tidy houses, and occasionally have one myself, I’m having some problems with the concept of death cleaning.
Let’s get over the big hurdles that this post doesn’t cover: hoarders, people with large collections (art, kitsch, specialty tools, shoes) and those whose double-car garages are full of everything except the cars. All these people are not ones I’m focused on.
I’m looking at regular people who have regular “stuff” in a normal-size living space. No 10,000 square foot extravagances. Somewhere between 900 sq. ft. and 1500 sq. ft.
No matter how much I get rid of, I still have a life to live, and there are items I need to live that life. They are items my son will one day have to get rid of, because I will not. My books–many of them. In every room, and a bookcase in the hallway. My art supplies and the pieces I make. My journals. My father’s drawings. My mother’s needlework tablecloth. The artwork on the walls. Files for work. My work clothes. My at-home clothes. Shoes. Purses. Pots, pans, plates, and storage containers with more lids than containers. The stuff of life.
I do not want to sit in my spare, clean house and wait to die. And no matter how much I get rid of, my son will have to call companies to take away the things he will no longer want. Whether they take out one load or three, he will have to deal with my death, a loss worse, I hope, than having to deal with “stuff.”
A lot of death cleaning is about our attitude about death. Unburdening. Lightening the load. But no one knows when the exact hour is. We may drop dead, die in our sleep, or linger in illness for months or years. And until I die, I want to live with rich, colorful memories and the items that hold my memories.
–Quinn McDonald has downsized but is not death cleaning. She’s too busy teaching writing, creativity coaching, and being an urban naturalist.