The thing about death is that no one tells you how to do it. Walking amidst the memory-filled walls of my recently passed grandpa’s two-storey house, I fastened neon pink sticky notes to the things I wanted to claim. With 2,200 square feet and 40 years worth of stuff to go through, it was a project for the whole family, out of towners included. When I first heard of the sticky note plan, I pictured an American Black Friday style battle, but in reality, it was a civil experience resulting in no major arguments. In a unique test of self-control, I found that rather than taking absolutely everything that could one day serve me, I was selective with my sticky note placement, choosing a gold-rimmed mid-century style mirror, along with a couple of other small things: an engraved silver serving tray, and a couple of photographs.
The accumulation in my grandpa’s house was not the result of him being emotionally connected to the things in his house. He was the opposite in some ways. A practical man, one of my strongest memories of him was when he got his hip replaced, a time he took as an opportunity to brush up on his engineering skills. At 75 years old, he wheeled around the house with contraptions that he had skillfully designed to help him with everyday tasks. Why ask for help when you can use a homemade extendo-arm to reach for a can of soup?
I sometimes wonder whether the average person thinks much about death. I do. But that’s only because my mom is a palliative care nurse, and death is a frequent topic of conversation at our dinner table. Hearing about the intricacies of coming to terms with the end of life, planning for it, and knowing how a family might respond, are things I have a second-hand experience in.
Janet Arnold, a professor at Mount Royal University who teaches the course “Topics in Death and Dying,” explains the fear associated with death. Known as terror management theory, Arnold explains that humans are the only species that understand that they’re dying. She says she always starts her class by saying, “Research says 100 per cent of us are going to die.” Explaining that if we can accept that, and move beyond the fear, we can prepare.
While preparing for death is not the most glamorous topic, it benefits everyone involved. Margareta Magnusson, who identifies as being “aged between eighty and one hundred,” wrote the book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” to recount her own experience coming to terms with her impending death, and to provide others with the tools to do so themselves. The term ‘death cleaning’ comes from the Swedish word döstädning; dö meaning death, and städning meaning cleaning. While the English variant sounds harsh, it’s really just the idea of slowly removing unnecessary things from ones home, in preparation for the inevitable.
When my grandpa died, my dad and his brother, my uncle, were eager to get the house on the market, knowing that the selling process could take awhile. This sense of urgency did two things. One: it provided a timeline. Two: having a timeline made the cleaning more systematic, and less emotional. My aunt Christine, who was in less of a hurry to clear out the home she was married in, now looks back and agrees that having a deadline made her more ruthless. She even plans to do some death cleaning of her own. “If I don’t, somebody else is going to have to,’” she says of her thinking.
Magnusson recommends everyone live with that level of thoughtfulness. One thing I never considered about death was how much work the aftermath would be. My father joked that clearing out his father’s house was ‘a second job,’ spending his evenings organizing the estate, cancelling mail, and tying up financial matters.
In her book, Magnusson writes matter of factly, “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.”
Another benefit of death cleaning is that it can be cathartic. Magnusson suggests beginning the process at 65 year sold, and gives readers a detailed breakdown of how to go about it.
“It is a delight to go through things and remember their worth. And if you don’t remember why a thing has meaning or why you kept it, it has no worth, and it will be easier for you to part with.”-Margareta Magnusson
While most people don’t set out to burden their families, sometimes time just goes by. As my aunt points out, my grandpa was trying to clear stuff out, but by the time he started, he wasn’t physically able to. After all, trying to sort through a lifetime of accumulation is not an overnight job. Mount Royal’s Arnold says that it’s quite common for people to end up in this position.
“I think a lot of people are resistant because, ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to die.’” More often than not, death seems like something that can be put off. That is, until it can’t.
Traipsing through my grandpa’s house, sticky notes in hand, reminiscing about the landing point of many family gatherings was sentimental for us all. But the reality is that it was also a lot of work. My grandpa died two years ago, at 89 years old. There’s now a young family living in his house. It is now almost unrecognizable. The oversized tree in the front yard has been cut down, and the original finishings replaced in favour of modern ones. While I sometimes feel nostalgia for the way it used to look, knowing that there is new life there brings me comfort. I am happy to let them fill the home with 40 more years worth of stuff.