Updated: Jan 6
If you don’t speak or read Swedish, Dostadning will mean nothing to you unless perhaps you have read “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” by Margareta Magnusson. This 2018 Times bestseller, her first book, was written at age 84, and was obviously conceived as a loving memo to her fellow humans of a certain age. Dostadning is a hybrid Swedish word that forms a marriage between “Death” and “Cleaning” in so powerful a bond that as a single word it succeeds at marriage nirvana – when two becomes one and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. One evocative word packing an eloquent message.
Before I got the full brunt of meaning, Dostadning brought to mind one of the first games on early Google in which we challenged one another to link two random words. A player triumphed if Google could find no association. I would not have tested opponents with the words ‘death’ and ‘cleaning’ because in my mind these two words were already connected. In my family-of-origin cultural world, when someone of your household dies, you go into a house-cleaning frenzy of the type that’s carried out only when expecting visitors. As soon as news of the death gets around – and that happens in less than 24 hours – relatives, friends and neighbors will begin streaming into your home to offer condolences, pray, and linger a while to eat, drink and celebrate Life. Death is the one occasion which bypasses the protocol of an invitation, so the open house starts immediately. Family members are expected to put aside their fresh grief and get to cleaning with frantic haste. Dostadning to the Swedes, however, is much more profound than the quick clean-up rounds in a house of mourning.
What we can borrow from Swedish Death Cleaning is its importance as a rite of passage – a self-assigned task of deep reflection that should begin the minute we internalize the full impact of our mortality; the realization that we can die in any instant without warning. True for younger people as well but we don’t need to rain on their parade of immortality. We on the other hand know the score. With this awareness also comes an admonition that we should wind down our penchant for collecting material things and instead start getting rid of stuff. Research reveals that for most of us humans the certainty of our mortality gets dead serious (forgive the pun) somewhere in our sixties. Prior to this, our own mortality is treated as a theoretical notion. Other than arriving at our mature years, the occurrence of a significant event can also knock us to our mortal senses. If we needed such an event, it certainly came a-calling in 2020. A pandemic broke into our lives and brought death in pandemic proportions.
From the outset, dying from Covid19 became stark reality for people like us. Covid19 put a target on our backs. Some people took immediate heed – they called attorneys to update Wills and Trusts; others got down to writing their last will and testament themselves; many called their adult children and tried to have discussions about Living Wills, Health Proxies and last rites. Good for them. (No sarcasm intended). There were those who did not have time to ponder. For our own mental health some of us may continue to deflect the reminders of death by keeping busy with hobbies and entertainment, or working whether by necessity or a desire to remain involved in a loved profession or activity. No time to think. But thinking about death versus living your life are not conflicting ideas. Planning proactively about our final days, months or years, is the message of Dostadning. It’s not just about our last wishes. It’s about our final set of actions. Time is of the essence to live our best life and while we are at it, Dostadning urges us to set about setting our affairs in order.
A very Scandinavian way of putting our affairs in order involves cleaning – with a capital 'C.' This type of cleaning is not about removing dust bunnies from under furniture or a cursory mopping of floors. Although if you have so much stuff that you can’t see your floors, there is much pre-cleaning involved before you even get to the true process. Dostadning insists on mindfulness and proactiveness in cleaning out and ridding yourself of possessions before death to save your grieving family members the burdensome tasks of making decisions for you and trying to figure out what to do with the mess or the mountains of minutiae you left behind – the love letters from your first romance, all the greeting cards you ever received, the endless shelves of memorabilia and collections, and the unpacked boxes from your last move. For those among us with valuable heirlooms, jewelry in safe-deposit boxes, property and enough money to cause rivalry and rifts, definitely call your lawyer and put things on paper. If your family consists of reasonable people, call a family meeting. Dostadning was actually conceptualized as a family activity, either alongside family members – spouses, partners, children and grandchildren – or at least including them in discussion, even from afar. Covid19 got us comfortable with conducting family events via Zoom and Face time, so go for it. For those who are ageing alone for any of various reasons, friends can be invited to accompany you on your Dostadning expedition. If you are estranged from family, now may be the right time for reconciliation. It may not come up all roses, but worth an effort if the strain has been affecting your mental state.
Getting rid of stuff can also provide emotional catharsis, but you rob yourself from experiencing that kind of personal relief if you are a borderline hoarder. (Real hoarding is a diagnosed affliction). Consider that the average European thinks that the average American is an excessive accumulator. As a person who has traveled and worked in many countries, I have seen versions of both sides – the streamlined and minimalist way of living in opposition to the buy-as-much-stuff-as we-can-and-fill-the-biggest house-we-can lifestyle. The two extremes may consist of outliers since there are are many moderate stages along the spectrum. At the same time, it is well-documented that Americans spend 39 billion dollars per year on self-storage units. Placing stuff in storage may be a stop-gap measure for a few, but the vastness of the phenomenon tells a story of too many people having too much more than needed. If during your Dostadning you realize that you maintain a storage unit and can’t even recall its contents, there is a lot of work ahead, but you should want to spare your grieving loved ones the task of cleaning it out. If over the years your home has morphed into a grander and nicer version of a storage unit, your work is just as urgent.
Fair warning: your children don’t want your stuff. Neither do their spouses or partners. Parents of our age group commonly have children who are either Gen-Xers (born 1964 through 1981) or Gen-Yers, better known as Millenials (born 1982 through 1999). When you mention stuff to your Gen-Xers, they will skirt around the conversation and totally avoid the confrontation they see coming about their not wanting your set of good china or your 8-piece dining room furniture with the extra chairs. Your millennial children on the other hand are more direct and will not hesitate to let you know they don’t want your stuff. It’s understandable that we feel rejected when our children are unenthusiastic about the things we were excited about saving for them. We have to swallow hard and accept that it’s not personal. They have their own taste, their own style, their own lives, and their own stuff that they prefer to ours. Do the grandchildren want your stuff? Not if they are Millenials. Good chances are though that your grandchildren are Gen-Zers, the first wave born in 2000 and already turning twenty-one years of age. They plan to save the environment we messed up; they are embarrassed by our piles of stuff.
There will always be exceptions to the current rules. You may encounter happy surprises of a child or grandchild liking and wanting a particular item. And there may be unhappy situations of your progeny scheming to sell your stuff with or without your knowledge, because what they need is cash. Some in-between-circumstances may also occur with children or grandchildren in incidental need of some furniture or pots and pans. Barring those particulars, it’s highly likely that you will end up with lots of possessions that not even the thrift stores will take off your hands. To brighten your emotions, it might help for you to take a different approach. Spend some time picking out relatively small singular pieces of your favorite items, and face your children with the reminiscent reasons why you would like them to have the item you selected. They may concede and join you in the sentimentality. An alternative is for you to match a single item with each person on your list of recipients. Package them nicely, each with a loving note inside. Leave the packages where they will be found when you are no longer around. Then you can shift your focus to the strangers in need right now who can use your excess furniture, household equipment, and dishes that your children don’t want.
Meanwhile - Use your best dishes! It’s OK if a teacup breaks. Remember, no one wants your stuff. The furniture pieces you decide to keep, because you actually use them, can be donated to a good cause by the last person standing. If you own your home, you are probably mulling over who should be gifted the house itself. That’s another story for another day. Dostadning is about your journey through the stuff – within the house – and within you.
Go ahead. Raise Your Best Glass (crystal if you have it) to Dostadning!