What is Swedish Death Cleaning and why should we all do it?
In December, Canongate will publish Margareta Magnusson's book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, subtitled How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. The author (aged somewhere between 80 and 100 according to the press release) aims to introduce the rest of the world to "Döstädning, or death cleaning: the Scandinavian art of shedding unnecessary things to make our lives as joyful and simple as possible, at any age".
Magnusson is set to be the 2018 version of Marie Kondo, and if she can help us get our affairs in order, while we still can, whether by sorting the family heirlooms from the junk, or downsizing to a smaller place so as to make our lives more comfortable and stress-free, then sign me up. I like the idea that you can Swedish Death Clean at any age.
Anyone who has ever had to go through the process of clearing out a house after the death of a parent will tell you that it is a long and difficult business. For months after my mother died, I went to her house almost every day, tackling the rooms one by one.
The kitchen was the easiest - there is no emotional challenge in chucking out stale herbs or tins with sell-by dates long past, nor in consigning floral-patterned mugs and everyday crockery down to the local charity shop. My mother had scant interest in cooking - she came from that group of women who had worked so hard to get out of the kitchen that she was damned if she was ever going to don an apron lest anyone try to tie her to the kitchen sink - so there was little of interest to be found in the pots, pans and utensils. Her kitchen was a Le Creuset-free zone, and all I salvaged were a few mixing bowls.
Things got more difficult when it came to the 'good' tableware, including half a dozen tea services, some handed down from her own mother. Pretty? Undoubtedly. But I'm not much of a one for afternoon tea, so I kept only three, thinking that perhaps when it became fashionable again my daughters might complain if I had given them all away. Afternoon tea is now highly fashionable, but the bone china has yet to come out.
I kept cutlery that was silver or bone-handled (including fish knives and forks, what was I thinking?) and got rid of the rest.
With the kitchen done, I moved on to her bedroom. The clothes were easy. I held on to cashmere and a few scarves, and passed the treasured mink coat on to a friend who still wears it when it's cold enough. Everything else went to the V de P. I was getting good at this. I congratulated myself.
Bizarrely, the bathroom was difficult. The lipsticks, the perfumes, the 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser that she loved, the unfinished bottles of Ambre Solaire oil, a smell that I remember as the very essence of an early childhood spent in hot places. I kept a small Tiffany mirror with traces of her foundation embedded in the grooves of the pattern on its surface.
The linen was straightforward to begin with. I kept the fine hand-embroidered pillowcases and dumped everything else - the curtains, the towels, the coloured sheets, the wool blankets with the boarding school name tags and numbers still affixed. Then I happened upon the boxes of hand-made lace that she had collected over the years. Table cloths, napkins, doilies. I would, I said, get them made into duvet covers or something useful. Definitely, I'd do it as soon as I finished clearing the house.
My mother's generation liked silver. There was a lot of silver and Sheffield plate - trays, candlesticks, boxes, even a muffin warmer. I remembered visiting junk shops and auctions with her as a child as she added to her collection, always on the hunt for a bargain. I put all the silver into boxes and vowed to re-visit them when I had finished the job in hand. I would keep the pieces that I really liked and sell the rest.
I'd almost finished going through the books (easy enough, I kept the first editions and art books but little else) and newspaper clippings (endless, I nearly lost the will to live) when I realised that I hadn't come across her jewellery. Not a sign of it anywhere, nor any clue as to where she might have put it for safe keeping. The unexpected rattle of a paint tin as I threw it into a skip gave the game away. There were the rings and necklaces, the bracelets and brooches, all concealed inside empty tins of Dulux magnolia. (As it turned out, a burglar relieved me of responsibility for these heirlooms just a couple of years later; ever since then I've made a point of always wearing the only two pieces of jewellery that I really care about.)
My mother died 18 years ago next week, and the boxes of silver and lace, the letters my parents wrote to each other when they were apart, and the thousands of photographs of people I don't know are piled up in the store room in my house; they came with us when we moved last year.
Come January, I will be sitting down with a copy of Magnusson's book and learning the gentle art of Swedish death cleaning in the hope that it will help me to deal with the boxes before her next anniversary, and get organised so that I don't put my own family through the same ordeals when it's time for me to shuffle off.