When I was young, it was not really deemed polite to speak your mind to an older person, including your own parents. It was especially frowned upon for younger people to discuss topics that older people hadn’t asked their opinion about first. To be outspoken and honest was regarded as impolite.
That is why the adults at that time — my parents' generation and their parents before them — didn’t have the faintest idea what young people thought about anything. The parents and children didn’t understand each other as well as they might have. It was very stupid, really, and sad, a missed opportunity for the different generations to know each other better. And death and preparing for death were not usually discussed.
Today, we usually believe that honesty is more important than politeness. At best, we combine the two. I don´t think that younger people today are as ‘tactful’ and reserved as my generation was, and that can be a good thing for everyone. Tact can be an important value so as not to hurt someone’s feelings. But since we all must — one day or another — look death clearly in the face, perhaps tact does not have much place in the discussions we all must find a way to have.
Today, we can more easily say to parents or anyone really: What are you going to do with all your things when you do not have the strength or the interest in taking care of them anymore?
Many adult children worry about the amount of possessions their parents have amassed through the years. They know that if their parents don’t take care of their own stuff, they, the children will have to do it for them.
If your parents are getting old and you don’t know how to bring up the topic of what to do with all the stuff, I would suggest you pay them a visit, sit down, and ask in a gentle way:
‘You have many nice things — have you thought about what you want to do with them all later on?’ and just see what they say.
Other questions you might continue with include:
‘Do you enjoy having all this stuff?’
‘Could life be easier and less tiring if we got rid of some of this stuff that you have collected over the years?’
‘Is there anything we can do together in a slow way so that there won’t be too many things to deal with when you are not here any longer?’
Old people often have a problem with their balance. Rugs, stacks of books on the floor, and odd items lying about the house can be safety hazards. Perhaps this can be a way to start your discussion. Ask about the carpets. Are they really safe?
Perhaps this is where ‘tact’ is still important, to ask these questions in as gentle and caring a way as you can. It is possible that the first few times you ask, your parents may want to avoid the topic, or change the subject, but ask again. If you are unable to get them to talk with you, then leave them to think, and return a few weeks or a few months later and ask again, perhaps in a slightly different way.
Or ask them over the phone, or mention that there are certain things in their house that you would like to have, and ask whether you could perhaps take them now. Maybe they will be relieved to get rid of a few things, and that will help them to begin to see the promise and possible enjoyment of beginning to death clean for themselves.
If you are too scared to be a little ‘impolite’ with your parents, and you do not dare to raise the topic or ask them questions to help them think about how they want to handle their things, don´t be surprised if you get stuck with it all later on!
A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.
I have already made the point that death cleaning is something you should do so that your children and other loved ones will not have to deal with all your stuff.
While I think this motivation is a very important one, it is not the full story.
Death cleaning is also something you can do for yourself, for your own pleasure. And if you start early — at, say, the age of 65 — it won’t seem like such a huge task when you, like me, are between 80 and 100 years old.
One’s own pleasure, and the chance to find meaning and memory, is the most important thing. 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.
Today, I meet many relatively young people who do not have children of their own.
One might think: Well, I have no children, therefore I need not death clean. Wrong.
Someone will have to clean up after you. Whoever it may be will find it a burden.
Our planet is very small; it floats in a never-ending universe. It may perish under the weight of our consumerism — and eventually I fear that it will. If you have no children of your own, you should still be sure to death clean, both for the pleasure it can bring you, and also for all the other children out there that you don’t know. Recycling and donating can both help the planet and also bring things to people who may need them.
One of my children who has no children of her own has a huge collection of books. This child (who is now 50) is desperately trying to find a young person who likes to read, in order to give away some of the books. Her collection is wonderful. She has always been a reader, and many of the books from me and from my husband’s parents have ended up in her library.
Most people, if they look hard enough, will find someone to give their things to. If you don’t have children, you might have siblings, and sibling’s children. Or you have friends, co-workers, or neighbours who may be happy to receive your possessions.
If you cannot find anyone to give your possessions to, sell them and make a donation to charity. If you don’t death clean and show people what is valuable, once you die there will be a big truck that takes all the wonderful things you have to an auction house (at best) or a dump. No one will be happy about that. Well, the auction house might be.
So, if you do not have children of your own, you still have a duty to sort out your life. Go through your items, remember them, give them away. There is always a young person starting a new life, starting a new home, or wanting to read everything written by Somerset Maugham. (I admit this latter case is rare). You don’t have to have a blood relative to give them pots and pans, chairs from your attic, or an old carpet. When these young people can afford to purchase exactly what they want, they will pass your old furniture on to their friends, and then to their friends, and so on. You cannot know the places your objects may go to after you are gone, and that could be wonderful to contemplate.
If you give an old desk to a young person, make a story about it. Not a lie, of course, but tell them what kind of letters were written on it, what documents were signed, what types of thoughts were entertained around this desk — and the story will grow as it is passed on from young person to younger person, to younger. An ordinary desk becomes extraordinary through time.
One of my friends was given a desk by a friend who was leaving Stockholm. It was from the 1700s. We look at this desk now. We sit and write at it, and always wonder what has been written on it. Who wrote at it, sitting there hundreds of years ago? What were they writing? Why were they writing it? And to whom? A love letter? A business deal? A confession?
It is a beautiful desk; we all appreciate this. But more than its beauty, it has been in use for 300 years. I wish everyone who wrote on it had left a record. My friend has written a small note and tucked it inside. She will sell it soon. I hope the tradition carries on.
Margareta Magnusson says she is ‘somewhere between 80 and 100 years old’. She was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, on New Year’s Eve, and graduated from Beckman’s College of Design in Stockholm. After working as a fashion and advertisement designer, she embarked on a career as a painter. Her first solo exhibition was held in Gothenburg in 1979. Later, she exhibited in Stockolm, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and widely around Sweden. She has moved house 17 times within Sweden and abroad, which is why she says, ‘I should know what I am talking about when it comes to deciding what to keep and what to throw away’.