MARGARETA MAGNUSSON wants to be remembered for the charming and funny person she is, not for the mess she left behind. That’s why she took it upon herself to tidy up her possessions before she dies. Her new book looks at the art of “Swedish Death Cleaning”, something her daughter, JANE MAGNUSSON, believes could strike a chord with elderly Brits.
Spring cleaning is wonderful. At least it is in Sweden. It begins to get lighter outside; there is sun, and it comes in through the windows – some of it at least because the windows are grimy after all the snow and salt and polar bear paw-prints. And the lighter it gets, gradually you begin to notice the filth you have been living in during the dark winter.
By May, you can put it off no longer. You spring clean for an entire weekend and come Sunday night you feel good about yourself in a moralistic, Swedish way. You are adhering to standards of household hygiene. You are building a healthy state, and you haven’t just watched Netflix like you did all last weekend. In Sweden, “Christmas cleaning” is a big deal, as is the cleaning you do when you have to move. There is “Midsummer cleaning” and a million other occasions to get the mop out.
My favourite is the cleaning you do after a party. I love it when the guests leave and I can get to work. First, I take a bucket and empty all the half-drunk cocktails into it (I might take a swig) and flush it down the lavatory, then I empty ashtrays, looking at the lipstick traces, seeing who smoked what. I always play Chet Baker when I am doing the dishes, sudsing the teacups people drank out of when there were no clean glasses left.
“In Sweden, “Christmas cleaning” is a big deal, as is the cleaning you do when you have to move. There is “Midsummer cleaning” and a million other occasions to get the mop out. My favourite is the cleaning you do after a party. I love it when the guests leave and I can get to work.”
Picking crushed olives out of the carpet, I replay the evening, who I talked to, who went home with whom. Or I gaze at the ceiling, perplexed as to how the whipped cream got there. Sometimes I think I throw parties just so I can have these magical cleaning moments, when everyone is asleep and I am alone, wandering about. Wondering.
My mother has a different passion. She enjoys death cleaning. A year ago, I left Stockholm on a business trip to New York. In a free moment I had time for lunch with my oldest, dearest friend from college. Midway through our meal she started to share her worries. Her mother and father were getting old and, although they were sprightly, my friend was anxious about the junk her parents had amassed – attic rooms and cellars full of stuff they never used and never would.
My friend was concerned that she and her brothers would have to take weeks off work to help their parents clean up. Or, if they moved to a nursing home and were too frail to do the cleaning themselves, or if they were to die before moving to a nursing home.
“Die.” It sounds harsh. We don’t want to think about it. Death. It will happen. I wasn’t very understanding. I said: “I don’t have that problem, my mother is death cleaning.” We even have a word for this in Sweden: döstädning.
I told my friend how my mother, after my father died, spent a year cleaning out her home before moving into a smaller apartment. She had gone from basement to attic getting rid of everything she no longer wanted or needed. I told my friend that my mother had had a good time doing it, too. In fact, she enjoyed it so much, that she is now doing a second wave as she death-cleans the smaller apartment where she has lived for the past few years. After all, what is the point of amassing so much stuff if you never get the chance to appreciate it again – if you leave it collecting dust, and then just die? She was going through all her possessions and letting the memories wash over her. She was happy. Also, because she is considerate, she didn’t want to leave a big mess for us five children to clean up. My mother wants to be remembered for the charming and funny woman she is, not for the clutter she left behind.
My friend listened. She works in publishing and I saw her mind wander. I kept talking and then she interrupted me. “Jane,” she said, “I think there is a book in what your mother is doing.”
I shook my head. “No, really. Your mother’s attitude towards death is very clear and sane. Maybe she can help others think about death. About what they leave behind. Can she write a book about what she is doing?” I hesitated. My mother doesn’t like being the centre of attention. Everything she does she likes to do in private. But I agreed to ask her if she would write about her methods and thoughts.
I know that she is annoyed with her friends who are her age and don’t care – who say their children will have to take care of all their stuff once they are gone. Also, when you visit her, you have to be careful not to compliment her things. If you say, “oh, what a nice vase!” she will answer, “do you want it?” If I give her a plant in a pot one week, the next week she will give me a plant – in the same pot.
With more expensive items, she has been even more practical. As we are five children, and she only had one diamond bracelet, she took it to an auction and had it sold. She never consulted us; it was, after all, her bracelet and she was free to do with it what she wanted. Once she informed us it was already done, we didn’t mind. Who wants to spend time arguing over a bracelet that five people cannot share?
As we are five children, and she only had one diamond bracelet, she took it to an auction and had it sold. She never consulted us; it was, after all, her bracelet and she was free to do with it what she wanted. Once she informed us it was already done, we didn’t mind. Who wants to spend time arguing over a bracelet that five people cannot share?
I have witnessed my mother solve problems in this practical way all my life. I remember my teenage brothers in a brawl on our lawn. They were too big and too angry for my mother to intervene. Quickly, she went and got the garden hose and started spraying them with cold water. The fight stopped and everyone started laughing. Genius!
The evening I got back from New York, I went to see my mother (she lives next door). I told her what my friend had said. She listened. A week later she was writing. A year later she was done and the book was being launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair. While we all thought the book was great, and fun, we had no idea what an insane response it would get.
Although my mother has always been a very modern woman, ahead of her time in so many ways, we couldn’t imagine that her ideas about death cleaning would resonate across the world. On the other hand, hers is the first generation to have grown up and lived in this crazy consumer society, so there must be many attics and basements full of unused and unloved things that should just be got rid of.
As the book has been published around the world, my mother has been doing interviews every week. She is annoyed by this, as it takes up time she would rather be spending cleaning. My mother has had to clean up after so many dead people that she’ll be damned if I should have to clean after her.
Things have been calming down lately. And every time I visit her there is less and less stuff in her still very cozy little flat. I will truly miss her when she is gone. But I won’t miss her things.
“DEATH CLEANING”: KEY VOCABULARY
Gammal Snickarbod: toolshed
Fulskåp: ‘cabinet for the ugly’/ cupboard of nasty gifts
Omoderna kläder: unfashionable clothes
Jane Magnussen writes for The Telegraph. Her mother, Margaretha Magnussen, is the author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, published by Canongate.