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Why author Margareta Magnusson wants you to start 'death cleaning'

The Swedish author's new book aims to help others make a tidy leap into the afterlife. Gayle MacDonald speaks to her about the benefits of death cleaning

Most people fear death. Or as Leonard Cohen once put it: "There's so little that you can do about [death]… We've got to live our lives as if they're not going to end immediately. So we have to live under those – some might call them – illusions."

Few of us plan for it – except to draw up a will. And God forbid we talk about it.

Not so the pragmatic Swede Margareta Magnusson, who sees her inevitable demise – which, at the age of 83, is creeping ever near – as a natural rite of passage. For years, she's been getting her house in order before she heads off to the "Great Beyond!", as she enthusiastically puts it. She's also written a book to help others make a tidy leap into the afterlife, called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.

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"I have death cleaned so many times for others, I'll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me," says Magnusson, a feisty mother of five (grandmother of eight) who recently downsized from a roomy house on Sweden's west coast to an efficient, two-bedroom Stockholm apartment after her husband of 48 years passed away. "Some people can't wrap their heads around death … and they leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal?" she asks in her 110-page book. "The only thing we know for sure is that we will die one day."

In Sweden – where citizens are known for their organization and practicality – death cleaning, or dostadning, is a tradition. "Even our ancestors, the Vikings, used to bury their relatives with many objects together with their body," she writes. "Can you imagine that scenario today? With all the skrap (junk) people have now, they would have to be buried in Olympic-sized swimming pools. There are so many serious matters in the world. Having too many things should not be one of them."

Magnusson's book taps into the current minimalist craze championed by Japanese declutter queen Marie Kondo, whose books, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy, have sold more than six million copies. But where the KonMari method is aimed at young professionals who want to improve their own personal space, Magnusson's book is geared to baby boomers cleaning up their personal space to the benefit of others. Kondo's philosophy is to only keep objects that "spark joy." Magnusson's is get rid of anything "your eyes do not like."

Despite the sobering tone of the title, Magnusson's book is a gentle, almost soothing read. She peppers the text with anecdotes about her travels with her husband and memories of her children. We get a sense of her full life. But she warns death cleaning comes with sad moments. After all, as you move from room to room, through desks and drawers, your life is laid starkly bare. But mostly, death cleaning is therapeutic, she insists. "The more I focused on my cleaning, the braver I have become," she writes. "I often ask, 'Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?' If after a moment of reflection I can honestly answer no, then it goes… [But] I have had a moment to reflect on the event or feeling – good or bad – and to know that it has been a part of my story and my life."

Over the years, Magnusson has become something of a death-cleaning aficionado. She started with her parents' home, then her in-laws' house, and, finally, her own. The key, she says, is taking your time [so you don't get stressed]. "I took a year," she says, "and I spent a week on each room, and then took a well-deserved break. The ideal age to start is 65, but you can begin anytime. The sooner the better."

Photos from inside Margareta Magnusson’s apartment. The author says that while death cleaning can be sad, it’s mostly therapeutic.

Her death-cleaning credo is simple: Size matters, so start with the large items in your home, and finish with the small. Every item can be divided into categories: furniture, clothes, books, linen, for example. With books, she only kept what she hasn't read or keeps returning to. Kitchen stuff? She kept one set of dishes to match the number of guests at her table, plus favourite serving pieces. "Whatever you do, don't start with photographs or personal papers," she warns. "If you start with them you will definitely get stuck down memory lane and may never get around to anything else." ( Magnusson eventually downloaded all her favourite family photos onto her computer and gave each of her children a USB memory stick for Christmas).

As the population continues to age – and more baby boomers downsize – Russell Belk, a professor of marketing at Toronto's Schulich School of Business at York University, says many people have naturally begun the process of death cleaning without even realizing it. "The minimalist aesthetic is everywhere. It's the ideal we see in advertising and home decor magazines. The concept of the family home – passed on through generations – is becoming a thing of the past. As people get older, it's a time to reflect and get your life in order. And, yes, to be sensitive to one's children who will have to go through all your possession and even things on line. The world is faster paced, our kids are more mobile, and they're also less receptive to keeping all our old things."

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Magnusson found her children – who are far-flung – wanted very little. The odd piece of furniture or heirloom. Some jewellery. A concise file of letters, written by Magnuson to her mother-in-law, that details the family history. "I have collected many things over the years, and it gives me such joy to go through them all. Sorting through everything is sad sometimes, too, but I really do not want to give my beloved children and their families too much trouble with my stuff after I'm gone." Her death-cleaning philosophy? If you're capable, do it yourself. Save your kids the hassle.

Toronto author Plum Johnson is from an entirely different camp. She decided long ago her three grown kids were going to have to deal with all the stuff in the family home. "My children know I'm leaving them the entire mess," says Johnson, whose 2004 memoir, They Left Us Everything, chronicles the experience of cleaning out her parent's half-century old home in Oakville, Ont. "They can just back a truck up to the door, and send it all to the garbage. And that's fine. I'll be dead so it won't matter."

Magnusson spent a year death cleaning her home.

Despite the months it took Johnson and her three brothers to sort through her parents piles (it was a 23-room home), she loved every moment of it. "I was fascinated by what I found. I also had the luxury – that many people don't – of the time and help. But I learned so many things about my parents that I didn't know, including some things I may not have wanted to know. But the sorting-through gave me a whole different perspective.

"I understand the value of self-editing, but my kids will find things – pieces of paper stuck in books, notes I've received, my own musings. Some of it might shock them, but I don't care, at the end of it they'll know me better."

Magnusson discovered a thing or two about her own parents after cleaning out their house. Her mom stashed cartons of smokes in the linen closet; her dad had a large piece of arsenic in his desk drawer, likely a holdover from when the Swedes feared invasion during the Second World War. She believes her kids know enough about her. And she's content to leave this world with a bit of mystery intact.

"If I'm remembered for anything, I hope they remember me as someone they have laughed a lot with," she says on the phone. "And as someone who did not leave a mountain of garbage behind."

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