Death Cleaning

Death Cleaning: getting rid of your stuff

Stuff: matter, material, articles of a specified or indeterminate kind.

North Americans have too much stuff. What becomes of all our stuff when we die? Being intentional about the fate of our stuff while we are still able is the latest trend to keep us awake at night.

I think this all started with Death Cafes. While as a society we are learning to talk about our personal expiry dates, it seems our stuff is a whole other load of baggage for therapists.

Now I know why my youngest asks, “Have you cleaned the basement yet?”

I tell him, “Yes, I’m working on that. I started with your father’s stuff.”

Whew. That’s my half decluttered.

The words we use are powerful currencies. Stuff. Souvenirs. Memorabilia. Collectibles. Keepsakes. It is all code for “possessions”.

Many years ago there was an obit in a local paper that included the deceased’s favourite motto, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Did no one ever tell him you can’t take it with you?

Could my beloved youngest offspring be saying he doesn’t want my Red Rose Tea figurine collection?? They are going to be worth big bucks one day. I have to believe that.

Bad news kid, I already left these to you in my will.

A common refrain at Winnipeg garage sales is, “My kids don’t want the china, they don’t want the silver. Because they can’t put it in the dishwasher.” Yep.

Fortunately for my son, his mother, as a self-employed freelancer, has special privileges with Canada Post. Every Tuesday in the month of October 2017 I can mail packages anywhere in Canada for free. You can see where this is going.

Marie Kondo has been a top seller for years with her book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.”

Now a Swedish octogenarian has taken this life skill to a new level, namely death.

In “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning”, to be released in Canada, January, 2018, artist and author Margareta Magnusson says we should take responsibility for our belongings and “not leave them as a burden for family and friends.”

Long-term intentions for one’s belongings

We’ve all heard of living wills, health care directives, legacy giving and wills that take pets into account. But what about the after-life of our stuff?

Apparently other people only have clothes in their clothes closets. And yes, they’re three deep.

While I have my owl collection ear-marked for my grandson and my bear collection for my granddaughter, what about my silver spoon collection that my aunt collected in all her travels? And I can’t give that cobalt blue jar full of buttons from my grandmother to just anybody.

I’ve come to the realization that its easier to get rid of my body than my stuff.

My favourite places in Winnipeg to donate items not crucial to my survival are the Nearly New Shop, run by Children’s Hospital and ArtsJunktion.

What I have learned the hard way is to leave the donated items at the door and run. Otherwise there is the danger of returning home with more than I went with.

Although any age is the right time to start decluttering, Magnusson asserts that 65 is a wake up call to start death cleaning.

Probably because the words “old age” on those Old Age Security cheques reinforce the reality of one’s mortality.

Memento Organizers are a new subspecies of homo familiaris. Somebody has to take charge of what the dearly departed has left behind, Canada Revenue Agency not withstanding. Not everyone trusts the Public Trustee with their family items even if the family is not speaking to each other. This task is best left to the bossy one.

Plum Johnson has written an all too true account of siblings dealing with the death of their parents.

Poignant true Canadian story of a family and their stuff.


In Japan Kodokushi is known as an unaccompanied death, meaning no human was with the person who died at home. There are now more than 4,000 companies in Japan who specialize in clearing out residences where folks departed this world but their stuff remained.

Good news kids, Here is my solution to Kodokushi:

Books are friends so you don’t have to die alone.

 In grappling with Death Cleaning it occurred to me that while I’m at it I may as well start thinking about my obit. I can see it now – “Just like her stuff, we had to let her go.”

Heather Emberley / Gracie Sweetstory


Heather Emberley is a repurposed school counsellor specializing in the psycho-social infrastructure of experience, an EAL teacher, freelance writer and sidekick of Gracie Sweetstory. They are stewards of a Little Free Library and their favourite word is postantineoconceptualizationalisticism.

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